Alumni Relations

A Tribute to Rayburn Wright – Eastman Weekend 2012

“Reminiscing on Ray”
In the words of his students, friends and colleagues

Collected on occasion of the Rayburn Wright Reunion and Tribute, held at the Eastman School of Music on October 11-14, 2012 to celebrate Ray’s many contributions to the Eastman School and its Jazz and Contemporary Media Program during his distinguished career on the collegiate faculty from 1970 to 1990, and to recognize his impact that endures to this day through the work of his colleagues and students.

Qualities of Ray
Consummate Professional
Specific to the Classroom (Arranging/Film Scoring/Lessons)
In Rehearsals
Arrangers’ Holiday Workshop
Outside the Music
Summing up Ray

Qualities of Ray

It’s well-known that Ray Wright was an extraordinary musician and teacher. But I think the reason that he is still so close to our hearts 22 years later is that he was also an extraordinary person. He had incredible musical instincts, so much knowledge to share, and such generosity in doing so. He approached everything with an open mind, a committed work ethic and an optimistic vision; he challenged everyone around him to do the same.  (David Yackley, MM ’88 – JCM)

Ray was about economy. There was never any braggadocio, or any kind of showboating. He did his job quietly and masterfully as a journeyman musician. This posture had a tremendous elegance to it that rubbed off on many of his students and all his admirers.  He was quiet, courteous, humble, methodic, and communicated his confident mastery of his subject.  No ego or histrionics in Ray’s way.  (Michael Isaacson, PhD ’79 – composition)

Ray was always serious, moved things along quickly and prepared us for the professional world in both lessons and class.

One of the best [memories] for me was when one writer came in with a new chart after staying up all night to copy it (by hand of course) and he forgot to put in rehearsal letters or numbers.  Ray looked at it and said, “Well, we can’t do this since it’s not ready” and put it aside.  Preparation and attention to detail and working within the allotted timeframe.  (Kim Scharnberg, BM ’82 – trombone)

I loved that he valued my breaking certain ‘rules’ in a way he found acceptable or even good – he encouraged that.  He encouraged individuality and would suggest things to listen to that he felt would resonate with my aesthetic.  I loved that he was so clear in his opinions, but also so kind.

I didn’t play in the ensemble, but would often go and watch him rehearse.  He was so quick, clear, concise.  He could get a piece sounding great in the minimum amount of time.  I learned so much by just watching.  On the band’s very last concert, he insisted that I conduct my arrangement.  I was terrified.  Eastman Theatre was so big, and there were always so many people there.  I told him I was too scared, but he insisted not taking no for an answer.  I’d have never imagined that THAT would end up becoming my life.  Ray really looked into us as individuals, offering support and experiences that matched our own personalities, talents or needs.  He so much wanted us to go out into the world and find our perfect niche.  What an incredible teacher he was in that way… And he made me feel that he cared deeply about us all as people too.  (Maria Schneider, MM ’85 – JCM)

In retrospect I value most the level of perfection that he expected from himself and everyone around him.  While he was never mean, he always let you know when he didn’t think you had done your best work or could do better.  One of my most treasured memories was when he looked at a page of a studio orchestra score of mine and said “This is going to be nice!” (one page out of a 30 page score, that is!)  Earning his praise was a huge deal for all of us.  Another favorite memory came at the end of a reading session where I had had a piece read after having stayed up straight for several nights in a row.  He obviously saw how exhausted I was, but instead of directly expressing his sympathy (as I’m sure he thought it was just a case of my having to do what was necessary to get the job done and had I been more organized it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place!) he merely told Sal Scarpa that he should “Take her for a strawberry soda,” which was kind of the way he expressed things to us!  (Ellen Rowe, MM ’82 – JCM)

I remember him being momentarily flustered with a guest artist or an unprepared student, but then being able to move on, and take a positive course, making the best of a situation despite setbacks or problems.  Pretty cool-headed, he was.  (John Mahoney, MM ’78 – JCM)

But I think the key to understanding the success of Ray Wright is how infectious his energy and enthusiasm was. He held very high standards and he gave everyone the benefit of the doubt that, of course, their standards were just as high. But beyond the arranging techniques, the reams of paper, the academic expectations, there was a niceness about him that was truly genuine. Spending just a few minutes with him made you realize that this man was the real deal, an unusually accomplished and articulate musician. But he was humble and down to earth, smiling and seeming to say: come along for the ride, I know you can do it, too.  (David Yackley, MM ’88 – JCM)

His professionalism, unerring judgment and ability to give unprejudiced advice.  Ray’s teaching and interaction with us as human beings and musicians gave us a sense that we could meet with confidence any musical or personal challenge that came our way.  I think he always assumed that we would all be successful, his confidence was that thread that would connect us long after we left Eastman.  (Mike Patterson, MM ’80 – JCM)

Even though Ray and I were cordially acquainted in our Eastman days, our lives were, to my regret, rarely in the same place and the same time. But in those rare moments when our paths as fellow students intersected, it was impossible not to be struck, charmed, and inspired by his warmth, his enthusiasm, his extraordinary talent, and his sheer love of music in so many of its guises. To know him, to exchange ideas with him, simply to be in his presence, was an unforgettable experience which I deeply treasure.  (Laurence Rosenthal, BM ’47 – piano, MM ’51 – composition)

Consummate Professional

Ray’s ability to hear scores as he read them, and to analyze problems immediately was something unfathomable to me at that time. Rehearsals seemed to move very quickly-the level of Ray’s musicianship and leadership, coupled with the level of the other players in the EJE, was something that inspires me to this day.  (Bill Williams, BM ’87 – trumpet)

What I remember most about Ray is his enthusiasm and support. He was the kind of teacher that made you want to work hard and do well to please him out of utter respect. Even when our early writing efforts may not have been all that great he didn’t pass judgment but encouraged us to continue. Just the fact that he created an environment with the studio orchestra for us to hear our work was an extraordinary opportunity.  (Ted Moore, BM ’73 – trumpet)

I remember him always struggling with the proper pronunciation of my name at concerts during the two years I drummed and one year I played percussion in the Jazz Ensemble and, in addition, asking me before the concert if I had a shaker ready for an obscure part of a piece we were playing. Ray’s concern for detail was endless and affable.  (Larry Aberman, BM ’86 – percussion)

He seemed to know me and what I needed to do better than I did.  I think he subtly put us in a direction or in situations where he saw our talents lay and could therefore learn or grow from these challenges.  On a specific level in private lessons, he had the ability to dig out the dramatic essence of the piece of music you were working on and help you find where it should go. The command of detail and intellectual curiosity as evidenced in both his books, Inside the Score, and On the Track, was inspiring.  (Dave Slonaker, MM ’80 – JCM)

There was a reading of Strauss’s Till’s Merry Pranks that Ray conducted. I was playing bells and triangle. At the point in the score where the triangle rolled, Ray stopped the orchestra to correct a wrong note he had heard. After listening to each section of the orchestra separately without the percussion, he asked us to play tutti  and again he stopped us when he discovered that the “wrong” note he heard was the overtones from my triangle!!!!!!! I was amazed at his ears. This from a man who did not have perfect pitch.  (James Saporito, BM ’77 – percussion)

I also think he knew he had very talented students under his baton, so he was quite smart in just letting them do what they did best.  (Bob Feller, MM ’86 – trumpet)

He was always giving advice about real life situations in the music business.  He once was talking about how to behave when playing on a recording date:  “The arranger was up all night writing the arrangement, they brought the wrong chimes, etc…  It’s not the time to raise your hand and tell him that this note is ‘off the horn.’ ”  (John Oddo, MM ’78 – JCM)

I viewed my TA post as a way to learn both WHAT Ray was teaching and HOW he was teaching it. I had two concurrent notebooks going in every class, one with class notes and one with observations of Ray’s pedagogy. That year-long experience dramatically changed my teaching in the years that followed.

The EJE was invited to perform downtown at a local event one Saturday evening, and our set ended at midnight. Before exiting the venue, I walked back to the stage to make sure I had collected all of my gear. Ray was there alone, folding up the stand fronts and collecting the books. I thought: This is Ray Wright, Glenn Miller alumnus, former musical director at Radio City, premier jazz educator in the country, he’s 60 years old and he’s packing up the band gear ALONE at midnight. I asked, “You mean you still have to do this menial stuff, Ray?” and he said, “It’s all part of the job.” He was the epitome of the disciplined, old school professional.  (Fred Sturm, MM ‘84 – JCM)

One thing that always impressed me in private lessons was his ability to hear the written page in his head. He would read my score silently for a few minutes before offering comments, and I could almost hear the music playing in his head as he did so.  (Todd Beaney, MM ’85 – JCM)

Time after time we would sit at the piano together in Ray’s office working on a score or a “soli” section of an arrangement where Ray would help me take the bad notes and turn them in to something musically coherent. Ray would patiently work through the rough spots using his red pen. All of this information and guidance was delivered with kindness and respect making sure that the music at hand received the utmost care and respect. I would go back to “the drawing board,” as it were, to rescore my soli with Ray’s corrections. The amazing part of this story is in the initial reading by the jazz ensemble during one of the rehearsals at the end of the semester. Ray turns to me after my piece is played and says, “Great, job Rich!” Selfless, kind, confident, mentor, pro.  (Rich Thompson, MM ’84 – JCM)

As with so many of the teachers/conductors at Eastman, Ray’s attention to detail and pursuit of excellence in the realization of any chart was an inspiration. It became clear to me many years later that we were really learning a way of approaching life… not just playing music. Our attitude towards our craft and the commitment to quality carries into all other areas; it’s a way of being. I’m thankful to Ray for sharing his gifts with us. His legacy lives on through his students, peers, friends, family and music.  (Tom Nazziola, BM ’88 – percussion)

Ray was the hardest working man I’d ever known. He seemed to never take time off. I asked him about why he didn’t take more time for other things. He said because when you love what you do, taking time off isn’t really appealing. He also said that once he stopped his momentum, that it was very difficult to regain it.  (Joel McNeeley, MM ’84 – JCM)

Ray was never afraid of technology.  I loved the way he was always figuring out ways to make the gear work FOR him, not against him, and use it as a tool in his work.   I had no idea how prescient this would be at the time, as these lessons of being proficient with technology and recording techniques.  The tools are now outdated by today’s standards, but the principals are the same.  You can’t be a film composer today without have a lot of technical computer and media skills.   I still do a lot of my own recording and engineering of my film scoring projects, and I’d like to think Ray’s fearlessness in these areas was a driver.   He also showed us you were never too old to learn.  When digital technology was first becoming used in recording, Ray excitedly showed us a project he was working on, a recording of arrangements he was recording for Professor Bonita Boyd.  He was thrilled with the ways he could use this medium to do things that would have been previously impractical or downright impossible.  (Jeff Beal, BM ’85 – trumpet)

He also taught me the most important lesson about teaching. His teaching philosophy was to give the students almost enough information to do the assignment. That way they came to the next class very hungry for the information they didn’t have, but they came with solutions they discovered on their own in the meantime.  (Dave Rivello, MM ’89 – JCM)

When asked what I would be expected to do when auditioning [on guitar] for his band, Ray said “Fit.”  (Bob Palmieri, CAS/ESM ’79 – guitar)

…I can mention a small moment that I didn’t realize till perhaps years later was Ray’s doing. We had the honor of having Thad Jones do a guest concert with the Jazz Ensemble, and I was in heaven playing his charts under his direction. While Thad was in town, Ray set up a time with him where some of us could have a few minutes with Thad and Ray alone to talk about arranging and whatever else. In my meeting, I showed him a chart I had done for the Jazz Ensemble, and Thad said he’d like to buy it for his band! We came up with some nominal (really small) fee, and I said I’d photocopy it and send it to him, which I did. I was practically beside myself that one of my heroes had shown an interest in my music. In retrospect, it finally dawned on me that Ray must have created that whole scenario, knowing how much I revered Thad. Obviously it worked. It says so much about Ray as a person and as a professional that he would do something like that. It makes me smile to this day.  (Doug Walter, BM ’74, MM ’76 – saxophone)

In classes, Ray was always incredibly organized, yet could easily go in any direction whatsoever to answer a question, and he was always patient with everyone, even when they weren’t getting it. In my private lessons, I learned not just about music, but about all of life. In addition to all of the musical stuff, Ray taught his students about real-life deadlines, professionalism, expectations, high standards and integrity – lessons I’ve taken with me ever since.

I also was constantly amazed at how open-minded he was to every style and kind of music, so long as it was done with integrity. I am certain that he would have been open to the addition of a turntable and hip-hop beats; in fact, by the time it got to the mainstream, he probably would have already been teaching it! He was able to guide you with any kind of piece you would bring in, whether it was period-type 1930’s swing, a funk piece, a Latin piece or a rock piece. He was able to span all of that time and knew all the styles. I thought of him as an Absolute Window – able to see to the past or the future.  As an artist and teacher, Ray was always at the front edge of what was happening at the moment. He made me feel that I could write in any style and that all styles were equally valid. He gave me the skills to feel like I could write anything. I asked him once in a lesson about how to write a Gil Evans type voicing. He reached over, picked up one of his Post-It note pads with staves and wrote out my melody line in a Gil-influenced way right out of his head. I still have that Post-It.  (Dave Rivello, MM ’89 – JCM)

Specific to the Classroom (Arranging/Film Scoring/Lessons):

“That’s not going to sound the way you think it’s going to…” (without me telling him how I thought it would sound).  (Scott Healy, BM ’82 – composition)

I started my private studies with Ray Wright and took my lessons in his West Side apartment.  Ray provided me not only with valuable arranging knowledge, but friendship and support as well.  At the same time, Don Hunsberger, who was in the Marine Band in Washington, D.C., was also making trips to New York to study with Ray.  (Dick Lieb, 1953)

“There’s always a solution.”  Ray said this during one of my early writing lessons with him when I’d faced a predicament within one of my compositions or arrangements we were examining. I quickly realized how true it was, and that truth was to become one of my major delights in scoring music. It’s one of the relatively few things in life that always has a solution! But often the joy is in finding the best solution.  (Antonio Garcia, MM ’85 – JCM)

One memorable experience came when most of us bombed a test in Intermediate Arranging (we were expected to know instrument ranges—written and sounding). In the next class we went over the test thoroughly, and then he asked, “If I were to give the same test again tomorrow, would you be confident that you would know the material this time?” We all nodded our heads enthusiastically, assuring him that we knew it now, and anxious to move on to a new unit. Sure enough, and to the surprise of most of us, we walked in the next day to learn that we were being tested again! He wasn’t going to take our word for it, that’s for sure, and we weren’t moving on till we knew what we needed to know.  (Todd Beaney, MM ’85 – JCM)

Ray’s teaching style was such that I feel that I remember vast amounts of what we were discussing, even though I have never gone back to study my notes. That is definitely not the case with many of my other instructors. I have several vivid memories of him standing in front of a blackboard explaining some arranging technique like I was there yesterday. Likewise, I have many similar memories from my arranging lessons that come flooding back whenever I think of the particular technique we were discussing at the time.  (David Wiffen, MM ’88 – JCM)

I was deeply impressed by his ability to take my score, hear in his head what it would sound like, and make suggestions on how to improve it, often without the aid of a piano.  BIG EARS!  (John Mahoney, MM ’78 – JCM)

Ray taught me to orchestrate, the practical nuts and bolts, the importance of knowing each instrument’s unique idiomatic qualities. But beyond that, he taught me about creativity. How to constantly think beyond the first idea, how to look for ways to alter something fairly ordinary and make it sparkle with some unique bit of color.  (Joel McNeeley, MM ’84 – JCM)

“When arranging something, always say something new. Never re-hash what someone else has done or what the composer has already said. If you can’t say something new, don’t do it!”  Classic Ray. So – with the hundreds of arrangements I’ve done since leaving Eastman, I’ve always asked myself  –  can I say something new with this tune? If not, I leave it alone.  (Phil Snedecor, BM ‘85, MM ’93 – trumpet)

In his arranging and film scoring classes I remember Ray having a rare ability to be honest, yet encouraging. He didn’t beat around the bush when something I wrote didn’t work, but I never felt defeated because he had a unique way of explaining why it didn’t work and helping me explore the alternatives.  (Bill Hammond, BM ’76 – trumpet)

I’ll never forget Ray taking notes in our arranging class on what the students were talking about!  Also:  Ray’s infamous “quiet whistle” as he looked over scores only to find a 16th note mistake buried in some inner part. AMAZING!  (Matt Harris, MM ’85 – JCM)

I treasure experiences during his arranging classes; we would get assignments to write for various instrumental groupings and then hear them PLAYED by ESM students as part of our work!  We would always record these student performances and bring them back to the classroom to discuss our results.  His knowledge of recording and the recording studio were crucial to the finesse he brought to the concept of orchestration.  He understood the physics of sound and how composing and arrangement can be integrated into a complete musical statement.    He also understood the orchestra so well, and how the more intimate one’s knowledge and feeling for instruments the better one can compose.  (Jeff Beal, BM ’85 – trumpet)

In my weekly lesson with Ray, I was amazed at how he was able to grasp what I was trying to do. I would put a 32-staff score for studio orchestra on his piano, he would ask me what the tempo was, and then he would turn pages in complete silence in tempo, bobbing his head slightly and moving his lips. Occasionally he would put a pencil check in the top margin. When he got to the end he would say something like, “Okay that seems to be in pretty good shape” but turn back to where he had put the markings. Sometimes he would just erase the mark, prompting me to ask why he had made the mark to start with. “Oh, I thought I heard something funny,” he would say, but if he heard it, it was in his head, because there hadn’t been a sound in the room for five minutes. At other times a discussion would ensue as to what I wanted at that bar. I noticed he was never trying to turn me into a clone of him—though that would have been fine with me—but rather he was trying to make me the best version of me I could be.  (Christopher Smith, ‘88)

One of the most important things I heard Ray say in a class that really made an impression on me was this:  “A lot of you say ‘I’ll wait to write this arrangement until I learn this one more thing’.  Well I have to tell you that if you thought that way, you would never write anything”. (John Oddo, MM ’78 – JCM)

Without a doubt, being in his film scoring class was the most important in terms of giving me a start in what I do today. The ability to write to picture, conduct our own sessions, and hear the works of our fellow students was invaluable.  Like all of Ray’s classes, there were constant composing deadlines; the opportunity for procrastination was not an option.  He had some great advice in this area, something to the effect of “it’s more important to MAKE a choice when composing and see where that leads you creatively than sit stuck on the fence.”  (Jeff Beal, BM ’85 – trumpet)

Of course he was brilliant in showing me creative options for revision even while ensuring that the direction of the piece was still mine.  (Antonio Garcia, MM’85 – JCM)

Time with him in a one-on-one setting was a deeply meaningful experience, where one could gain the full measure of his mastery of our craft. His suggestions for one’s own work were uniformly on-target and right for the music.  I also very much liked Ray’s ability to expand the usual list of descriptive terms applied to music. Although he probably wasn’t a foodie – I recall a story of him trying to find a good ham sandwich in each new Japanese city during an international tour – I have come to realize he used a lot of adjectives to describe music which dining critics might also use: crisp, crackling, fresh, etc. I always thought that was a neat expansion of the usual musical descriptors.  (Russell Schmidt, BM ’86, MM ’88 – JCM)

His lessons imparted simple tools and techniques, all hands-on but in a way that was all- encompassing.  Nothing was ever overly complex, he had a great command and strictness about harmony, and everything he imparted was memorable. I often wish I had recorded his lessons, but I realize that I remember pretty much everything he talked about, because it was all directly applied to my work, over and over. He was very concerned with form and pacing in music, the sound of the ensemble, and trying to get as much sound and variety of expression out of the band as possible. His approach to voice doubling, unisons and balance was clearly based on years of experience, and he demanded full familiarity with all the instruments, ranges, tonal quality, etc.  But most of all, he always showed you the best way to communicate your ideas to the performers—everything from careful part preparation to articulations and other performance practices.  (Scott Healy, BM ’82 – composition)

One of my most memorable lessons was observing his first day of Arranging I class – he walked into class, turned to me with a mischievous smile, and wrote on the board the date that the first big band chart was due: about 3 weeks into the future. (Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!) But he knew that people tend not to learn much “in theory,” so he intended to grab the students’ attention right from the start – and he certainly accomplished that.  (David Yackley, MM ’88 -JCM)

There was a famous government poster back in those days with Uncle Sam pointing a finger and saying “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army.” Matt Harris and I once joked that Ray looked like Uncle Sam, and our version of the poster would have stated “I Want YOU to Have a Chart Done by Tomorrow!”  (Fred Sturm, MM ’84 – JCM)

I remember his amazing energy when counting off a chart…this would be during a recording session starting at 8am in Howard Hanson Hall.  He had such faith in each student arrangement….his manner of counting off reflected this.  It made us all play at a high level despite the early hour.  (Bruce Diehl, BM ’90 – saxophone)

Ray had a way of having me solve the compositional or arranging problem. He would prompt me by asking a question and making me probe the problem further. One of the things that always stuck with me re my approach to composing at the time was his comment, “You grope and find and make harmonic sense; perhaps this could be achieved more quickly with some thought and analysis of what you are doing.  A little thought is therapeutic, it gets the mind going.”

I also recall the following comments Ray made when I was composing a Gil Evans style piece and as I was trying to crack the code. Dissecting the Evans’ piece he made the following observations  re the role of the Rhythm Section: “They are not laying the time out so your ears are forced to go with the colors.”  Re Orchestration/Colors:  “Gil puts a film over everything.” Re the Bass Part (at least on the piece I was analyzing, Gil’s “song # 1”): “ The bass plays a two- beat feel and when he does “walk,” it works as a contrast, melodically.”  “The harmonic progression is “slippery,” not definite; he teases so the ear is always anticipating.” – I always sensed that.  (Mike Patterson, MM ’80 – JCM)

Aside from his unsurpassed musical knowledge in terms of writing music in so many styles, he was uncanny in focusing on just where you needed to improve, and how to do it.  He was a problem solver; whether an orchestration, harmonic (especially voice-leading), rhythmic, melodic, or formal problem, he always had a practical and “ready-to-use” answer.  He had an obvious love of teaching, a great sense of humor, a willingness to be flexible in response to our young, often one-foot-in-midair creations, and a rare and beautiful kindness that helped us get through many difficult tasks.  (Bevan Manson, BM ’81, MM ’83 – JCM)

In Rehearsals

Being a French horn player in Ray Wright’s Eastman Jazz Ensemble in the 70’s was a once in a lifetime experience. Being a part of a group with such amazing artistry is a cherished memory.  Every concert, Ray Wright would incorporate the horns into a few of the charts…  he referred to us as “The Colors.” We would thrive on Thad Jones compositions and quite often we could talk our way into arrangements done by fellow ESM students.

In Ray’s calming, professional manner, he patiently coached the horn section to move from the Mozart and Strauss style from the rest of our week, into a significantly different jazz style. Ray’s teaching and encouragement opened the gates for the learning and creativity that all musicians crave. (Jill Mavis Hammond, BM ’76 – MuEd)

Ray would go through and have us play a new piece all the way to the end first, then he would take and break down the sections:  sax section, brass section, the rhythm section, the dynamics and tempo.  (Fred Stone, MM ’88 – JCM)

Ray had the greatest facial expressions when rehearsing – delighted, appreciative, absorbed… Even when he seemed unhappy with the playing, he still looked supportive and caring!  (Rick VanMatre, MM ’80 – JCM)

I always appreciated how Ray treated the players like professionals.  I started watching Ray rehearse the EJE I was in high school, and his cooperative approach of soliciting input from students stays with me to this day.  I specifically remember him letting trombonist John Gove make comments about the entire brass section.  I had never seen that kind of collaborative approach before.  (Mike Titlebaum, BM ’91– saxophone; MM ’92 – JCM)

I had written an arrangement for Roland Hanna, a piece titled Seasons, which was a waltz. It was to be a feature on the Holiday concert. I wrote a lush opening and ballad style intro, then launched into a medium-tempo jazz waltz middle section for Roland to improvise with the band, and then a big ending. Roland loved the intro, but after he politely played through the rest of the chart, he said “I don’t play jazz waltzes, but the ballad part was good. And then said, maybe I’ll play this one by myself.” I was so upset. Now what? Ray said to the orchestra, let’s take ten. Then he had Roland and me discuss the chart, and Ray suggested we do the piece as a slow ballad, and salvage the intro and use it as an ending, too, and that we could also play some of the worked out string and horn backgrounds in the ballad tempo, as well. Then he addressed the orchestra and gave them indications of who would play and when, and we were back on track in minutes. This was just a typical example of how he thought on his feet and made something good out of an unexpected situation that could have ended badly. It was so like him – and a real model as to how I could handle similar situations in the future.  (Mike Patterson, MM ’80 – JCM)

Ray gave us a wonderful array of repertoire, balancing classic big band repertoire with cutting edge new works, all the while fostering an “incubator” for all of the superb student charts generated specifically for that ensemble. There was new, fresh music at every rehearsal. I admired the way Ray solved ensemble problems — so efficiently and to the point — and I was in awe of his remarkable musical ear.  (Fred Sturm, MM ’84 – JCM)

Arrangers’ Holiday Workshop

In the 1960’s, while still living in New York, Ray started the Eastman Summer Arranger’s Workshop (we had nothing like this when I went to Eastman), first having Fred Karlin and then Manny Albam as his assistants.  In 1970 he and Doris moved to Rochester, where he then established a permanent department—certainly well known to all of you—and developed it into one of the premier programs of its type anywhere in the world.  I can’t count how many musicians in the mainstream of the music business I have met who studied at Eastman and benefited from Ray’s teaching.  (Dick Lieb, 1953)

I attended two or three summers at the Arranger’s Workshop before entering the Master’s program at Eastman. One summer Ray and Manny Albam awarded me the Duke Ellington award. These institutes changed my life. Without them I would never have known I could write. After attending the institutes, including the high-pressure “Arranger’s Holiday” program, I knew I could meet any deadline, and compose and arrange at a professional level. Ray facilitated hours and hours of reading time with Big Bands and Studio Orchestras, he got it all recorded,  and then reviewed it with us in class. The Workshops had to be one of the most demanding programs ever undertaken in the field of commercial music.  The sheer time and effort it took to be a student was grueling enough…but what it took to organize and implement the program year after year – this was a superhuman effort by Ray Wright.  Surely these programs will go down in the history of our field as an unparalleled achievement, and the Arranger’s Workshops surely secured Ray’s fame as the mentor of generations of professionals.  (Manny Mendelsohn, MM ’79 – JCM)

Although I did not have the privilege of studying directly with Ray, in many ways I feel that his work nonetheless had a profound influence on me. I had taken a summer arranging class at Eastman during one of the final years of the Arranger’s Holiday (summer of 89) and got my first taste of what it would be like to study in such an inspiring environment. Ray was ill at that time but I still recall him running around trying to learn as much as he could about the then-new MIDI technology.  A lifelong learner by example. When I formally entered the JCM program I was fortunate to study with and alongside people that embodied Ray’s musicianship and teaching philosophy. These relationships remain strong to this day. Ray’s gifts as a musician, teacher, and citizen impacted these people profoundly, and in turn impacted me. I can only hope that I am half as effective a teacher in my work with my own students.”  (Dean Sorenson, MM ‘92 – JCM)

Ray Wright made you ready.  His approach to the reading sessions for the studio orchestra replicated real life situations.  Composers had a limited amount of time to get their work recorded and that reflected onto the players who were under pressure to play it right THE FIRST TIME.  When I arrived in NY and played my first big orchestra recording session in NY, I did not have any nerves at all.  That is in a big part due to the training he provided.

Pedagogically speaking, his teaching and resources were top shelf, well thought out and very organized.  I did not appreciate this until much later, when I had to start to canonize my own extremely detailed curriculums for the New School, and now for the Graduate program at Manhattan School of Music.  His book “Inside the Score” speaks to his immaculate research and his uncanny ability to impart all that great information in his warm, friendly but incisive manner.

And then let’s talk about the EXPERIENCES that he provided for the students: Marian McPartland, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan. Teo Macero, Thad Jones, Phil Ramone, and Joe Williams, just to name a few. That is a lifetime of lessons from the highest order of masters one could ever hope to play with during a professional career, let alone a 6 year period, four in school and an additional 2 years playing with the Arranger’s Workshop.  All I have to say is “THANK YOU RAY!”  (Phil Markowitz, BM ’74 – Theory)

The magic was especially evident at Arrangers’ Workshop. The combination of musical personalities in the orchestra or big bands and how Ray was able to shape their playing was unique and very exciting.  If Stan Kenton, Lalo Schifrin, Sid Ramin, the Boston Pops, Claus Ogermann, Robert Russell Bennett, Gil Evans, and others were all some sort of super-entity, it might have come close to what Ray was able to do. (Bevan Manson, MM ’83 JCM)

My summers at ESM and the Workshop are some of my happiest memories.  I loved teaching the high school-level jazz classes, and the chance to play in the workshop was so rewarding. It was bittersweet, because I knew that once I left ESM there would only be a few places in the world where this type of music is regularly practiced and performed. Everybody was more relaxed and enjoying themselves during the summer Workshop, Ray included.  Also, this was when I got the chance to spend some personal time with Ray (of course) on his sailboat!   (Jeff Beal, BM ’85 – trumpet)

My very first experience with Ray Wright was also the most profound.   It was probably 1976, and I was a student in New York City.  Flipping through the pages of the musicians’ union newspaper, I noticed an ad for Ray’s summer Arranger’s Workshop. I called Eastman, and a moment later I found myself talking to Ray Wright. As Ray spoke about the program, calmly laying out the details of what he had created at Eastman, my life changed. Bam. Like that. Utter, blinding clarity. Thanks to a 5 minute phone call with Rayburn Wright, I had a future. I had a plan. And I had a mentor.  Ray changed everything.  (Manny Mendelson, MM ’79 – JCM)

In 1986, the year the Statue of Liberty was refinished, Ray and Manny created a wonderful skit about Rochester’s “Liberty Pole” in front of Sibley’s. We played the opening of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” but before the climactic chord Ray put in the last 3 measures of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” I’m not sure I have ever laughed so hard! (Paul Ferguson, MM ’86 – JCM)

My first Arranger’s Workshop in 1978 was my introduction to the school and to the JCM program. That experience had everything to do with my eventually attending Eastman and, I’m certain, with the success of my career in general. The intensity was greater in the summer due to the short time frame and the greater number of writers attending. It was a thrilling, energizing and inspiring experience and, with the final stage show, much silliness.  (Steve Bramson, MM ’83 – JCM)

The level was very high and every area of study was more compressed. The opportunity was to connect with composers from all over the world. And to share our music, of course, but also to collaborate by putting on a show at the end of the Holiday! That was key to developing a sense of how to be organized, to meet deadlines and work with others towards a common goal.  The experience was invaluable training for both theater and film composing.  (Mike Patterson, MM ’80 – JCM)

Outside the Music…

Sailing! I learned to sail with Ray. I specifically remember sailing a Regatta with him and, I think, Ellen Rowe. I considered it a generous gift that he shared something he loved so much with his students. As I remember Ray in the classroom, he was all business, focused on helping you solve the problems at hand, getting the job done. To get out on the water with Ray was to see another part of him, and I think this at times helped balance the intensity that often permeated the school work.  (Steve Bramson, MM ’83 – JCM)

Sailing.  At the end of our senior year, Ray took David Finck and me out on his boat and we had a wonderful time. We felt very privileged to be asked! He allowed us both a chance to skipper the boat and to do some basic maneuvers, such as “coming about.” It was a first experience for me!  (Dave Ratajczak, BM ’80 – percussion)

I did get to go sailing with him, and I always appreciated his reaching out to me that way. I remember mundanely observing something like, “Boy—this really makes you forget about the work and the pressure,” to which he replied simply, with his characteristic grin, “That’s the idea!”  (Todd Beaney, MM ’85 – JCM)

Ping Pong. Never sailed with Ray, sadly. But I did beat him at Ping Pong after the JJ Johnson Arrangers Holiday Concert in 1988. (Paul Ferguson, MM ’86 – JCM)

I loved how insanely competitive he became when playing ping-pong. When he and Doris would host parties, ping-pong battles would inevitably rule a portion of the evening. And you got to see a more dynamic, energized side to him that was a blast to witness.  (Russell Schmidt, MM ’88 – JCM)

Summing Up Ray…

Ray’s way was the real world way, with the highest professional standards. He never dumbed it down for his students as players, writers, and teachers — an immeasurable gift to all of his protégés.  (Fred Sturm, MM ’84 – JCM)

I’ve never known an individual that exhibited such excellence, perfection, strength, organization and artistry, with such calmness, deftness, lightness, even warmth, humor and kindness, as Ray.  He shows us all that excellence and balance can coexist.  (Maria Schneider, MM ’85 – JCM)

My Eastman experience had an enormous impact on me as a musician and as a person. Ray was one of the most important parts of my development in both regards.  I can’t overestimate the influence he still has on me, both musically and personally.  (Dave Wiffen, MM ’88 – JCM)

Every concert, arrangement, or meeting with Ray Wright resulted in a change in how you might think about something. He was always helping each person reach their own personal best. His suggestions were always presented in the most positive light, no matter how bad a job you had done! He was a person of great humility and earned the highest respect from every person with whom he had contact. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us lucky to have been a part of his Eastman tenure.  (Vince DeMartino, BM ’70, MM ’78 – JCM)

One of my favorite quotes from Ray was, “The guiding line between daring and wrong is a thin line; you should always walk that line.” I think about that every time I pick up a pencil.  I also learned from him to always stay current and open-minded about everything in music and life.  (Dave Rivello, MM ’89 – JCM)

As I neared completion of my score, I hit a major patch of writer’s block, and I trudged darkly into Ray’s office for a lesson. He put the score on his old upright and eyeballed it for at least a half hour, never uttering a word. He finally took out a piece of scratch score paper, drew some notes and abstract shapes, and delivered (with perfect logic) 3 or 4 different ways to conclude the piece. He solved the problem instantly. As I exited his office, I was so jubilant and relieved that I did the unthinkable: I EMBRACED RAY WRIGHT. I stepped back and uttered, “uh, sorry Ray.” He just laughed and said “Go finish it!”  (Fred Sturm, MM ’84 – JCM)

Shortly before he passed away, and several years after I had graduated, I think he made an effort to write letters of encouragement to his former students. I received such a letter, and to this day I still find it uniquely encouraging and inspiring that he expressed confidence in me in that letter. There is no higher praise than a word of approval from Ray. (Todd Beaney, MM ’85 – JCM)

In a difficult business, there really is someone you can trust. There really is such a thing as a role model. There really is someone to look up to. There really is a standard by which all others are judged. Thank you, Rayburn Wright.

And one more thing: Ray’ example, in teaching, rehearsing, mentoring, and problem-solving was an ongoing series of lessons in how a true professional approaches life.  Ray never, ever, lost his cool.  Even when he needed to correct something, you never sensed an emotional agenda. The agenda was to solve the problem.  Ray also never focused on Ray Wright, not for one second.  Ray must have decided long ago that he would choose to have his success measured by the success of his program, his school, and his students.  It may sound trite, but Ray showed us all, by example, that “There is no ‘I’ in T-E-A-C-H-E-R”.  (Manny Mendelsohn, MM ’79 – JCM)

I just remember that on the tour there were frequently times when we would arrive at a venue and find that it was not as advertised, either in space or logistics. Ray was a master at just adapting to whatever circumstances he found himself in.  He was also wonderful at letting someone know that things were not right and needed to be fixed without being overtly critical or alienating them.  (Ellen Rowe, MM ’82 – JCM)

Just a few years after I graduated, I found myself doing my first important arranging job in NY.  The veteran copyist (the supervisor at a venerable old-school copying office) is looking over my scores.  “I don’t understand it,” he says; “you’ve got almost no experience, and yet your scores read like someone who has been in the business for years.  How is that possible?”  I tell him, “I studied with Ray Wright.”  “Oh,” he says, “that explains it.” (Doug Besterman, BA ’86)

Goethe said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”  Ray would have found a way to say it in 3 words, but I always felt that this was his philosophy.  Ray’s expectations were very high, but he always set me up to succeed.  (Brian Gaber, MM ’86 – JCM)

Ray Wright was a gifted musician and teacher, dedicated and inspiring. He was a wonderful mentor who brought out the best in his students, often by providing them with musical opportunities. I recall sitting next to Ray on the bus ride home from Jazz Ensemble performances in Albany and at the University of Connecticut. He wanted to create a medley for Studio Orchestra and vocal soloist based on my arrangement and another student’s arrangement. He asked me to write an introduction, interlude and coda that would combine the two pieces into one arrangement to be performed on a concert in Eastman Theatre. Ray’s approach was personal and motivating. That was just one of many opportunities afforded me by Ray Wright. I learned about music, and also about professionalism from Ray. I value having had the opportunity to study with him. He has had a profound influence on my life. (Christopher Azzara, MM ’88 – Mu Ed; PhD ‘92)

I was touched when Ray took the time to write to me upon the occasion of his health situation and ultimate retirement.  His letter was cordial and upbeat despite harboring the untimely news of his condition.  He was more concerned with a smooth transition for Bill Dobbins and that the group would not lose any ground.  (Bruce Diehl, BM ’90 – saxophone)