Purdue Mourns Loss of Legendary Band Director
Monday, September 7th, 2020
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University’s second Director of Bands, former Director of the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band, and Director of Bands Emeritus, Dr. Al G. Wright, passed away on September 5th in his home in West Lafayette, Indiana. Dr. Wright was 104 years old.
By 1954, Purdue University already had seven university presidents, but only one Director of Bands, Paul “Spotts” Emrick. When Dr. Al G. Wright took the position of Director of Bands in the summer of 1954, he brought a new level of showmanship to the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band and to all of Purdue’s concert bands and ensembles.
A six-year-old immigrant to the United States from London, England, Wright excelled as a musician throughout school with his primary instrument being the French horn. His high school band director was Dale Harris, founder of the American School Band Directors Association (ASBDA). Wright attended the University of Miami in Florida on a full scholarship. Upon graduation, Wright earned his master’s degree from the University of Miami while teaching music at Miami Senior High School, a program he led to national prominence. His Miami Senior High School Band performed at the prestigious Midwest Clinic in 1951.
Upon Emrick’s retirement at Purdue, composer Harold L. Walters, familiar with Wright’s high school band performances, recommended to Purdue Trustee J. Ralph Thompson that Wright would be perfect as the next Director of Bands at Purdue. Wright accepted the position and never looked back.
In an interview with former Vice President and Treasurer, the late R. B. Stewart, Stewart commented, “Al was a showman. He knew how to use the band for the betterment of the university. The only way you could get anywhere was to use the band as a showpiece. He could do it. And he did do it. Al put life in the Purdue band program. He made it into real theater, a show, an attractive thing.”
During his time at Purdue, Wright is credited for adding auxiliaries to the marching band, including the positions of the Golden Girl, Girl-in-Black, and Silver Twins, as well as the Flag Corps and the Golduster Dance Team. It was Wright’s philosophy that a marching band should have “a lot going on during a performance” and that the band should “play to all sections of the audience throughout the stadium.” It was Wright who started the stirring patriotic tradition of “I Am An American” which is still performed by the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band during pre-game shows at Ross Ade Stadium.
For the Symphonic Band, Wright brought in well-known musicians as guest conductors including Arthur Fiedler from the Boston Pops Orchestra, Leroy Anderson, Edwin Franko Goldman, Ferde Grofe and Sir Vivian Dunn. When Paul Lavalle was guest conductor for the band, the concert was aired on Lavalle’s NBC radio show “Band of America.” The show brought national recognition not only to the band program, but to Purdue’s academic programs as well, especially when Purdue President Frederick L. Hovde was interviewed on the air.
In 1971, Wright also initiated the orchestra program at Purdue, serving as its conductor for several years. He also started a Renaissance ensemble that performed for many campus functions.
During Wright’s tenure, Purdue ensembles made numerous international tours: two to Colombia; seven to Venezuela; a three-week tour of Japan; a two-week featured appearance at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Canada; and a three-week tour of Europe. Under Wright’s leadership, members of Purdue marching band also appeared in four separate productions at Radio City Music Hall for a total of 664 performances during their summer breaks.
In 1954 Wright was one of the founding members of the Florida chapter of the American School Band Directors Association (ASBDA), and in 1961 he founded the National Band Association (NBA), serving as its founding president, secretary-treasurer, and then (2000) honorary life president. He was also inducted into the NBA Band Directors Hall of Fame located at Troy University in Alabama, the Florida Bandmasters Hall of Fame and the University of Miami Band Hall of Fame.
His creative efforts helped the president of the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) establish the MENC high school honor band, which appeared at several MENC conventions and at the Kennedy Center. In 1978, Wright assisted former conductor of the United States Air Force Band, Colonel George Howard, in the development of the John Philip Sousa Society, which eventually became the John Phillip Sousa Foundation. With Wright’s leadership, the John Philip Sousa Foundation dedicated its work to the promotion of international understanding through the medium of band music. Professor Wright served as the Foundation’s President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board.
Al Wright also founded the United States Collegiate Wind Bands, which gave high school students the opportunity to travel, playing concerts in various locations in Europe, including performances in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany and Italy under some of the nation’s finest guest conductors.
Wright was president of numerous band organizations and served on many Boards of Directors including the Florida Bandmasters Association (1948-49); Florida Orchestra Association (1941-42, 1949-50); Florida Music Educators Association (1946); North American Band Conductors Coordinating Commission (1975-76); National Interscholastic Music Activities Commission (1958); Big Ten Band Directors National Association (1977). He held memberships in the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA), the International Music Festivals, and was a member of the Jury for World Music Festivals in Kerkrade, Holland. Wright was elected to membership in the American Bandmasters Association (ABA) in 1949. His primary sponsor was march composer, Henry Fillmore. Wright served as ABA president in 1981 and as Honorary Life President until his death.
Numerous fraternal organizations honored Wright with honorary memberships: Kappa Kappa Psi, Phi Beta Mu, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He was elected to the Academy of Wind and Percussive Arts National Hall of Fame of Distinguished Conductors, and received the Star of the Order of Merit from the Sousa Foundation. Kappa Kappa Psi presented him with their Distinguished Service Medal, and in 1982, Purdue University awarded him the Distinguished Alumnus Award. In addition, he was the recipient of an honorary LLD degree from Troy State University in 1981. In 2016, both Al and Gladys Stone Wright were awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award by the Midwest Clinic. Dr. Wright also was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the international band fraternity, Phi Beta Mu.
Wright served as guest conductor, lecturer, and adjudicator in most of the 50 states, in five Canadian provinces, in Japan, Europe, and England. He is listed in Marquis’ Who’s Who in America, and Who’s Who in the World. In 2003, Professor Wright was honored by Purdue University band alumni when a bust of his likeness was placed outside the Elliott Hall of Music next to the entrance to Purdue Bands. The Purdue Bands & Orchestras department chair position is named for Al G. Wright. His legacy will be remembered for generations to come in the Al G. Wright Rehearsal Hall within the new home for Purdue Bands & Orchestras – Hagle Hall.
Jay Gephart, current Director of Bands and Al G. Wright Chair of Purdue Bands & Orchestras said this of Al G. Wright upon his death – “His was a life well lived. His legacy at Purdue is unparalleled and our University owes Al Wright a tremendous debt of gratitude for all he did to shape the future of Purdue Bands. He and his wife Gladys together have done so much for the entire band profession. His loss is felt not only in West Lafayette but throughout the world. I will miss my friend Al G. Wright.”