I took this photo from the audience during a a birthday concert for Kenny in 2005 at Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was too grainy and messy to leave as a “normal” photo but with a bit of manipulation it has become nice and clear. Kenny is with John Parricelli (guitar), Dave Holland, (bass) and Lee Konitz on sax.
I am proud to say that I knew Kenny Wheeler. I used to live not far from his house. When I first heard him up close playing flugelhorn solos on a tour with Peter Erskine’s band, maybe 12 years ago, I was so knocked out with the unforgettable rosy warmth of his sound and his inventive, original playing style that I started learning jazz trumpet. I very much enjoyed getting to know him – he was a very kind, gentle and softly-spoken man. Ken kindly lent me first a flugelhorn (the gorgeous copper-coloured Kanstul he had played on the tour), then a trumpet (a brilliant Smith-Watkins with a pile of interchangeable lead pipes) and later sold both to me at extremely generously low prices – out of embarrassment I had to give him more than he asked. I pestered him for lessons but he was so self-effacing and unassuming that he wouldn’t agree to teach me. We played together quite a lot, though. Mostly in his study in his and Doreen’s tiny house in Leytonstone and once at The Vortex where we played some duos on horn and flugel – and on flugel and trumpet. Evan Parker was there, too, and we played a crazy trio about which I remember nothing due perhaps to free-jazz-induced concussion. Always, whenever I played with Kenny a loud voice in my head kept telling me “this is unreal”, or, “Wow – look at me – I’m actually playing with Kenny Wheeler!” It was a privilege and an honour.
The news of his death is very sad for me and for everyone who knew him, and his departure is a great loss for all of us who loved his playing and his music. He was both a dedicated instrumentalist and a prolific composer. I was particularly inspired by his practice regime; my impression – not that he would ever say – was that he practiced the trumpet for at least three hours every day – and this was during his eighties! As a result he had chops of steel and never lost his ability to play with a huge, rich sound and swoop up into the extremely high register at any point in that idiosyncratic way of his.
He was absolutely full of music and he was world-famous for it. Strangely, he was less well known in his home country, England, than he was in the US and Europe – so don’t be too worried if you are not all that familiar with his name. To get an idea of how creatively prolific he was take a look here at his discography. Who else has made 61 albums?
Bye bye Kenny Wheeler. You will be missed. You were, and are, a musical legend.