Speak softly and carry a big vibe

Kenny Wheeler, 70 next week, has been cast as the 'shyest voice in jazz'. But it's not shyness. He just doesn't want to shout about his genius
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Driving the current of celebration along another week or two, one of the world's finest jazz trumpet-players marks his 70th birthday next Friday with three special concerts around the country. He could pass for a man in his fifties; he was born in Canada but lives in east London. And, if you believe what people tell you, he's the shyest voice in jazz.

Driving the current of celebration along another week or two, one of the world's finest jazz trumpet-players marks his 70th birthday next Friday with three special concerts around the country. He could pass for a man in his fifties; he was born in Canada but lives in east London. And, if you believe what people tell you, he's the shyest voice in jazz.

In fact, considering the jazz press's obsession with Kenny Wheeler's self-effacement, self-criticism and reserve, I half-expect to find him whispering his answers to my questions from the other side of his letterbox when I visit him at his Leytonstone home earlier this week. So, after being met by a warm handshake and led into an even warmer sitting-room, I ask him if his reputation for reticence might have developed a life of its own.

"I'm used to it. Years ago they used to say, 'When he gets a bit of confidence, he'll be alright as a trumpet-player'; and it's gone on from there. But, on trumpet, it's hard to hold back. You can't. And it does seem a bit strange that since I seem to be so frightened of people, I should take up a powerful instrument that everybody can hear."

Good point. Nor was Kenny Wheeler too shy to choose one of the most demanding and risky of performing arts as a career; one in which improvisation and constant innovation are fuelled by an almost moral compulsion to throw away the old and challenge audiences with the new. He has mixed it with the very best in the world, too, including Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek and Evan Parker. A decade ago, under bassist Dave Holland's leadership, he toured and recorded as one-fifth of perhaps the most thrilling and edgy contemporary jazz group in the world at that time, holding his own on a shared stage with spiky and prolific American alto-saxophonist Steve Coleman, a quarter-century his junior and seemingly permanently competitive.

What Wheeler won't do, however, is play the late-20th-century game of splitting his time between a career as a musician and a career as a PR. As more and more music courses teach marketing, the musicians who refuse to jump rope in public and snarl "I'm the greatest" can seem unduly withdrawn.

A rare mixture of ingredients - 22 years in Toronto, 48 in the UK, and a combination of formal musical education and blowing experience with some of the arch-experimentalist free improvisers of the Sixties - has contributed to one of the most original and haunting sounds in contemporary jazz. Wheeler loved bebop - the fiery and frenetic sound of the first wave of post-war modern jazz - but says he never felt comfortable playing it.

After arriving in the UK, he made a living in some of the more successful dance and studio bands of the time, before joining the John Dankworth Orchestra in 1959. He was studying composition with Richard Rodney Bennett, writing and arranging for Dankworth and developing a reputation for originality and seriousness that would lead quickly to collaborations with some of the finest European-based musicians of the time, including Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott and the Clarke-Boland Big Band. But he still wasn't sure what he wanted to do. That was when he stumbled upon London's Little Theatre Company, where a group of gifted and radical free improvisers were either creating a new music, or rediscovering a very old one, without melody, harmony or rhythm:

"They were playing this crazy music. I hated it at first; and then they asked me to play and I started liking it. I found it very therapeutic, but at the end of an hour and a half I couldn't tell if I'd played anything good or bad. But I felt better. I'd got something out of my system."

That period of self-discovery in the Sixties blew a gusty spaciousness into Kenny Wheeler's music that has been there ever since. Spring-clean, often vibrato-less and eschewing most of the ornaments and patterns that make up the infrastructure of more unquestioning jazz improvisation, it's a sound of unparalleled honesty and responsiveness. Austere? Only at first. With familiarity, even the ascending lines that seem to spin off into the chilly atmosphere carry with them a genial, humane warmth.

Wheeler will celebrate his birthday in the company of some of the finest musicians he's worked with. Each of the three dates will include a tribute to Wheeler-the-composer, with music from his fabulous 1992 album Kayak performed live for the first time by the British-based Creative Jazz Orchestra. And then Wheeler's own trumpet and flugelhorn will be heard in the context of a stellar Anglo-American quintet, with guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist John Taylor, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Billy Hart.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of Kenny Wheeler's association with ECM. Had it not been for the forward-looking label, the reticent trumpeter might not have reached the audience he deserved. ECM matched Wheeler with Keith Jarrett on his 1975 debut, and has provided him with the opportunity to stretch as a composer and improviser, working with the world's finest musicians ever since.

His recording-performing-teaching schedule is as demanding as ever. So before leaving him to his daily two hours of practise, I ask him if he still enjoys what he does.

"I enjoy striving to enjoy it more than anything. They say it should be "fun". I hate that expression... Why? I think it was when a few years ago, people started to say, 'Look at them, they all look miserable!' Musicians could be trying to play something great but they'd say, 'When Americans come over they're always smiling; look at these guys.' But, Miles ... it was OK for him to look miserable. But not us!" And no one called Miles Davis the shyest man in jazz.

Kenny Wheeler's birthday concerts are at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161-273 4504), 12 Jan; Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (0121-236 5622), 13 Jan; and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (0171-960 4201/4242), 14 Jan

Comments