April 17th-23rd: Tribute to Rayburn Wright: three decades of Eastman Jazz      

April 17, 2023

1990: Tribute to Rayburn Wright: three decades of Eastman Jazz

Previously in “This Week at Eastman” I’ve featured some of the various types of gatherings that happen at Eastman, whether in tribute to some esteemed individual, or in memory of one departed, or honoring an artist following his/her/their performance, and – quietly famously at Eastman – at the unveiling of a faculty member’s portrait.  Tributes can take any of several different forms, including musical performance.  And so it was on the evening of Saturday, April 21st, 1990, thirty-three years ago this week, when a special concert promoted as “Three Decades of Eastman Jazz: A Tribute to Rayburn Wright” celebrated the life and career of the late Rayburn Wright, who had died several weeks earlier.

The performers who gathered for this occasion represented a kind of who’s who of Eastman jazz across three decades—colleagues who had worked with him in the ‘60s, and alumni of the ‘70s and ‘80s who had studied with him, in addition to JCM faculty members.  The names of performers are given in the printed program, displayed here.  Photographer Louis Ouzer was present not only for the concert, but also for a rehearsal session in Room 120, the same room that today bears Professor Wright’s name as the Ray Wright Room.  Mr. Ouzer’s photographs capture something of the spirit that informed the work of these artists, who had gathered at short notice to pay tribute to their colleague, their mentor, their friend.

Professor Wright’s career will be the subject of publications and tributes for years to come.  An Eastman School graduate, his professional life was more or less evenly divided into two epochs, first as chief arranger at New York City’s Radio Music Hall, and then a teaching career at Eastman (1970-90), when he was chair of the newly founded Jazz and Contemporary Media department.  His work at Eastman had actually begun a decade earlier when he was invited to establish the Arranger’s Laboratory-Institute, which took place each summer for three decades beginning in 1959.  The Laboratory-Institute drew professionals together for purposes of learning and collaboration; the culmination of the annual Institute was the concert known as the Arrangers’ Holiday, which always featured a renowned guest artist or ensemble.

Apart from “Three Decades of Eastman Jazz” there have been additional tributes to Professor Wright, including the 1990 Arrangers’ Holiday that was dedicated to his memory (and which proved to be the last Arrangers’ Holiday that took place).  A gala reunion and celebration of Professor Wright’s life was staged during Meliora Weekend in October, 2012, taking place in what would have been Professor Wright’s 90th year.  This celebration was particularly illustrious, and has been accompanied by a permanent website presence at:

Rayburn Wright Alumni Reunion and Tribute – Eastman Weekend 2012

where photographs and tributes have been uploaded.  The weekend also saw the release of the book Ray Wright: Life and Time by Donald Hunsberger, richly illustrated with images drawn from a number of sources, including the Louis Ouzer Archive.

Today a collection of Professor Wright’s professional papers resides at the Ruth T. Watanabe Special Collections.  Future entries of “This Week at Eastman” will focus on other events from Professor Wright’s three decades of professional involvement  at Eastman.


►Photos by Louis Ouzer.  Master negative nos. R3894, R3895


Colleagues and alumni who gathered for the April, 1990 tribute to Ray Wright are here seen during rehearsal in Room 120, which was later named the Ray Wright Room.
► photos from master negative roll R3892

Photos taken during the performance in Kilbourn Hall on April 21st, 1990.
► photos from master negative roll R3894

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