Update (Thursday, September 18): The Royal Academy of Music has confirmed that Kenny Wheeler died today. Our deepest condolences to his family, friends. and musical colleagues. Peter Hum has indicated that Friday's benefit will continue.
This Friday evening, you can listen to the music of the great jazz trumpeter and composer, Kenny Wheeler – and contribute to a fund to help him and his wife.
A group of Ottawa jazz musicians is organizing a benefit concert for Wheeler at Zola's, following the example of several previous fundraisers in England, Vancouver, and Montreal. Wheeler is now in his mid-80s, needs assisted care, and has not been able to perform for some months. His wife has also been ill.
Guitarist and composer Roddy Ellias has often credited Wheeler as a major influence on his own writing. When he heard of the other fundraisers, “I just decided to do it. I just saw people were doing it in Montreal and Vancouver and I decided just to put one on here.”
Pianist Peter Hum volunteered to help with the organizing, Ellias said, and they recruited other well-known local musicians: vocalist Christine Fagan, trombonist Mark Ferguson, double bassist Alex Bilodeau, and drummer Michel Delage. The event will be hosted by Zola's Restaurant in Bells Corners.
“We're doing all Kenny Wheeler's music,” Ellias said – a task which shouldn't be difficult given how prolific Wheeler has been in the last 60+ years as a composer and arranger, for everything from big bands to duos, from dance bands to mainstream jazz to the avant-garde. He has been credited with rewriting big band music in the 70s into a much more harmonically dense and richly textured form; his albums like Gnu High, Angel Song, and Music for Large & Small Ensembles are considered classics.
Wheeler was last heard here at the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival, in a concert in the NAC Studio with pianist Myra Melford, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and singer Diana Torto. At the concert, Wheeler already looked frail and quiet, and gave more space to the other musicians, although he did contribute beautiful ensemble and solo playing on flugelhorn. He didn't talk at all during the concert, leaving that to the others, and conserving his strength for playing. But the music the group played was all his – and the reaction of the audience at the end was ecstatic.
Although Ellias only played with Wheeler once – in Montreal with Altsys Jazz Orchestra – he “learned a lot” from Wheeler's music. When he started teaching at Concordia University two decades ago, he said, “I was into his music a lot, and I was bringing a lot of his music into my classes. Into a bebop-oriented school, so that's how much it meant to me.”
“Great writing, great concepts, great arranging. And he was a great educator, too. Just very inspirational."
The classical influences in Wheeler's music also spoke to him, Ellias said, because “I've always had the dual thing – the classical music influence, too, combined with jazz.
As a trumpeter/flugelhorn player, Wheeler was noted for his beautiful tone and played with many prominent jazz musicians – Keith Jarrett, John Dankworth, Fred Hersch, Anthony Braxton, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Chris Potter, and Dave Holland. On his website, Holland said he met Wheeler in 1967, and credited him as a source of inspiration as both a composer and a player, someone who played “a significant role in shaping your understanding of musical possibilities”.
“His is music of great beauty and beautifully crafted. He’s created a very personal musical language that is perfectly suited to the things he wants to express emotionally.”
Wheeler also had a particularly long-standing musical collaboration with vocalist Norma Winstone (who appeared at the 2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival), both as a duo, and in the group Azimuth with pianist John Taylor.
Although Wheeler has lived in England since 1952, he was born and raised in Ontario. He has also worked with many Canadian musicians, including Hugh Fraser, Jeff Johnston, Sonny Greenwich, Paul Bley, Brian Dickinson, the Maritime Jazz Orchestra, and Maynard Ferguson. He also taught regularly at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
But now he's run into difficulties. “Wheeler is going into an assisted home,” Ellias said, “and his wife needs an operation. And in England the assisted living expenses are covered by the government, but not if you own your own home. They own their own home, but they have no money. Their son is in the process of selling their home, but in the meantime they don't have the cash to pay for the assisted care, and so on. It's terrible. And for someone who has contributed that much, [to be] in that position at that stage of life ... it's ridiculous.”
The first benefit for Wheeler was held in London, England on August 15, arranged and programmed by saxophonist Evan Parker, who has been a friend and colleague of Wheeler’s since the 1960s. The evening culminated in a performance by a 20+ big band playing Wheeler's music. It raised £1,100.
On August 30, trombonist Hugh Fraser, who was a student of Wheeler's, organized a fundraiser for him in Vancouver, with seven other well-known jazz musicians. On September 4, saxophonists Christine Jensen and Jennifer Bell organized a similar event in Montreal, with 16 major names on the Quebec jazz scene.
The Montreal show raised $1200, Ellias said. “I hope we can match that. I'm targeting over a thousand dollars and hopefully we can make it.”
– Alayne McGregor
Update September 20: Although John Geggie was originally planned to be the bassist at the benefit, he wasn't able to make it and Alex Bilodeau stepped in. The story was updated to reflect this.