En route to teach his jazz improvisation class at San Francisco State University, saxophonist Andrew Speight (March 23, 1964 – Dec. 1, 2022) was killed last Thursday afternoon when his Porsche was struck by a Caltrain locomotive near his home in Burlingame. He was 58 years old and recently the subject of an SF Classical Voice feature.
Speight’s lifelong loves of jazz performance and music education were modeled by his father John, a pianist and teacher, and his mother Niddrie, a singer, in their home in Sydney, Australia. “We’d wake up to music, listen to music through dinner, talk about what we were listening to, and go to sleep to music,” remembers Speight’s youngest sister, Emma Mayhew, who lives in Magenta, Australia.
“Dad and Mum had an incredible record collection,” adds sister Caroline Speight from her home in Sydney. “So Andy would get out Parker, Coltrane, and Cannonball and try to emulate them, and that’s how he crafted his sound.”
“Andrew was such a thoughtful person, he was always observing life,” says Emma. “He always knew there was a way to achieve what he wanted to achieve. But he was also a dreamer. He would just have this distant look, and we’d know he was in his mind’s eye.”
Even before he’d committed himself to music, Speight had at a young age established himself as an able golfer and a skilled sailor and boat maker under his father’s guidance. “Andy would often be out there with his crew members, sailing, and everyone would come in when it was getting too windy,” recalls Caroline. “But Andy would just stay out there and put up his spinnaker and keep going.” She notes that as her brother began to focus on the saxophone, “Dad made opportunities for him. When [American horn player] Nat Adderley came to Sydney, Dad got Andy playing with him on his actual concert.”
John Speight also founded the Manly Jazz Festival nearby the family home. Sydney-born Simon Rowe, now a San Francisco resident and the owner of the newly opened Keys Jazz Bistro in North Beach, performed at Manly as a teenager and preceded Andrew Speight in jazz studies at the Sydney Conservatorium. “I had a quintet called Simon Says, and one day when my saxophonist was unavailable for a gig, Andrew, who was a couple of years younger, showed up and stepped straight into my band without blinking,” Rowe reports. “We all had no doubt that he would be a force in the music.”
Seeking the source of jazz and to improve their skills brought both Rowe and Speight to the U.S. Speight spent time in New York City and placed among the first-ever saxophone finalists in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Competition in 1991. In the next few years, he and Rowe launched lifelong careers in jazz education. “We shared a similar philosophy of bringing the street — the wisdom of the out-of-classroom experience — into the classroom,” says Rowe, “because we knew that this music is an oral tradition. And you only learn a tradition like that by practicing with great mentors.”
Speight directed jazz studies at Michigan State University, collaborating with the likes of Benny Carter, Milt Hinton, and Marcus Belgrave, and moved on to San Francisco State in 2001 with the recommendation of fellow saxophonist and good friend Branford Marsalis. Speight’s Generations Jazz Project drew to the campus such jazz masters as Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes, and Eric Alexander, as well as Marsalis.
While teaching a full load, Speight also moonlighted, mostly on alto sax, at a variety of San Francisco venues, exciting fans with his bebop-based passion and endlessly imaginative improvisation, balanced by his sensitivity in inspiring and integrating his creative flow with his fellow players. He connected with veteran drummer Vince Lateano at Jazz at Pearl’s and followed him to the Dogpatch Saloon, where regular Sunday sessions also included pianist Ben Stolorow and bassist Michael Zisman. When the Saloon got sold, the sessions relocated to the 7 Mile House in Brisbane, where Speight would also show up during the week for gigs led by trumpeters Dave Bendigkeit and Al Molina. Speight enjoyed surprising and amusing fans by sometimes singing snatches of familiar jazz standards in a broad Australian accent.
His fostering of jazz community and tradition of mentoring will be well remembered and sadly missed. The talented young alto player Jonah Cabral was one of the young students invited to show his stuff at regular showcases hosted by Speight at the 7 Mile. “I was on tour playing classical music when I found out he’d died,” says Cabral. “Now I’m finding it hard to even touch my horn. He was my musical father. And he was always my goal, in terms of being the best musician I could be.” Maelynn Le, who assisted Speight with his inaugural Boppingame Jazz Fest last spring, found her fellow students crying in the classroom when they got the news the day after the crash about their teacher’s passing.
When the 7 Mile House was closed by the pandemic in March 2020, bassist Jeff Saxton helped Speight inaugurate a series of more than 100 consecutive Sunday jam sessions, livestreamed across the globe, first from Saxton’s backyard in San Mateo and later from Speight’s Burlingame living room, which he dubbed the House of Bop. “For veteran players like Sylvia Cuenca and Keith Saunders, those sessions saved their sanity — mentally and financially — because everything had shut down and nobody knew when it would open again,” says Saxton. “There were so many great musicians I got to meet because of my relationship with Andrew. He definitely would let you know if your playing needed improvement, but they weren’t cutting sessions. He was trying to help people get better.”
Speight endured a number of health and domestic challenges, “but I don’t think he wanted to worry us; he danced around it,” says sister Emma. Speight’s first marriage ended in divorce. His second marriage, to NH Speight Jo, happened last spring. Speight is also survived by Colin and Avery, his children by his first wife, and by five nieces and nephews in Australia. Public funeral services will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at Crosby-N. Gray & Co. Funeral Home, 2 Park Road in Burlingame. They’ll be followed immediately by a musical celebration of Speight, led by Simon Rowe, at the Broadway Grill, 1400 Broadway in Burlingame.
Caroline, who has been her brother’s co-director of the Manly Jazz Festival since their father died, is planning a community celebration of Speight in Sydney next month. Simon Rowe anticipates something similar at Keys. He’d featured Speight as a guest with his own organ trio soon after the club opened last month. “I could tell he was having difficulty, but when it came to the music, he was always extremely careful and gave it the utmost attention,” says Rowe. Last Friday at Keys, featured saxophonist Noel Jewkes called for a moment of silence in both of his sets, and the cover charge was waived for the late show, in honor of Speight. Local TV stations are continuing to air remembrances of Speight, who has also been the inspiration for ongoing posts on social media by colleagues, friends, and fans.
Some of the weekly Live at Five sessions from Speight’s House of Bop remain available on YouTube. Dawan Muhammad, a jazz musician and founder of the LifeForce Jazz label, was in discussion with Speight about numerous special projects recorded at the House of Bop, which included performances by saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Roy McCurdy, as well as by Speight himself. “Our first release is scheduled for the spring of 2023,” says Muhammad, “and we invite those continuing Andrew’s musical legacy to come together to help complete his mission.”
NB: This article has been updated with information about public services and memorial events for Andrew Speight.