Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Kenny Wheeler: Slowly but Surely

Montreal, Canada, 1952. Kenny Wheeler and I were in the Cafe St. Michel, in what was then a black neighborhood. It was close to the two major railway terminals, and the railway porters lived there. They intensely opposed any incursion of whites into their job preserve. He had, at my urging, brought his trumpet. The musicians were jamming. We introduced ourselves to some of them. They looked at his trumpet case, but nobody asked him to play. He sat there all evening, yearning to play, but he was ignored.

Kenny and I met in high school in St. Catharines, Ontario, which is close to Niagara Falls and the American border. I was seventeen, he was fifteen. We were drawn together by a passion for music, and particularly jazz. It was Kenny who turned me onto Miles Davis with Charlie Parker on those early Dial recordings, and to Sarah Vaughan. I had no idea that someday I would be writing songs for her.

And so here he was in Montreal, visiting me. I was then a young reporter for the Montreal Star. There were few opportunities in Canada to play jazz. Canadian musicians such as Gil Evans, Murray MacEachern, Kenny Kersey, Maynard Ferguson, Robert Farnon, and Georgie Auld had long since left, and Oscar Peterson had not emerged as a force. I too felt the limitations of opportunity in Canada. All that has changed; this was long before Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.

At the end of that evening, knowing that it would be difficult or impossible to get visas to the United States, I suggested that we go to England, which in those days required no visas of Canadians and where there was a music industry: witness the Farnon and Ted Heath albums. Kenny and I decided we’d go there. We’d form a group, write songs, he’d play and I’d sing.

To my amazement, in view of his incredible shyness, Kenny booked passage and left; I was to join him in a few months. And then I was booked to sing on a major network radio show. I blew the entry to the release of the tune by two bars, and in my humiliation swore I would never sing again. And didn’t, for many years. Like Kenny, I was convinced I had no talent.

And that, despite other tales that have been told, is how Kenny Wheeler came to go to England and built a career there, rather than in Canada or the United States. And, for the record, how I became a songwriter rather than a singer, except occasionally.

In all the history of jazz, no major career has evolved more slowly than that of Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler, born January 14, 1930, in Toronto, the fourth of eight children. Their father was an accountant and part-time musician, and their mother played piano by ear. When I first knew Kenny, he was playing trumpet in our unbelievably bad St. Catharine’s high school orchestra. He did it solely for the experience. He had a thin and timid tone that gave no hint of the power and individuality with which he would one day play trumpet and flugelhorn.

Kenny studied composition with John Weinzweig, one of the pioneers of serial composition in Canada. In England he studied baroque counterpoint with Bill Russo, and studied some more with Richard Rodney Bennett. Kenny is always studying. He rose through British dance and jazz bands such as that of Carl Barriteau and Johnny Dankworth, and began to emerge not only as a highly original trumpet soloist but a significant and uncompromising composer as well.

Dankworth commissioned him to write an album for his band, which is now seen as a landmark recording. It was Windmill Tilter. “It turned out to be one of the most productive three months of my life” Kenny said. “For all this music I’d been sort of hearing and wanting to write for a big band did sort of come together for that album.”

“That was made in 1967.” The album, based on Don Quixote, is now out of print, but at the time it went far to establish Kenny as an arranger and composer.

“By this time,” he said, “I was a much better trumpet player and not quite so nervous. But I still couldn’t play what I guess you might call bebop, although it was my roots. I was never a good bebop player. I was getting very frustrated, because I wanted to play more, and in Dankworth’s band you got maybe two thirty-two-bar solos a night.”

“It got to the point where I didn’t care what kind of music I played as long as it was jazz of some kind. So I went up to the Little Theater Club, and I heard these guys playing what they called free jazz, and I hated it on sight. But I went a few times, and eventually they asked me to sit in. And it was great. I don’t know whether I enjoyed it, but it felt therapeutic. When I finished, I felt like I’d got rid of something. I wouldn’t say it was good or bad.”

“I got more interested in free music. Those guys, people like John Stevens, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, who are now kind of the fathers of the free jazz movement in Britain, were in touch with the free jazz players in Europe, and that’s how I got my entry into Europe-through free jazz.”

After many years of that, somebody said to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you played changes.'”

He’d been playing bebop, or a form of it, with Joe Harriott, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, and others. But by the early 1970s, he was considered one of the most important figures in the free-jazz movement.

Yet he retained his links to a more traditional jazz, working in groups led by Ian Carr, Mike Gibbs, and John Taylor. He played in the Clarke-Boland Big Band in Cologne and wrote for Maynard Ferguson’s British band. He co-led, with saxophonist and clarinetist Tony Coe, a group called Coe, Wheeler & Co., and with singer Norma Winstone and the Manchester-born pianist John Taylor formed a group called Azimuth. He has worked with the Globe Unity Orchestra, the Anthony Braxton Quartet, the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, and the Dave Holland Quintet. It seems there is nothing in modern jazz that he hasn’t played.

One of the best descriptions of his playing and writing comes from Ian Carr: “He became a complete brass virtuoso with a technical mastery of trumpet from the lowest to the highest registers, and tremendous stamina.”

“He composes and arranges for very large ensembles and for small groups, and both his playing and his writing have a powerful individual atmosphere which has spawned many disciplines, a kind of buoyant, romantic melancholy. Immensely self-critical, he finds it easier to like his writing than his playing, and has said, ‘I don’t have any solos of my own that I like completely, only those that are not as bad as others, perhaps the solos on Dear Wan I can live with.'”

Kenny told me, “I’m trying to get simpler. I think having a strong technique helps you to get simpler. I am trying to get clearer and simpler. A lot of people shake their heads and say, ‘I haven’t a clue what he’s trying to do.’ But a lot of people do understand it. I couldn’t put it into words. It’s not strict bebop, but it’s bebop rooted. Louis is the grandfather and Dizzy’s the father of it all.”

Earlier this year, Kenny played a big-band engagement for one week at Birdland in New York.

“A bunch of the young guys around New York wanted to do it,” he said. Which is to say that they wanted to play his idiosyncratic, highly personal big-band compositions. Tenor saxophonist Andrew Rathburn put the engagement together. Kenny said, “It was a good band. We had people like John Abercrombie and Dick Oatts in it.”

And, those who attended some of the performances noted, he did none of the announcing. He simply took occasional solos, as if he were a guest with somebody else’s band.

Recently he said to me, “I like some of the songs I wrote, but I don’t like my solos.” One could expect that.

Kenny has become an idol of younger musicians, both in America and Europe, and you can hear his soaring, intense, powerful style in any number of the better players. This year he has been or will soon go to the Eastman School in Rochester, the University of Miami, and the University of North Texas, formerly North Texas State. The students want to plays his charts. He does a few clinics. “But I don’t like that very much,” he said. Yes, in clinics he has to talk.

He is also doing a European tour with Kenny Werner, working only as a duo. Kenny’s newest album, on ECM, is titled A Long Time Ago. It contains eight compositions. The title piece is a suite running 31:47. I’m not sure it should even be called jazz. There is no drummer, no bassist, and there are no saxophones: the orchestra comprises four trumpets, three tenor and two bass trombones, Wheeler’s flugelhorn, John Paricelli’s guitar, and the piano of John Taylor, whom I considerably admire. The bottom lines are carried by bass trombone. Nor is this in theme and variation form. It is through-composed contrapuntal music, built out of a three-note cell, B-natural, B-flat, and E-flat, which Kenny promptly drops a half step. It contains open stretches for soloists (as in the nineteenth century and earlier concerti). At times it seems to me to reach into the English brass-band tradition, at others into the chorale form. When Wheeler plays lead, his haunting, vibratoless fluegelhorn lends an utterly distinctive sound to the ensemble. This is dark and very beautiful music. And as a player, Kenny has become as instantly identifiable as Clark Terry, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom said to me a while back, “What I hear is sincerity and a unique voice. Kenny Wheeler could be playing a trumpet, or a saxophone, or a violin, I could tell it’s him. It’s his voice coming through that instrument. And he has a great deal of harmonic imagination, which I find very refreshing, in his music, in his orchestration, and in his own playing. It’s almost completely lyric. And it’s effortless. The virtuosity is invisible, and that’s the way it should be.

“The instrument disappears. The fluency of that instrument sounds so easy. There’s magic in him.”

You’d never have known it that night in the Cafe St. Michel, when he sat with his horn in his lap, awaiting an invitation that never came, and my heart ached for him.


Kenny’s trumpet is a Smith Watkins, a British make. His flugelhorn is a Yamaha.

Listening Pleasures

Kenny listens mostly to classical music. He likes Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel. “Not a lot to the more modern composers like Stockhausen. I don’t like it or dislike it. It just doesn’t do much for me. I have been listening a lot to Gesualdo and Hildegarde.” Prince Carlo Gesueldo of the principality of Venosa, near Naples, was born in 1560 and died in 1613.

Prioress Hildegard von Bingen, known as the Sybil of the Rhine, was born in 1098 and died in 1179. She was a nun, poet, composer, playwright, and mystic.

“When I listen to jazz,” Kenny said, “it’s usually Miles, Bill Evans, Dizzy, Keith Jarrett, people like that.”

Originally Published