For almost 40 years he played jazz guitar while rubbing elbows with the likes of Les Paul, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme, Quincy Jones, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. He learned to play by ear when he was just a boy growing up in Detroit, and played the ukulele left-handed, or "upside down," as his friends teased him. Wright was, above all, his friends say, a humble man. He died on May 9, at the age of 75.
Wright knew at a young age what he wanted to do with his life. He was invited to play at a jazz club in Detroit when he was a teenager, and, not one for academics, he learned his craft from other musicians. A friend's father sang in a jazz group at various Detroit clubs and, having seen Wright practice, he invited him to play with his group. After that there was no looking back for the young musician.
Born in Cincinnati on Sept. 4, 1932, Wright moved with his family to Detroit when he was 7. He met his wife, JoAnn Karaschin, when he was 19 and worked for the phone company. "He would come into the sweet shop where I was a waitress and serenade me," JoAnn said. "I thought that he had a good job with the phone company - I didn't know then that the guitar playing would become his passion."
The couple married in 1956 and had two children, Nancy and Scott. They moved to an apartment in Flushing, Queens, in 1962, and then to Whitestone. In 1990, they bought a small house in Bay Park. "A very little house," JoAnn said. "He wanted to come to New York to be where the best musicians were."
Wright's longest gig was playing guitar in the orchestra of the Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." He was known in music circles as the man who brought legendary guitarist Les Paul out of retirement. As the story goes, Wright approached Paul 22 years ago with a possible gig at Fat Tuesdays in New York. Paul, complaining of arthritis, said he had retired, but Wright convinced him that playing guitar would be good therapy. Paul, now 92, still plays guitar on Monday nights at the Iridium jazz club in Manhattan.
Wright worked part-time for more six years at Richner Communications as a graphic designer in the art department. By that time, he was sick with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and came to work with an oxygen tank until four years ago. "He loved working with the computer," said Mike Bologna, Richner's vice president of operations. "When something got his interest, he had to be the best at it. He was known as the grandfather of the art department. He was a wonderful guy."
Richner's art and production department manager, Craig Cardone, remembers that he and Wright "clicked right away."
"We shared a love of music, both being guitar players, and I loved listening to his stories," Cardone said. "He only stopped playing the last three years of his life. He talked of Buddy Rich and how he toured with Peggy Lee, Tom Jones and Tony Bennett. He was funny, outgoing and very humble about it all."
JoAnn said that in the last few years, her husband was very active in his emphysema support group, even editing its newsletter.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor," said JoAnn, "and a great zest for life. A friend of his once joked that they shouldn't pay him for playing guitar because he loved it so much."
In addition to his wife and children, Wright is survived by a granddaughter, Jenny.
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