By Peter Hum at Ottawa Citizen
Trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, who was raised in Toronto and beloved in Canada despite having lived in London, England, for the last 60 years, died Thursday. He was 84.
For the last month or so, jazz musicians in the United Kingdom, Canada and elsewhere were hopeful that Wheeler, a towering if extremely humble influence on so many musicians, would get the better of health difficulties.
Some months ago, Wheeler was moved to a nursing home. More recently, he was hospitalised. His friend and long-time collaborator Norma Winstone emailed me earlier this week, after visiting Wheeler last week: “News of Kenny is not too good. He is back in hospital, after being in a nursing home for a while. I went to see him last Friday and he is very frail. I am sure he is grateful for all the messages of love and support he has received.”
Wheeler played numerous times in Ottawa over the years, most recently in 2011 at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. Before he came to Ottawa, I interviewed him — not easy, because he was so self-effacing — I wrote this profile of him:
In the last 30 years, no one has influenced Canadian jazz more than trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler.
Not that he will own up to it. A generation of Canadian musicians consider Wheeler, 81, not only an inspirational beacon when it comes to playing and writing music, but also one of their own, even if the Toronto-born, musician did leave Canada for Britain in 1952.
In the summers of the 1980s and 1990s, Wheeler regularly taught at the Banff Centre’s jazz workshops, and although he is renowned for being self-effacing, a generation of aspiring Canadian and international jazz musicians fell hard for his unique, adventurous, romantic music, such that Canadian jazz would not sound the same without him.
“I think Kenny is the most influential player/composer that this country has produced,” says Toronto pianist Brian Dickinson.
“It’s impossible to hear Kenny play and not be influenced by him,” says Don Thompson, the Toronto bassist, pianist and vibraphonist whose 2008 disc is called For Kenny Wheeler. “I’ve heard people say it was a ‘life-changing experience’ or a ‘religious experience.’ With me, it was both. He has set the standard of excellence that I am continually striving to achieve. His attention to detail is such that there is never a note written that doesn’t mean something and every note is the best possible note.”
Meanwhile, Wheeler, who gives a TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival concert on July 2, has referred to his music as “soppy romantic melodies with a bit of chaos.”
And if you tell Wheeler that so much Canadian jazz resonates with his distinctive compositional voice, he replies: “That’s very flattering if it does.” And that’s it.
Born in Toronto but raised in St. Catharines, Wheeler began playing the cornet when he was 12, and took to jazz soon after. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he became interested in bebop, the then-new, fast-paced and harmonically daring style.
“What happened was I met a group of friends in St. Catharines and they were very much into bebop,” Wheeler says. “I got to like this music because of my new friends. Gradually I got to like it very much.”
He left Canada after opting not to pursue studies in Montreal that would have led to him becoming a high school teacher. “I realized I couldn’t do that. I felt I wanted to go somewhere,” he says, explaining that he did not go to the U.S., the home of jazz, because he feared he might be drafted to fight in the Korean War.
“So I thought it would be nice to go to England because they speak English there. I thought first of something exotic like Cuba or Brazil, but I thought that England might be safer.” He bought a ticket for a boat, and began playing in London’s big bands.
The first recording under Wheeler’s name – a big-band recording called Windmill Tilter – was not released until he had spent 15 years in London, growing as a musician. All of its pieces were dedicated to the great fictitious would-be adventurer Don Quixote.
Wheeler had gone to the library, borrowed Don Quixote, the 17thcentury Spanish novel by Miguel Cervantes, and “liked it very much. I’ve always liked people who I would call losers, and he seemed to be one of the great losers to me.”
Wheeler’s debut album clearly demonstrates the signature facets of his music – direct but novel and distinctive, harmonically rich and daring. His improvising is poised and dramatic, with large leaps in its melodies and a full, yet sometimes melancholy, sound.
How did Wheeler develop into a true original? “You just become the sum of your influences. I just listened to some of the good players I liked and hopefully I could come up with something different.”
He has released 30 or so albums under his name, including wordplay-titled classics called Gnu High, Double Double You and Deer Wan, his favourite. The discs have featured renowned collaborators, including pianists Keith Jarrett and John Taylor, saxophonists Michael Brecker and Jan Garbarek, and guitarists John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner.
In the 1970s, Wheeler began playing free jazz, notably with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and the Berlin-based Globe Unity Orchestra. Utterly spontaneous, free jazz is the antithesis of rigorous, structured bebop and of Wheeler’s own meticulous, lyrical creations. “First I didn’t like it, but gradually I got to like it. It had to do with meeting new friends that I liked very much,” he says. “I find it kind of therapeutic to play it. You get something out of your system.”
Wheeler says he still tries to compose every day. “I usually have some kind of routine. First, I would play some music by someone like Bach, or maybe even a more adventurous composer like Debussy or Ravel, and then I would hope that would suggest something to me and then I would begin to try and write something, not always with too much success.”
Wheeler has cut back a bit on his playing, which is not surprising given the physical demands that the trumpet makes. Still, there are plans for him to record a new big-band record this fall.
“I’m not so active these days as I used to be,” he says, “but I enjoy it when I do play.”
In the last month, benefit concerts were held in London, Vancouver and Montreal to raise money to help the Wheeler family with the financial burden of Kenny’s declining health, as well as that of his wife, Doreen. Their son, Mark, was overseeing the collection of funds from around the world via a PayPal account.
Last night in Ottawa, guitarist Roddy Ellias, myself, trombonist Mark Ferguson, bassist Alex Bilodeau and drummer Michel Delage — musicians ranging in age from the mid-60s to the mid-20s — got together to rehearse for our own benefit concert for Wheeler, slated for Friday night at Zola’s restaurant in Bell’s Corners. We absolutely loved rolling up our sleeves and getting into Wheeler’s impeccably crafted, imaginative, evocative music.
There was some reminiscing as well as practicing. I for one remembered taking Wheeler’s disc Gnu High out of the Nepean Public Library when I was in Grade 11, circa 1979. I was confused and enthralled at the same time. Thirty-five years later, I’m less muddled, and even more enchanted by Wheeler’s music. I don’t think the magic of it will never wear off.
We’ll play together Friday night just the same — timeless, brilliant compositions such as Everybody’s Song But Not My Own, Heyoke, Smatter, Sea Lady, Foxy Trot and more — surely saddened, but heartened by the beautiful gifts that Wheeler left us.
Rest in peace, Kenny Wheeler.