Gerry Wright was 7 when it was decided he should play the piano.

“Somebody gave my mother a piano and she said, ‘I want you to take piano lessons on this,’ and that’s how it started,” he said. “I hated it and I didn’t get to like it until high school.”

That was in the 1940s, when Wright was living in Auburn and attending Edward Little High School. It was during that time that he heard a recording of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson playing the romantic ballad “Tenderly.” He was hooked on jazz from that moment forward.

“I said, ‘I want to play like that,'” said Wright, now 81, of Winslow.

Little did he know at the time that he would become a well-known and respected musician in New England, performing with popular groups including the Fred Petra Band and the Al Corey Big Band in Waterville, playing at world’s fairs in New York and Montreal and appearing with stars including Elvis Presley, the Lennon Sisters, Vaughn Munroe, Brenda Lee and Dizzy Gillespie. He’s also spent 45 years in education as a choral director and piano teacher.

It is for that legacy of artistry, professionalism, dedication and hard work that his friends and fellow musicians will honor Wright on Sunday, June 28, at a concert featuring him with the Al Corey Band at the Messalonskee Performing Arts Center in Oakland.

Musicians from all over the state will pay tribute to Wright, according to Brian Nadeau, who plays trumpet in the band and is its leader.

Nadeau, who as a child was a student of Wright at the Maine Music Camp and has played with him many years since, describes Wright as a “top-tier musician and educator” who is sought after all over New England.

“Gerry is as good as they come,” said Nadeau, 48, of Bangor. “He’s such an artist. I think he’s one of those brilliant professional musicians who never got recognized nationally but should have. He’s a rare iconic figure.”

Wright was instrumental in developing the exceptional reputation of Messalonskee High School’s music program and was chorus director 27 years there until 1998, according to Susan Perrino, director of Messalonskee Performing Arts Center.

“He loves the big band jazz music, he’s a great piano player and he loves the kids and is such a great educator,” Perrino said. “And he has such a huge, huge heart.”

A humble man, Wright loves to share his music and is a joy to listen to, Perrino said:

“What’s so sad is that the big band music is dying and I used to bring in all the big bands here. That generation is just going, and that’s sad because it’s such wonderful, wonderful music. When Gerry comes and plays up here, people could listen to him forever and ever.”

For the last 10 years, Wright has been choral director and piano instructor at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.

BUILDING A LEGACY

Born in Lewiston, Wright was raised in Auburn and graduated from Edward Little in 1952. His father worked in shoe factories. His mother expected Wright also would be a laborer.

She did not imagine her son would end up loving music and the piano so much that it would become his career.

At Edward Little, Wright played for the chorus and was a member of the Rhythm Kings, a school dance band. He also performed at talent shows.

“In high school, this guy came up to me and said, ‘Would you like to play in my band?’ Wright recalled. “His name was Carroll Poulin. He had a music store in Auburn, and I said, ‘Sure,’ so I started working with a six-piece band. Another guy came along and said, ‘If you’re going to play, you have to join the musicians’ union.’ I’ve been in the musicians union 50 years — the American Federation of Musicians.”

At 18, Wright became a piano player for the Fred Petra Band, which performed at the Templeton Hotel on Temple Street in Waterville.

All the mills were running at full tilt in those days, and salesmen would come into the city during the week and frequent the watering holes — the Templeton, the Crescent Hotel and the Chez Paree, Wright recalled.

“At one time, there were four or five clubs running. Fred Petra got a job at the Crescent Hotel, which is down where (the former) Levine’s is. It was later torn down. We worked there for a while, and I quit the nightclub business and went to work for Farrow’s Book Shop on the corner of Temple and Main. Then, Al Corey was across the street. He had an upstairs studio for a long time. Fred taught trumpet there and Al taught sax. Then Al moved across the street to the old (Central Maine Power Co.) building in the mid-’60s.”

Harold Blood, a school principal in Farmington, convinced Wright to pursue college, so he applied to Colby College in Waterville but didn’t get in because his grades weren’t good enough and he worked nights, he said. He was accepted at Waterville’s other college, Thomas College, and earned a bachelor’s degree in business education in 1969.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Wright played with Don Doane’s band in Portland. From 1967 to 1975, Wright worked with Tony Bruno, a band leader in Boston. They got a gig in Boston Garden with Elvis Presley.

“His band comes out all dressed in white tuxedos,” Wright recalled. “He had a group of a dozen backup singers, too. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The first 15 rows of the audience were all women.”

Wright also played at Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire in the summers. “It was the best gig I ever had,” he said.

Before that, he played at Lakewood Theater in Madison, performing for shows with celebrities including Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, Della Reese, Ann Corio and Jim Bailey. He was the Shrine Circus organist for 30 years, played at the Skowhegan State Fair and other fairs, and has taught piano at University of Maine at Augusta and choir at the University of Maine at Farmington.

In 1971, he landed the job as choral director at Messalonskee.

“From then on, my educational career and my music career ran parallel, because Fred Petra had a function band and we played all over. We had a Dixieland band, The Elders. Fred was leader, Robert A. Marden played trombone, Dick Dubord played clarinet and, of course, both of them were high up on political levels, so we played a lot of political gigs. We also played world fairs in New York and Montreal.”

Wright played for local groups, including The Adelines, a singing group at Waterville Senior High School, as well as for shows at that school; he also performed for musicals at the Waterville Opera House. He and Petra also performed a big band complement to the Colby Symphony, at the request of orchestra director Peter Re.

“Peter is one of the most wonderful men in the world,” Wright said. “I had his grandchildren in school.”

Wright’s trio, The Gerry Wright Trio, performs at various venues, including two annual “Broadway Musical Revue” shows at Colby in both April and November.

LOVE AND WORK

At the Winslow home he shares with his wife, Sharon, Wright settled into the chair at his piano Friday morning, placed his fingers on the keys and launched into a sweet rendition of “Tenderly.”

It was the romantic ballad he had heard as a teenager that turned him on to jazz in a big way.

Composed by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence, the piece is one of Wright’s favorites, especially when performed by one of his favorite pianists, Oscar Peterson.

“I’ll show you my other favorite,” Wright said, finding a YouTube video of pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach.

“He’s a classical player. He was a genius. He graduated from conservatory at 11 or 12. He was very eccentric. What’s amazing about these guys is they’ll play from memory, and this is complicated stuff.”

Wright’s home office shelves are lined with music and art books, CDs and record albums. On the walls, group photos of former students are intermingled with other artwork.

He talked lovingly of his students, recalling the time a young girl told him she had to go to the hospital in Boston and would see him when she returned. He never saw her again, as she died there. His eyes filled with tears.

“I’ve lost a lot of students,” he said.

Wright on May 31 performed at Maine Central Institute’s commencement ceremonies, where students, staff and parents stopped by to say hello as he sat at his keyboard in the crowded gymnasium.

“MCI is unique,” Wright said Friday. “I work with kids from all over the world. I have 35 piano students. Performing arts is built right into the curriculum. They could take piano, ballet, concert band, concert choir. I try to teach these kids not only what they’re playing, but try to get them into the piece — phrasing and rhythms. I have 13 keyboards, so I allow 12 kids to a classroom — that’s max. We do a recital every spring.”

Nadeau, the Al Corey Band leader, said the June 28 concert will feature popular works of the big band era, and vocalists including Virginia Palmer will perform.

“We’re going to pay tribute to Gerry because so many people love him,” he said, “and we felt it a really appropriate time to do this and let him know what he means to us.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17