Andrew Speight, Bay Area sax player and jazz instructor, dies in car crash at 58

When COVID-19 put musicians out of work, alto saxophonist Andrew Speight opened a club in the living room of his Burlingame home and called the show “Live at Five at Andrew Speight’s House of Bop.”

Speight would assemble a quintet of revolving players, and he knew just about everyone in the Bay Area jazz community, based on his 20-year tenure as a jazz lecturer at San Francisco State University and 20 summers at the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

The concerts were streamed at 5 p.m. on Sundays, and the musicians played in masks, with the horns lifting their masks only long enough to solo. Speight paid the players, who put on 118 performances during the pandemic, with audience members allowed to attend once the restrictions eased.

When the clubs reopened, Speight was always in demand for the searing intensity of his horn on the uptempo bebop numbers and the lush tone he’d deliver on ballads. During Thanksgiving week, Speight played a four-night run with the Simon Rowe Trio at the new Keys Jazz Bistro in North Beach. The next Tuesday he was on campus at SF State, where he was teaching a full course load.

Two days later, on Dec. 1, Speight was alone in an automobile that was hit by two Caltrain locomotives, killing him at age 58. A sports car enthusiast, Speight was seen driving his Porsche onto the tracks at the Broadway station in Burlingame. The car was hit by southbound train at 1:38 p.m., then by a northbound train.

The cause of the crash is under investigation by Caltrain, according to a spokesperson. The cause of death will be determined by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office.

“Andrew Speight was a huge talent, and a generous bandmate, colleague and mentor,” said pianist Simon Rowe, owner of Keys Jazz Bistro and a 40-year friend. “His passing has left a huge hole in our Bay Area community and beyond. He was an amazing proponent of the finest of alto saxophone playing from the roots of the music through to the present day, and we will miss him.”

Andrew James Speight was born March 23, 1964, in Sydney and grew up in the beach suburb of Manly, Australia. His father, John Speight, was a pianist who founded the Manly Jazz Festival. Andrew grew up seeing all the American jazz masters who toured through Sydney. He rode the old Manly Ferry to train at the Sydney Conservatory of Music. In 1991 he placed in the top six at the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition at the Smithsonian Institution.

A year later he immigrated to America, where he joined the music faculty at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He often performed in New York, and while there he met Erica Mobley at a wedding, and they later married. They moved to San Francisco in 1998. Speight soon landed the job at San Francisco State, and the couple settled in Burlingame to raise two kids. They were later divorced.

Among those Speight performed and recorded with are Ellis Marsalis and his sons Wynton and Branford, and Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” one of the most popular jazz albums of all time. Speight also played sax in bands led by cornetist Nat Adderley, pianist Ronnie Mathews and bassist Ray Drummond.

“The list goes on and on,” said Michael Zisman, a bassist who also teaches jazz at SF State. “Andrew was a virtuoso, and he spoke the musical language of the jazz masters, like Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.”

As the primary jazz teacher in the Department of Music at SF State, Speight taught performance courses in jazz ensemble, improvisation and big band to music majors. He also offered a general lecture course on the history of jazz that drew more than 100 students each semester.

“He was passionate about his students and passionate about his subject,” Zisman said. “He wanted to pass along the aesthetic and commitment and standard of musicianship that was passed along to him by the masters.”

One way to do it was through the Generation Jazz Project, a program Speight introduced at SF State. Internationally known players were brought in to work with students, ranging from high school to young professionals. There were workshops, competitions and concerts held in the campus auditorium, Knuth Hall, and off-campus at Yoshi’s San Francisco. Speight was always the bandleader and held his own before giving way to whoever was being showcased. The shows were always free to students and well attended.

Speight and Zisman played together at Jazz at Pearl’s in North Beach, where they were heard by Jim Nadel, founder of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, an independent nonprofit hosted by the Department of Music at Stanford University. Nadel hired Speight for the resident ensemble at the Workshop. He then hired him back to teach and perform for 20 consecutive summers, including this year. Concerts are held at Bing Concert Hall, Campbell Recital Hall and Dinkelspiel Auditorium, with jams in the Stanford Coffee House.

“One thing interesting about him as a teacher is he had a tough love kind of bluntness, but he was always very honest and insightful and the love was there,” Nadel said. “He would recognize and applaud anyone who was seriously trying.”

For many years, Speight fronted the Andrew Speight Quintet, playing all the clubs and festivals in the Bay Area. For the past 15 years, Speight and younger sister Caroline Speight served as artistic directors for the Manly Jazz Festival, where he often performed with an Australian rhythm section. His last performance there was in 2019.

“When Andrew was at Manly Jazz, the energy lifted,” Caroline Speight said. “He loved playing with his favored Australian rhythm section, and the interplay onstage was vibrant and creative.”

Speight kept the “Live at Five” house shows going even after pandemic restrictions lifted for performance venues, with with the Andrew Speight Quintet serving as the literal house band.

Speight cleared the furniture out of the living room to make way for the rhythm section: a full drum kit, a Steinway grand piano and stand-up bass, among other instruments. As many as 50 patrons came to hear special guests such as drummer Roy McCurdy, tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and bassist David Wong. Speight would fly them in from as far as New York and pay for their lodging. The house band was paid on a grant supplied by regular bassist Jeff Saxton.

The last performance for “Live at Five” was on Nov. 20, and Speight was at the top of his game. “He sounded great,” said trumpeter Modesto Briseno of San Jose. “He was playing his ass off.”

Earlier this year, Speight married Nh Jo, a Korean immigrant he met in his jazz class at State. At his passing, she posted a simple message to Speight’s Facebook page.

“That’s a tragic ending to a brilliant musician’s life,” it read, signed Nh Speight Jo.

Survivors include his wife, Jo; ex-wife, Erica Mobley, son, Colin Speight, and daughter, Avery Speight, all of Burlingame; mother, Niddrie Speight of Manly; and sisters, Caroline Speight of Manly and Emma Gardner of Magenta, Australia.

“Andrew was an extraordinary person with so much to offer,” Caroline Speight said on behalf of her mother and sister. “We know his legacy will live on in the hearts, minds of music for generations to come.”

Sam Whiting (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SamWhitingSF