Kenny Wheeler


Ken or Kenny (Kenneth Vincent John) Wheeler. Trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, arranger, born in Toronto on 14 Jan 1930. Raised in St Catharines, Ont, where his father, Wilf, played trombone in local bands, Wheeler worked in dance orchestras and later studied trumpet with Ross MacClanathan and harmony with John Weinzweig at the RCMT. In 1952 he moved first to Montreal and then to London, where he eventually continued his studies with Bill Russo (counterpoint) and Richard Rodney Bennett (composition). By the mid-1950s Wheeler was working in London dance bands (eg, those of Roy Fox and Vic Lewis) and 1959-65 was a member of the John Dankworth Orchestra, playing at one point alongside fellow Canadians  Art Ellefson and Ian McDougall. He later employed the Dankworth orchestra for his first album, Windmill Tilter. In the 1960s Wheeler played in the bebop groups of Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, and others, and at mid-decade moved into free improvisation with the bands of the drummers Tony Oxley and John Stevens. By the early 1970s he was acknowledged as one of Europe's leading players in the latter idiom. However, he maintained his interest in more conventional contemporary jazz, performing in the 1970s as soloist with bands led by Ian Carr, Mike Gibbs, John Taylor, the Canadian expatriate John Warren, and others, and arranging music for Maynard Fergunson's English band.


In 1971 Wheeler began playing in the quartet of the US saxophonist Anthony Braxton, at first occasionally in Europe and 1974-6 as a regular member for tours in Europe, the USA, and Canada. Also in the early 1970s he became a member of the Globe Unity Orchestra (based in Germany) and established his own big band in London for annual BBC broadcasts. Concurrently he worked in the city's studios and led or co-led several small groups, including Coe, Wheeler & Co (with Tony Coe), Freedom For a Change, and Azimuth (established in 1977 with the singer Norma Winstone and the pianist John Taylor). His association with Globe Unity and Azimuth survived through the 1980s.


Wheeler stands with Oscar Peterson, Maynard Fergunson, and Paul Bley among Canadian jazz musicians who have made a significant mark on jazz. This, despite a diffident personality that is legend in Britain. Unlike Peterson and Ferguson, but like Bley, he has received greater critical than popular recognition, a reflection of the venturesome path he has taken in contemporary jazz.


It was with Braxton that he came to notice in North America. In 1975 he made the first of several small-band albums under his own name for the German ECM label with US and European musicians as sidemen, most consistently the British bassist Dave Holland (also a member of the Braxton quartet). Wheeler continued in the 1980s to perform and record extensively in Europe (see summary at conclusion of Discography) and was a member 1983-9 of the Dave Holland Quintet that toured internationally (making appearances at Jazz City in 1984 and the FIJM in 1986) and concurrently served as the core faculty at the Banff CA Jazz Workshop. Wheeler continued to teach at Banff after 1989.


On the occasion of his 60th birthday (1990), he undertook his first tour in Great Britain and to Europe with his big band, the personnel of which included several longtime associates - eg, Holland, Taylor, Winstone, and the saxophonist Evan Parker - as well as the Canadian trombonist (and Wheeler pupil) Hugh Fraser. He also has performed his big band music with radio orchestras in Rome, Helsinki, and Stockholm, in 1985 with an ad hoc big band at the Music Gallery in Toronto, and in 1987 for a recording with the Guildhall Jazz Band in London.


Among his major works for big band, written in a bold, harmonically dense but richly textured manner, are Little Suite (dedicated to Booker Little, an important influence on Wheeler's trumpeting) and The Sweet Time Suite. Of his jazz themes, which are melodically graceful though given to a certain melancholia, Everyone's Song But My Own has been recorded by Taylor with the saxophonist Stan Sulzmann (as the title tune of an album of Wheeler compositions), and by Oliver Jones. Other Wheeler pieces of note include Toot, Toot for big band and 3/4 in the Afternoon, 'Smatter, and Deer Wan for small group.


Wheeler's other Canadian activities have included recordings in Toronto for RCI in 1976 and as the soloist in Tim Brady's Visions in Montreal in 1985. He took engagements at the Toronto club Bourbon Street in 1980 and 1981 and performed with Azimuth at Jazz City in 1980 and at Jazz City, the du Maurier Downtown Jazz festival, Toronto, and the du Maurier International Jazz Festival, Vancouver, in 1990. He also appeared with Hugh Fraser at the Vancouver and Victoria jazz festivals in 1990 and with the US saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom at the Toronto festival in 1991.