Kenny Wheeler, the trumpet and flugelhorn great who was born in Canada but spent most of his life in Britain, where he became a major jazz star, died today (Sept. 18) at age 84. The place and cause of death were not announced but Wheeler had been in ill health for some time; he’d been living in a London nursing home and had recently been hospitalized.
Born Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler in Toronto, Ontario, Jan. 14, 1930, Wheeler-who once said about himself, “Everything I do has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it”-began playing cornet at age 12 and studied at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory. In 1952, he moved to England and he made the country his home for the six-plus decades that would follow, playing initially alongside the top jazz musicians in the U.K., including Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.
Wheeler’s versatile approach ultimately allowed him to move seamlessly between big bands, post-bop, fusion and free jazz outfits-in 1959 he played the Newport Jazz Festival with British saxophonist John Dankworth, but by the ’70s he’d aligned with free jazz titans such as Anthony Braxton (in whose quartet he served from 1971-76) and Derek Bailey. Beginning in the mid-’70s, Wheeler was also a member of the longstanding trio Azimuth, which featured vocalist Norma Winstone and pianist John Taylor.
Wheeler released his debut album as a leader, Windmill Tilter (recorded with Dankworth’s orchestra), in 1969. In 1975, Wheeler recorded his first of several titles for ECM, Gnu High, which featured Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland (with whom Wheeler worked for four years during the ’80s) and Jack DeJohnette. He also released albums under his own name for CBC, Soul Note and, in the 2000s, CAM Jazz.
Wheeler was also active as a sideman, appearing on albums by Bill Frisell, Steve Coleman, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner and others. Wheeler’s 1997 album Angel Song featured Frisell, Holland and Lee Konitz.
As an educator, Wheeler was a founding patron of the Junior Jazz program at Britain’s Royal Academy of Music and was the subject of a year-long exhibition about his life and work at the Academy Museum.
Read a 1999 JazzTimes feature about Kenny Wheeler here.