Andy Wright - A Man and His Music
It’s really hard to separate the man from his music...but who would want to? From his earliest years in Beaver, PA., where he studied piano from the age of eight and added trombone and clarinet lessons by the time he was in high school, Andy’s life was filled with music.
Although his father pulled him out of high school the middle of his senior year to enter a pre-med program at a local college, Andy’s subsequent two years serving as a medic in World War II convinced him that he preferred a life of music to a life of medicine. Therefore, when the war ended and he was able to use the GI Bill to go to college wherever he chose, he chose to apply for admission to the Juilliard School of Music.
Andy used to tell many stories about his years there working with excellent, meticulous teachers and studying privately with first-chair musicians from the symphony; but he also loved telling how he survived living in New York City on a government subsidy of $65 a month and the $5 a week his dad sent to pay his hotel bill. Remember, this was in the mid-40’s! He said that during his senior year Juilliard sent two students to Washington to appeal for an increase in the subsidy given to college students. The school picked its two scrawniest guys to make the presentation, and he was one of them.
After graduating from Juilliard with a major in trombone, the ever-practical Andy got his master’s degree in education from Columbia University, just in case he ever had to teach school in order to earn a living. The day he got his degree, though, he hopped on a train headed to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where he joined the Shep Fields Orchestra as its pianist. When he arrived, Shep discussed salary with him and said he would get $200 initially. Andy was thrilled! $200 a month was quite a leap from the $65 he’d been living on. When Shep told him he’d be getting $200 a week, Andy couldn’t believe it.
Right then he fell in love with Florida, and though he traveled with the band all over the country, in his heart he always felt he’d be returning to Florida permanently some day. Along the way Andy and Bev met, dated long distance for over two years, and made plans to marry. They both knew life on the road was not what they wanted, so he sent out applications to teach music. He turned down offers from California, St. Louis, and Long Island to accept a job at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, the same place he’d joined the big band and where he got sand in his shoes for good. When Andy informed Shep of his decision to leave the band and become a music teacher, Shep offered to hold his band job open for 6 months because he’d never make it as a teacher.
The principal at Choctawhatchee had heard Andy play when he’d been there with the Shep Fields Orchestra and wanted to start a jazz band at his new school; so even though Andy told him that he had to work out a 6-month contract with the band, the principal said he’d hold the job open for him and put the music students in study halls till Andy could get there. That may not be very good education, but it worked out fine for Andy and Bev.
When he reported for teaching, he discovered the new high school’s music building was still under construction. His first several months of teaching found him rehearsing in a school bus with a pitch pipe, dozens of perplexed students...and nothing else; but this didn’t discourage him or keep him from making those students into the best musicians and the best people that he could. One of these earliest students, Betty Mullett, recalls the effect he had on her life:
“A very special thank you to my first music teacher, Andrew J. Wright, who opened the world of music to a young 13-year-old girl who caught the magic and passion from him and decided to become a music teacher. Andy is no longer with us, but somehow I feel that he is having a wonderful time teaching the angels the best choral techniques and certainly organizing an angel jazz band. He changed my life forever!”
In 1956 when the State Music Supervisor asked Andy to apply for the job open at Sarasota High School, he and Bev took an Easter vacation trip down to look over the situation there. They liked what they saw, applied for jobs there, and the rest is history.
For the next 35 years, Andy taught chorus and jazz band, with an occasional music theory course added to the mix, at SHS. He had a busy schedule, one year even teaching seven classes in a six-period school day. That year, the principal of Booker High School wanted to offer a jazz band to his students but had no one available to teach the class. He approached Andy, who went to Booker for an hour’s class before the school day at Sarasota High began. This was in the years before Florida schools were integrated, and Andy thoroughly enjoyed seeing how eagerly the Booker students tackled this new class.
During his long tenure at SHS, the choral groups and The Admirals jazz band earned a reputation for performing with great musicality. They didn’t just produce the notes; they produced music. Trophies and plaques attesting to their superior ability piled up, and invitations to perform at state, regional, national, and, ultimately, international events began coming in. Andy, also, began to be recognized and honored for his contributions to music education in Florida.
Within the booklet included with the two-disc CD set, you'll read a reflection from a student in one of Andy’s first classes. Here is a message from Danny Bauerkemper, a student in Andy’s last class, 1991: “God’s blessings tend to be clear, don’t they? As a young boy, I needed a father figure, a teacher, a godly man who could mentor me and shape my gifts. Someone I could model my life after. Someone with character and integrity. In the spring of 1988, I met such a man. A man whose fire for youth I could feel as I auditioned as a petrified 13-year-old 8th grader for the illustrious and fear-inducing Admirals of Sarasota High. The program was legendary at this point in time. After that audition, he announced he had found his lead tenor man and my life changed forever. Holding the lead tenor chair for his last three years of teaching was undeniably one of the most exciting and challenging periods of my life. He treated his band like professionals. Those before us responded to his teaching in such a way that the reputation I walked in on demanded professionalism. This was no ordinary high school band, but this was no ordinary teacher. Beyond an ear sharpened by years of passionate instruction, he exuded wit, charm, fire, intensity, and a deep and abiding love for his kids. And we all knew it. We felt it. And we were drawn to this man in a way that only those who were under his instruction can ever fully understand. As we reflect on the impact of our Admiral, we realize that what is passed on can be held, fostered, and perpetuated, thus proving the eternal nature of God’s gifts to those He uses. Mr. Wright, you will always be remembered in love. I pray you abide in His love, good and faithful servant of music.”
In a newspaper article written about Andy by Lee Watton, a former student, he was quoted as saying, “I think the reason I’ve thrived on such a hectic schedule for so long is because I can’t imagine anything I’d rather have done with my life than spend it in music. Even when I retire from teaching in two years and get to play golf more often, I’ll still be making music somewhere.”
And he is...
Visit the Former Students & Friends of Andrew "Andy" J. Wright Facebook group to connect with other members and access shared photos/videos. We continue to have people join our Facebook group - 322 as of today!
Click here to view Andy's eulogy, written by his son Chip.