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The life of John Wright, the Chicago jazz pianist they call "South Side Soul"

At 80 years old, he's lost three wives and his eyesight, but he still has his deep groove, his generous spirit, and his countless friends, family, and fans.

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Chicago jazz pianist John Wright earned his reputation with a string of LPs for the Prestige label in the early 60s—his 1960 debut made such an impression that its title, South Side Soul, remains his nickname to this day. His discography has been sparse since then, but he's never stopped playing for long, and he's just had an especially eventful week. On Friday, August 29, Wright spoke at the ceremony to formally designate the 3800 block of South Prairie "Dinah Washington Way," reminiscing about his interactions with the great singer in the 1950s. Two days later, he hosted the 28th annual (and possibly final) Wright Gathering, a potluck picnic in the park behind his home in south-suburban Matteson where hundreds of friends, family, and fans enjoyed eight hours of jazz jams, the first three sets led by Wright himself. (He turned 80 on September 7, so it doubled as an early birthday party.) And on Tuesday, August 26, Wright helped kick off the Chicago Jazz Festival with a show at Piano­Forte Studios. You wouldn't have known it to watch him in play in the park less than a week later, but the PianoForte show was his first public concert in three years—he's been recovering from a series of heart surgeries. That virtuoso performance ended with Wright, who lost his eyesight in 2004, being led from the piano in tears.

I attended the show and the picnic, and between the two Wright invited me into his living room for an interview. For several mesmerizing hours, he recounted his six-decade journey in jazz, which snaked its way through triumph, trouble, addiction, and redemption, with stops at army bases, prison libraries, and the byways of Chicago's political-patronage system.

In the home Wright shares with his fourth wife, Jean, every wall is covered with pictures and clippings. Some of them depict his musical heroes and colleagues, but many are photos of his parents, siblings, and descendants—Wright has 11 children, 33 grandchildren, 19 great-­grandchildren, and ten great-great-­grandchildren. Despite his blindness, when Wright tells a story, he can point directly at the photos that illustrate it.

Wright was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1934, and his family came to Chicago in 1936. His father became a stockyard worker, and his evangelist mother opened a Pentecostal church on West Roosevelt; in the early 1940s, the family moved to the south side. (Wright later learned that his father's real last name was Washington, and that for decades he'd been a fugitive from a chain gang. "He told us that he'd killed 13 peckerwoods and one black," says Wright. "And the only thing we asked him was, 'Was it justified?' He said yes.") By age three Wright was picking out melodies on the piano, and by seven he was playing in his mother's church. His siblings studied piano formally, but as Wright remembers it, their instructor refused to give him lessons, telling the family they'd be wasting their money. "Whatever we play, he plays equally as well," the teacher said. "He's not reading music, he's not using the right fingers, but he has God's gift . . . he can play everything he hears."

At age 12, Wright fell under the spell of a neighborhood Baptist choir—its gospel music was far livelier than Pentecostal hymns. With his mother's permission, he began playing piano for that congregation's youth choir; after the organist was drafted, he became the church's principal accompanist. Blues and jazz were banned in the Wright household, as were movies, checkers, cards, and records of any kind. But Wright characterizes his childhood as happy and full. He played baseball and sneaked into Comiskey Park to watch games from atop the dugout (as an adult he'd be invited to sit in on the Comiskey organ), and he remembers having Boy Scout meetings in the same church where Thomas Dorsey was rehearsing his choir.

When Wright was 15, he heard jazz coming out of a tavern at 35th and Indiana called Smitty's Corner. Each night he stood outside for hours, till eventually he worked up the nerve to borrow one of his brother's suits, pencil on a mustache, and stroll in. "On intermission," he recalls, "I went up to the piano and started playing something. I had an audience, but they knew I didn't know what I was doing. They didn't put me out, though. They told me to sit down and gave me a Coke."

In the early 50s his jazz education took a more serious turn when he befriended Jody Christian, a classmate at Wendell Phillips High School, and started going to jam sessions with him. "When I really heard it, and saw how musicians were treated," Wright says, "I made a vow: I was going to play jazz, drink plenty of whiskey, and chase pretty women. I kept that vow, and it almost killed me."

John Wright rocks the picnic pavilion at Woodgate Park during the Wright Gathering. - RYAN LOWRY
  • Ryan Lowry
  • John Wright rocks the picnic pavilion at Woodgate Park during the Wright Gathering.

Though Wright was generous with his time during my visit, he couldn't give me his undivided attention: his comeback show at PianoForte had been the night before, and every five minutes we were interrupted by congratulatory phone calls from supporters who'd seen it or listened to the live simulcast on WDCB.

The atmosphere was similar in PianoForte's intimate theater (it's upstairs from a South Loop piano shop) even before Wright played. He held court as a procession of old friends, fans, and musicians approached the stage to wish him well, reminisce about old gigs, and recall fallen comrades. During his loose, energetic set, his broad smile shined brighter than his loose-fitting white linen suit. At first he sounded hesitant, but the resonant sound of the theater's $130,000 Fazioli clearly inspired him—soon he was pounding out percussion on the floor with his white loafers and improvising ornate flourishes or departures on old standards. Between songs he shared anecdotes about encounters with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.

During his set Wright's style shifted gears between sumptuous excess (the kind of thing you'd expect from someone who came of age when Liberace was the Justin Bieber of the day) and the soulful swing that comes naturally to a pianist who cut his teeth alongside the planet's greatest blues and bop musicians. Whenever I asked anyone to describe Wright's playing, the word "soul" always seemed to come up. "He has a lot of soul and drive," offered guitarist George Freeman, younger brother of late tenor saxophonist Von. "He makes you feel the music. He don't just play the piano; he makes it talk back."

Attorney John Ladle is such a big fan that he works for the pianist pro bono, and he uses similar language to describe Wright's appeal. "There's so much soul," he says. "He's such a nice guy, and it just comes out when he plays."

The Korean War broke out in 1950, and in '52 Wright and eight friends decided to forgo their senior year of high school and enlist. Upon entering the army, to his surprise Wright was separated from his comrades, and they were all later killed in combat. He'd never told recruiters about his piano prowess, but he was shipped to Europe, where he was made part of Special Services, the military's entertainment branch.

Wright was allowed to ditch his uniform, and he spent the next three years playing jazz for soldiers on R&R in Germany, London, and Italy. Though he knew few of the songs expected of him, he faked his way through—and by playing alongside stars such as Marshall Allen and Billy Mitchell of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Count Basie trombonist Frank Hooks, and Art Blakey arranger Tom Mc­Intosh, he earned the real-world equivalent of a PhD in jazz. Wright fell for a German woman and planned to remain in Europe, but when his mother learned he'd impregnated a different girlfriend before leaving Chicago, she ordered him home, insisting that they marry.

Upon returning in 1955, Wright fell easily into Chicago's jazz scene, where the C&C Lounge, the Grand Ballroom, McKie's Disc Jockey Show Lounge, and countless other happening spots flourished. He was alternating between bass and piano at the time, and soon found himself playing nine-hour sets for union scale (often less than $10). But Wright's versatility and talent didn't go unnoticed, and he landed a full-time gig at the Randolph Rendezvous with Jelly Holt's Four Whims, entertaining white downtown conventioneers and earning hundreds of dollars a night in tips. In 1960 a scout from New York label Prestige Records gave Wright a plane ticket, and soon he was playing a Steinway grand for the first time in Rudy Van Gelder's famous private studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Working with bassist Wendell Roberts and drummer Walter McCants (the first of several lineups called the John Wright Trio), in a single day he improvised an album's worth of grooving tunes based in 12-bar blues. Wright had officially become a recording artist, and South Side Soul was the first of five soul-jazz LPs he'd cut between 1960 and '62.

When I first saw the South Side Soul LP, my reaction was skepticism. The cover art is so intriguing and aesthetically perfect that it looks like a fictional record, maybe dreamed up by a gifted prop designer for a movie. The sepia-tinted black-and-white photo, the eye-grabbing design, even the fact that the album is called South Side Soul, with song titles referencing hot spots such as "63rd and Cottage Grove" or "45th and Calumet"—everything contributes to this too-good-to-be-true vibe. Most of all, it comes from Wright's face. Handsome, youthful, and rugged, he's shown in profile with an impressive "conk" hairstyle (his half-Irish mother gifted him "good hair"). His eyes have the weariness of a man twice his age, and his furrowed brow mars the calm, sculptural beauty of his features. The cover seems disconcertingly perfect even after you put the LP on your turntable, making it impossible to deny that you're dealing with a real album—an album that swaggers hard. The stellar cuts on South Side Soul were no fluke, either: Wright would scale those heights again, notably on the title track of 1961's Makin' Out and "Strut" from 1962's Mr. Soul.

"They had big plans for me," Wright says, remembering his years with Prestige. "They gave Miles $100,000. They bought Jack McDuff a $40,000 house. But my choice of getting high was whiskey, and that was my downfall."

The cover of John Wright's 1960 debut LP, whose title gave him his nickname
  • The cover of John Wright's 1960 debut LP, whose title gave him his nickname

The ceremony for Dinah Washington Way could've provided Wright with an opportunity to revisit his glory days, but he seems less nostalgic than many of his peers. His speech was less a tribute to Washington's legacy and more a salute to the event's host, his friend Al Carter-Bey, a longtime jazz DJ at WHPK who'd spearheaded the renaming effort. "He spoke briefly about knowing Dinah," says Carter-Bey, "but also about how much hard work and patience it took for me to get this done. John is a great guy, and when he believes in someone or something he has real, deep feelings."

During all my correspondence with Wright, he's taken pains to express his appreciation for WHPK, the College of DuPage's WDCB, the Hyde Park Jazz Society, and the Jazz Institute (which awarded him its Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009). These institutions certainly honor the past triumphs of jazz, but Wright admires their forward-looking work as well—he's as excited about what's happening today as he is about what happened in his heyday.

That spirit animated this year's Wright Gathering, which celebrated the pianist's decades of generous collaborations with musicians young and old. At first glance it could've been one of the many massive family get-togethers that fill south-side parks each summer weekend; in fact, one dozens-strong faction of Wright's kin was in full reunion mode, wearing matching "Kemp Family Cook Out" T-shirts. The sizzle of barbecue grills accompanied the percussive slaps of dominos on picnic tables; kids climbed jungle gyms and swam in the Wrights' backyard pool; and children and grandchildren doted on elders who relaxed in comfortable folding chairs. The potluck table overflowed with soul food, baked goods, and homemade side dishes, and it always had a long line.

What distinguished the Wright Gathering from similar reunions was the thrilling pickup band parked under the picnic pavilion, which Wright anchored for its first few sets. The band's constantly shifting cast of drummers, guitarists, bassists, brass players, vibraphonists, and vocalists presented jazz as (almost literally) a big tent. Seasoned veterans, youthful newbies, professional jobbers, enthusiastic amateurs, free-jazz explorers, and cocktail-music practitioners could sign up to sit in—all they had to do was ask the emcee, Wright's granddaughter Lavon Pettis.

Sometimes the magic was purely musical—George Freeman's guitar bouncing off Yoko Noge's keyboards and vocals in improvisational flights, for instance—but often the most memorable moments owed their power to Wright's generous spirit. A teenage trumpeter who hadn't quite memorized "Girl From Ipanema" (a friend had to hold up sheet music) delayed the proceedings briefly as the band debated letting him play alone rather than possibly confusing him with swinging accompaniment. Wright insisted they work something out, though, and after some logistical maneuvers, the young man was trading solos with jazz journeymen.

Jazz guitarist George Freeman, younger brother of late saxophonist Von, sits in at the Wright Gathering. - RYAN LOWRY
  • Ryan Lowry
  • Jazz guitarist George Freeman, younger brother of late saxophonist Von, sits in at the Wright Gathering.

Also sitting in was 90-year-old mouth harpist and Battle of the Bulge survivor Cliff Barnett, the last living member of the Harmonica Rascals (they were popular guests on Ed Sullivan's TV show in the 1950s, thanks to the comic antics of dwarf harpist Johnny Puleo). Barnett has been playing with Wright for six decades, and flew in from Florida to attend—he hasn't missed a single one of the 28 Wright Gatherings.

"I have no brothers and sisters," Barnett says, "so I can't tell you what this one afternoon a year means to me. There is nothing as important as lifelong friendships and lifelong memories."

Memory comes up frequently when people talk about Wright. "John could be trusted," recalls Johnny Ramsey, a retired Eighth Ward precinct captain who worked with the pianist in the late 60s under future Cook County Board president John Stroger. "You know what they say—once you tell the truth, you don't need a good memory."

That said, in some respects Wright has an incredible memory. He can recall the street address of every home he's ever lived in, plus many of the phone numbers. Still, despite being told as a child that he had perfect pitch, he shied away from singing because he couldn't remember lyrics; he also claims he could never learn to read music. Perhaps these mental blocks have some connection to his natural genius—R. Kelly relates his ability to think in music to his dyslexia. Wright can also rattle off the names of 14 different hospitals where he stayed in the late 70s, when his copious consumption of whiskey (as well as rubbing alcohol, Sterno, and anything else that did the job) caused his body to break down.

By the mid-60s, Wright's whiskey-induced misbehavior had gotten him dropped from Prestige and all but blacklisted from touring, but he could still find solid work at home—he soon started playing with the well-paid group led by vocalist Oscar Lindsay. He didn't pull his personal life together, though, until he entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1980. He was still doing seasonal precinct work, and he'd capitalized on his popularity to become a comfortable cog in the Daley machine; he even got to dole out some patronage positions, and in the mid-80s found a job for himself as a librarian in the Cook County prison system, a position he held till his retirement in 1999. In the mid-80s his long-running gig with Lindsay morphed into an even longer residency at Philander's restaurant in Oak Park, which finally ended in 2009. And in 1986, after outliving two spouses, he married his third wife, Evelyn. Around this time he began inviting his many musician friends to join him on the last weekend in August to celebrate his birthday with a jazz jam.

Wright claims this was the last Wright Gathering, though according to my survey of longtime attendees, he's said that at least three times already. The gathering used to be held in the Wright home, and Evelyn would spend an entire year cooking and freezing food for the guests. After her death in 2007, Wright decided to end the tradition, but his friends rallied and volunteered to do the organizing, helping it grow into the park-filling event it is today. Since Evelyn's death Wright has had his ups (six years ago he married his fourth wife, Jean) and downs (the heart problems that kept him from performing for three years required several operations, which his doctors didn't expect him to survive). But in contrast to his younger self, who rebelled against forced churchgoing, Wright is now a man of deep faith, constantly counting his blessings.

His gratitude for the life he's lived meant that there was no melancholy cloud hanging over what might very well have been the final Wright Gathering. Wearing a "2007 Wright Gathering" T-shirt, he spent hours behind a Roland RD-700SX keyboard, maintaining his stamina and enthusiasm as well as a broad, natural smile. "He looks so happy," I overheard Pettis say to no one in particular. The birthday boy seemed filled with nothing but joy, a jazzy counterpoint to the emotional roller coaster of his PianoForte comeback concert.

At that show Wright surprised himself and the audience by breaking down at the piano, audibly sobbing while playing "For All We Know," a standard that Dinah Washington helped make famous. After he finished the song and the applause died down, he spoke quietly into his microphone. "We never know," he said, "tomorrow may never come." Wright then ended his set early, inviting pianist Miguel de la Cerna to finish the hour. Wright stayed onstage, sitting near the piano; at first he rubbed his hands, working out cramps brought on by his long hiatus, and then he began miming along with de la Cerna's playing. Jean approached him with a handkerchief, and as she removed his dark glasses to dab his eyes dry, the tears that had pooled behind their lenses rolled down the deep lines on his face.

The next day I asked Wright what had been going through his mind. "I forgot for a moment where I was," he explained, choking up again in the recollection. "I became overcome with grief, but it wasn't just grief, it was also gratitude—all these people who had come out to see me . . . I just feel so much love, and so blessed after what I've been through the last few years."

Wright wiped away his tears and apologized. "There's a hymn, 'All's Well With My Soul.' I was surprised to find myself playing it in the middle of the set yesterday. But it's true. All is well with my soul."

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