By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
One of her musician friends calls her Empress, and Bonnie Wright is certainly a powerful presence in the experimental music scene. It’s something she’d never have dreamed of when growing up in Mission Hills in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“I started out with my parents’ music, jazz and jitterbug,” she said. “I’d dance with my Dad, with my feet on top of his, to things like Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A-Train.’ Then I moved on to West Coast jazz, and Rhythm & Blues. R&B had a huge effect on me as a teenager.”
It took decades, a divorce, and 20 years as a working single mom before she discovered the kind of music she presents in her Fresh Sound series, which, after four seasons at Sushi performance space downtown, she has now moved to The Loft at UCSD.
Here’s the short story of Wright’s journey: She was working in sales for Levi Strauss in San Francisco in the 1980s when she first heard the sounds that changed her life — Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones, David Byrne. Deciding that what she really wanted had something to do with music, she moved back to San Diego and started attending music seminars at UCSD. At 50, she quit her job and became a fulltime student, ending up with a B.A. and an almost-Master’s degree. Her still-unfinished thesis is titled “Sh-boom: Effects of R&B on White Girls in the 1950s.”
One of her professors, trombonist/composer George Lewis, asked her to tour with him as his road manager. It was an invaluable experience.
“I went to places like Beijing, Amsterdam, and New Orleans with George, and I met everybody,” she said. “So when I was ready to start my own business, I had credibility. I could get through to everyone.”
Her business was the Spruce Street Forum, a center for new music, in the building her father left her when he died. “I’d learned so much at UCSD, I wanted to bring that music into the community so people could have a chance to hear it.”
Spruce Street lasted almost a decade, until the fire marshal demanded impossible changes. Wright sold the building, and took a 3½-year break in New York.
“My whole time there, I was out about five nights a week, imbibing culture,” she said. “Then it started to seem hedonistic. I was only taking in, I wasn’t doing anything. And my family was all in California, so I thought it was time to come home.”
It was the Wright time. She was invited to be music curator at Sushi, on whose board she had served years before. That’s where Fresh Sound premiered in 2009, with the motto: “We avoid the mainstream.”
Part of that inaugural season was Pamela Z, a San Francisco performer/composer who combines operatic bel canto with percussion, spoken word, and computer-processed sounds. She’ll be kicking off the first series at The Loft, titled “Voice and Electronics.”
“I love her music, so I wanted to open with her,” Wright said.
Coming back to UCSD brings Wright full circle. “It’s home,” she said. “I like home.”
Meanwhile, she’s got a lot going on in her life. She’s a founding member of the New Music Society, runs her own record company, produces music soirées, and sings in a gospel choir. At 72, she’s hotter than ever. Small wonder she was one of San Diego Magazine’s “50 People to Watch in 2011.”
Her advice to people new to “new music”?
“It’s a process, like the first time you look at a Picasso. Music doesn’t always have a discernible groove or beat or the same 12 tones you have on the piano. As your ear gets accustomed to new sounds, a whole world opens up for you.”
If you go:
Fresh Sound: “Voice and Electronics,” curated by Bonnie Wright
March 12—Pamela Z; March 25—Consume, with Tristan Shone musician/live electronics/composer and Clint McCallum voice/actor; April 22—Theo Bleckmann “Songs for Voice, Loops, and Toys”; May 21—Alex Nowitz concert for voice and live electronics
The Loft, at Price Center East, UCSD Campus. The Price Center East is approximately a five-minute walk from the Gilman Parking Structure.
(858) 534-8497. freshsoundmusic.com. theloft.ucsd.edu