Revered jazz trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler has died aged 84

Kenny-Wheeler-TD

The jazz world is mourning the loss of one of its most celebrated composers and players as the Royal Academy Of Music’s head of jazz Nick Smart announced yesterday that Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler has died aged 84. Reports by the Ottawa Citizen website state that Wheeler had been in poor health for some time and had moved into a nursing home several months ago. Friends and long time musical collaborators had recently rallied around Wheeler, Norma Winstone saying after visiting him: “News of Kenny is not too good. He is back in hospital, after being in a nursing home for a while. I went to see him last Friday and he is very frail. I am sure he is grateful for all the messages of love and support he has received.” Sadly, he passed away on Thursday 18 September.

Born in Ontario in 1930, Wheeler moved to the UK in 1952 and soon became an integral part of the capital’s burgeoning jazz scene alongside other leading players of the time such as Ronnie Scott, Tommy Whittle and Tubby Hayes, he would go on be viewed as an honourary Brit and to have an immeasurable impact on his adopted home turf along with great international acclaim. He established himself as a solo artist and hugely influential composer through his long run of albums on the prestigious ECM label that began with 1975’s Gnu High, featuring Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, Deer Wan in 1977 and 1984’s Double, Double You, with Michael Brecker. All three album titles are also indicative of Wheeler’s love of wordplay and puns. His career gained pace with his landmark recordings Music for Large & Small Ensembles from 1990 and Angel Song from 1997; the latter featuring a stellar chamber jazz quartet of
Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland.

His wide-ranging work continued as both solo artist and much sought-after sideman and collaborator on countless albums and concerts, notably with fellow expat bassist Dave Holland, who reacted to the news of his death by Tweeting, “Thinking about my dear friend Kenny Wheeler who passed away today. A beautiful spirit that lives on in his music and our memory.” Wheeler had been in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s when Holland returned to the club after a 40-year absence, playing with his band Prism in November 2013.

Wheeler continued to perform live and to record until very recently, releasing a critically acclaimed collaborative album with Norma Winstone, Pete Churchill and the London Vocal Project entitled Mirrors on the UK’s Edition Records in January 2012 as well as a big band album in the same year, entitled The Long Waiting on CAM Jazz. Writing about Wheeler’s career in Jazzwise, Peter Quinn summed up the incredible sweep of his work: “Jazz is a broad church and Wheeler, more than most, has roamed freely around its wide open spaces – from playing in British swing and dance bands in the 1950s – Wheeler emigrated from Canada in 1952 – and the John Dankworth Orchestra in the 1960s to his free jazz work with John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Global Unity Orchestra, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker. Not to mention a number of fine recordings with the trio Azimuth and the Dave Holland Quintet, plus the occasional session-playing foray into pop.”

Fellow trumpeter and educator Nick Smart paid a heartfelt tribute to Wheeler’s considerable contribution to the Royal Academy of Music: “It is hard to express just how large a contribution he made to the music in this country and around the world, and how deeply he touched the musicians that had the honour of working alongside him. Kenny was an important and much loved figure to the jazz department here at the Academy. He was the founding patron of our Junior Jazz programme and the subject of a year-long exhibition about his life and work. We are extremely proud to hold the archive of his manuscripts and every year award the significant Kenny Wheeler Prize, inaugurated after the unforgettable evening in the Duke’s Hall celebrating his 80th Birthday. With Kenny’s passing we say goodbye to one of the great musical innovators of contemporary Jazz. His harmonic palette and singularly recognisable sound will live on in the memory of all who heard him and in the extraordinary legacy of recordings and compositions he leaves behind, inspiring generations to come. Famously self-deprecating, Kenny was always modest and humble about his own musical achievements. But the truth is, he was a genius walking amongst us, and it was the most tremendous privilege to have been able to consider him a dear colleague and friend.”

Rising star trumpeter Reuben Fowler, who was the second recipient of the Kenny Wheeler Prize in 2012, also paid tribute to Wheeler on his Facebook page: “It's a very sad day hearing of the loss of Kenny Wheeler. He was deeply loved, so many have been touched and moved by his music. With his influence so prevalent whether it be his playing or writing, it's kind of unbelievable knowing that we won't get to hear that sound again. However, the giant contribution to music that he made will live on forever and I'm grateful I had the chance to hear him play live: a memory I know that will stay with me. Condolences go to his family and friends.”

Breaking news: a few weeks prior to the news of Wheeler's death, ECM were preparing to announce details of a final Kenny Wheeler recording, which has now just been confirmed by the label who have issued the following statement on the forthcoming, as yet untitled album:

"The news of Kenny Wheeler’s death, at the age of 84, reached us just two weeks after we’d finished work on the mixing and mastering of his new album, which was recorded at London’s Abbey Road last Christmas. The session itself was inspirational, a very frail Kenny rousing himself to play creative and touching flugelhorn improvisations in a programme of nine of his fine songs, surrounded and supported by some of his favourite players: Stan Sulzmann on tenor sax, John Parricelli on guitar, Chris Laurence on bass, Martin France on drums. Three of the band were able to join us for the mix of an album which was to have marked a return to ECM for Kenny after some years away. A release date for the album is not yet finalized, but early 2015 seems likely."

Manfred Eicher / Steve Lake

 

Jazzwise will have more news on this album and its release in the coming months.

– Mike Flynn

(Photo by Tim Dickeson)

 

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