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Remembering Kenny Wheeler: Musician and Friend

Kenny Wheeler

Kenny Wheeler, a Canadian composer and trumpet and flugelhorn player, died earlier this fall at the age of 84. He was well known and loved not only for his music, but for his warm and caring personality.

In honour of Kenny and his work, Humber College will be hosting three events this week: a symposium on Wednesday at noon, an open rehearsal on Thursday at 4:15, and a concert on Friday at 8:00. The first two events are free; all proceeds from concert ticket sales will go to the Wheeler family.

In the lead-up to these events, Brian Dickinson, Head of Keyboard in Humber’s music program and a long-time colleague and friend of Kenny’s, reminisced about their relationship and about Kenny’s many achievements.


I went to Kenny's memorial service last Friday and listened to four fellow musicians speak - all telling stories about being "mentored" by Kenny. One gentleman was Evan Parker, a well-known saxophonist whose specialty is free jazz. When Kenny first played with him, Evan couldn't read music. One day, Kenny brought in a piece of music that had one whole note in Evan's part. Evan reminded Kenny that he couldn't read. Kenny replied that it was just one whole note and explained where it was on the saxophone for him. Next time he added a half note, then another whole note, then a quarter note pick up. Evan is a good reader now and he credits Kenny for this.

That’s just one example of how he helped people develop their musicianship; he just seemed to sense what each individual needed and how to express, verbally or musically something that would help them grow.

Early Memories
I first heard of Kenny Wheeler through his first ECM recording Gnu High in the late 1970s. The album included Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. I was immediately attracted to the compositions and beautiful, unique, fresh playing.

When I learned that Kenny was born in Toronto and grew up here and in St. Catharines, it seemed to add a more personal connection: here was someone who came from the same area as I did and who was playing the music I wanted to play with the leading jazz musicians in world!

First-Meeting Nerves
The first time I met Kenny was in the late 1990s at a rehearsal for a big band performance of his music for the Toronto Jazz Festival. I was playing in the band; he was leading and playing. I remember him being very patient – not demanding in the usual big band leader sort of way.

I was nervous, and definitely in awe, but I did speak to him that day. A lot, actually. He was very friendly, if quiet.

Impressive
The strength of Kenny’s music and his playing made you push yourself to try and rise to the bar that he seemed to set for himself. He had the most unbelievable chops - a brass player's brass player, but it was coupled with a vulnerability and warmth. It never felt that he played to impress....but it was extremely impressive!

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s I was lucky enough to be able to perform and record with Kenny a number of times. We even made a duo recording, Still Waters, in 1999.

Brilliant and Caring
Listening to his huge body of work that stretches from the late 1950s to an upcoming ECM release recorded last September, I am astounded at the consistent original voice that comes through all of it, whether intimate duo/trio recordings, small or big band jazz, or string quartet chamber music. Not only was he a prolific composer and virtuoso trumpet and flugelhorn player, but, perhaps most importantly, he was a wonderful, brilliant, gentle and caring man.


Photos: Black and white images courtesy of Brian Dickinson, colour by Andy Newcombe Farnborough, UK, "Kenny Wheeler".