Saturday, September 20, 2014

RIP Kenny Wheeler

We've lost a number of greats in jazz recently( Charlie Haden, Joe Sample, Horace Silver, Gerald Wilson), but I wanted to mention the death of trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. A huge influence on many modern musicians,  Wheeler had an unmistakable trumpet sound as well as a distinctive compositional style. I was fortunate to study with him at the  1990 Banff Summer Jazz Workshop. Wheeler, humble to a fault, and quite a contrast from artistic director Steve Coleman, was incredible to be around. I was fortunate to get play in the trumpet section in the rehearsals for his Large Ensemble suite.

I remember signing out "Deer Wan," one of Wheeler's classic records from the library in the early 80's. I believe for most musicians, "Gnu High" is a standout recording( I  found it ironic that pianist Allyn Johnson had just received his copy of "Gnu High" on vinyl in the mail on the same day of Wheeler's passing.) Some of Wheeler's tunes than are often played include "Everyone's Song But My Own," " For Jan," "Smatter," and "Consolation." Indeed, listening to a bit of "Smatter" gives me chills...

I remember two things about Mr. Wheeler at Banff. He coached my ensemble( I was playing trumpet back then), and during the rehearsal, I left to use the bathroom. When I returned, Wheeler was in my spot, reading the chart( it was an arrangement of his tune, "Mark Time." When he saw me, he demurred the spot to me. But I looked at him and said, " No, you can play!" He shrugged as if he was completely unworthy. He then proceeded to take a trumpet solo that just obliterated! There was another moment when a student came in who didn't recognize Wheeler. He was just sitting in a chair, looking extremely unassuming. " Oh, are you auditing this class?" she inquired. " Oh, actually I own all of these facilities, " he said in a quiet deadpan. " I'm Mr. Banff!"

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