Melancholy and Chaos: Remembering Kenny Wheeler

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“Everything I do has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos.” – Kenny Wheeler

On September 18, the jazz community was dealt a tough blow with the death of jazz trumpeter and composer, Kenny Wheeler. A staple on the British jazz scene for much of the last 50 years, the 84-year-old jazz legend had been battling declining health.

Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler was born on January 14, 1930, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. After graduating from high school and studying composition with Canadian composer John Weinzwig, an innovator of serial composition, Wheeler found his native Canada a land of few opportunities. At the suggestion of his friend, music critic, journalist, and songwriter Gene Lees, Wheeler left for England in 1952. At the time, thanks to artists such as Robert Farnon and Tad Heath, England was home of a thriving jazz scene and required no visas of Canadians.

The move turned out to be a good career move for Wheeler, who would go on to collaborate with artists such as Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Philly Joe Jones, Anthony Braxton, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Global Unity Orchestra, and many others.

Wheeler became known for “straddl[ing] the worlds of conventional music and free-jazz,” with albums such as Song for Someone, featuring a fusion of orchestral writing and free jazz. In 1975, Wheeler met European jazz producer Manfred Eicher, who would produce a number of Wheeler’s more well-known works, such as Gnu High (featuring Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette), Deer Wan, Angel Song, and A Long Time Ago.

A fan of classical music, especially that of Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Wheeler’s individual voice straddled the line between the melancholic beauty of Impressionism and the cognitive dissonance of Modernism, exploring the emotional depths of mankind, plunging into an uncertain journey to which there is no exit.

Further Reading:

“Kenny Wheeler: Slowly but Surely” – Gene Lees, Jazztimes

“Kenny Wheeler: Five of the Jazz Composer’s Greatest Moments” – John Fordham, The Guardian

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          February 10, 2018