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For Kenny Wheeler

The essential difference between art and entertainment is this: entertainment aims to amuse while art aims to relate. For a musician,this difference can easily become blurry, as his or her art must be presented to a live audience. As a joke, I often say to my young jazz students, “Welcome to show business.”  Negotiating a career as a jazz artist is complicated by the fact that artists are often judged on the merits of their performance style or fashion rather than on their actual message or substance.

To me, one of the most attractive aspects of jazz has always been its potential for true self-expression. You know the real deal when you hear it. Some artists discover that improvisation, and in particular, jazz improvisation provides an outlet for the expression of feelings that may be too uncomfortable (or perhaps even inappropriate) for polite conversation.  This type of person does not often succeed in the performance world. Their music is not easily described, packaged or sold, and certainly does not always fit the environment in which it is usually presented: a saloon, a party, a dance or a nightclub.

Kenny Wheeler described his music this way; “Everything I do has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it.” His music was starkly beautiful, humble and honest, just like the man himself. There is a searching quality to the writing, and an unmistakable cry of deep pain in the playing. I found myself drawn to Kenny’s music from the moment my trumpet teacher, Vincent DiMartino first introduced me to it. It didn’t fit easily with my youthful understanding of what “jazz trumpet” was or was not. Although I never emulated his playing, I began to hold a special place in my mind and heart for it. He clearly demonstrated something for me; It’s OK to be fully one’s own self, and to explore what that might mean through improvisation.

As the years went by, I had a few opportunities to hear him in person when he came to Chicago. Once with the Globe Unity Orchestra and twice with Dave Holland’s group. Witnessing his intense focus and introverted demeanor, I realized that I was both in awe of him and a bit frightened of him. Although I was right there in the room, somehow I could not force an introduction, which was very odd for me. He just projected a vibe that made me want to respect his space. So I never met my hero.

When I was in my early thirties, I was going through something like a crisis of identity. During my early twenties I had been very successful in jazz, playing bebop with many of the masters, starting my own band with some of them as members, and playing in every club in town. However, as time marched (as Von Freeman liked to say) I found that my playing and writing was changing, and I became less and less interested in fitting a stylistic mold. This wasn’t conscious; it just happened. The urge to create and express was great, and my practicing deepened as my compositions became more abstract.

I began to sense that many of the people around me did not like the direction my music was going. I was too outside for the inside crowd and too inside for the outside crowd. This started to dawn on me slowly; a few rolled-eyes from band members; the occasional overheard comment; losing work in certain clubs where I had once been lauded. Then it became more obvious. People started saying it in print. The main complaint seemed to take the form of “I don’t get it,” and there was the occasional suggestion that I should just go back to playing bebop.

While my Chicago roots had me putting up a tough front, of course this type of criticism and rejection wounded me to the core, playing into my deepest insecurities. After all, aren’t we just craving acceptance and understanding with this self-expression business? I unconsciously reacted in two ways; I stopped pursuing jazz gigs, stopped actively booking groups and sought out the safety and anonymity of commercial and section work, and; I began practicing compulsively. I believed that if I played better, people would HAVE to accept my playing. 

Then, one day I went to the mailbox and found a letter from someone on Wallwood Road in London, England. It was a handwritten note from “Ken Wheeler”. He said that he had my CD, really liked my playing and writing, and asked “would I please send him more tapes of my stuff, as many as possible?”

After realizing that I was not being hoaxed, I began to feel and appreciate what this gesture meant. I prepared some cassettes of live gigs and mailed them back with a fan letter. I particularly praised “Music for Large and Small Ensembles,” saying that I believed it was a masterpiece. I asked if he had other big band recordings. About a month later, a box arrived filled with hand-made cassette dubs of ALL of his big band stuff;  John Dankworth, Maynard, Windmill Tilter,etc.  And so began our correspondence,regular packages of tapes sent back-and-forth across the Atlantic.

In a very sincere way, having Ken as a pen-pal and supporter helped give me the courage to continue as an improviser.  I left a life of orthodox Jewish wedding bands and fourth trumpet parts and took a job teaching jazz at the Cincinnati Conservatory, and I began again in earnest to develop my playing; this time without all the over-sensitivity and insecurity. Upon arriving at CCM, I started lobbying for a way to bring Ken there. My dream was that he would perform the“Sweet Time Suite” live in the states. Ken and I had still never met in person.

Finally, in 2003, it happened. I talked to Kenny on the phone for the first time, and he agreed to come for 10 days, despite the fact that we had very little money to offer him. He apologized repeatedly for “not really being a teacher” and having nothing educational to offer the students. While confronting him on this feeling, I began to get a sense for just how self-effacing and humble a man this was.

When I asked him about the Suite, he initially balked. First, he said it couldn’t be done without the great Norma Winstone, we’d have to also bring her. Second, he thought the music too difficult to be effectively performed by students. I tried to assure him that our guys were up to the task, and that I knew a vocalist (Sunny Wilkinson) who could pull it off.  While he certainly did not feel comfortable with either idea, he said he would trust my judgment.

He asked what he could possibly do with our students for 10 days, since he claimed not to be a teacher. I told him that just spending time with them would be more than enough. I did ask him to do a composition workshop. He said, “I wouldn’t know what to say.” I said, “Just talk about your process.”

In short, the residency was magical. Many of the students involved remember it as the high point of their musical lives, as do I. Sunny Wilkinson floored Kenny and the audience, and the band played as never before. Ken spent long hours talking with all of the students, humbly sharing his gifts and offering encouragement. At the composition clinic, Ken opened a spiral bound notebook and began to read. “Each morning, I rise at 7 am, brush my teeth, have a bite of toast and tea. Then I slowly move toward the piano, at first noodling aimlessly until I strike on an interesting idea…” etc. He had actually written an essay describing his process, by hand, and was reading it to us. After he had finished I asked him if I could keep the notebook. I still have it.

The real revelation for me was in getting to know Kenny, the person. In the evenings, my wife Carol Keeley and I had him over to the house for meals and conversation. Carol is a writer, and has always had a knack for getting people to open up about themselves. We were not prepared for what Ken would tell us. He told us about a childhood so brutal and demeaning that we were all in tears trying to get through it. He’d had to leave Canada to distance himself, get a fresh start. Then, once in England his insecurities about his own unique way of improvising and lack of acceptance by other players had him hiding in trumpet sections and copy work for years, only being pushed to play and compose by meeting a younger generation of more free-thinking players. I began to understand on a deeper level why his music spoke so directly to me.

Before he left, we had a very serious one-on-one talk in my studio. I wanted him to understand that he was a great teacher, that he had so much to offer young musicians and that he should consider going to more schools. He wanted me to begin recording again, to compose and to explore. With a handshake the deal was made.

Goodbye, Kenny. Thank you.


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As jazz educators, I believe we should consider the following questions: 1. What is Jazz? Is it a bag or style to be played correctly, or is it an opportunity for a musician to explore self-expression


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