a British-Jazz trumpet Legend

Kenny Wheeler was an accomplished jazz trumpet and flugelhorn player, composer, and master arranger. Known on stage for his virtuosic performances, backstage he was loved for his humble demeanour and generosity with his fellow musicians. His impact on jazz was secured over a lifetime of recordings and hundreds of compositions.

Source: “P1160382” by Andy Newcombe – Under Creative Commons license

Kenny Wheeler was born in Toronto, Ontario, in the January cold of 1930. Like many jazz greats, he began playing music at a young age. By 12 he played cornet, but he soon fell in love with jazz. The young Wheeler listened and experimented with jazz throughout his teenage years.

His father was an accountant who played music in his free time, mostly trumpet and baritone sax, but he encouraged his son to not rely on music for money. Thankfully, the boy did not listen…

Kenny went on to study composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. After a year, he left his traditional music education and worked a series of day jobs, contemplating his next move. His friend Gene Lees (who went on to a notable musical career himself) convinced him to go to Britain where jazz bands were popping up and needing brass players.

And so, in 1952, he took a boat ride across the Atlantic, beginning his career amongst the changing landscape of British jazz music.

Kenny Wheeler in the UK

The London jazz scene saw major transformation over the 1950’s. An influx of Caribbean jazz players, the increase of night clubs, and the softening of restrictions on American jazz acts all led to rapid growth and experimentation. British fans were gaining wider access to albums from the States, allowing new developments to sweep through the island.

Archer Street was a gathering place for musicians, and every Monday afternoon, bandleaders would walk up and down the street calling out opportunities for gigs. These jobs provided an opening for Wheeler and allowed him to work with many local notables.

John Dankworth hired Wheeler to travel to the United States and play at the Newport Jazz Festival. As they kept working together, Wheeler wrote a few songs for the band.

In the late 1960’s, Wheeler’s wisdom teeth prevented him from playing and his dentist prescribed no trumpeting for three months. He was deflated, but his bandleader had an idea: Dankworth asked Wheeler to write an album during the months off, and the resulting work was Windmill Tilter — the first album released under Kenny Wheeler’s name. The album took full advantage of the John Dankworth Orchestra, presenting elegant, sometimes playful compositions and a buttery-rich soundscape.

The album put Wheeler on the map, long overdue for a talent who was already 39 at the time. Windmill Tilter steadily gained in influence and underground prestige. It eventually went out of print with rumours that the original tapes were lost. However, in 2010, BGO re-released the album to joyous Wheeler fans who had long dealt with the astronomical price Windmill Tilter commanded as a coveted collector’s item.

Kenny Wheeler’s Career Splits in Two


That talent with orchestral composition sits at odds with Wheeler’s other main accomplishments in the realm of free improvisation and the less boisterous world of chamber jazz.

He had stints in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Global Unity Orchestra. In this time, Wheeler would work with others using graphic scores and sometimes no scores at all, developing along the way a love and skill of a style he admits was an acquired taste for himself.

From 1971 to 75, Wheeler played trumpet with the prolific avant garde & free jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Braxton. The structure of Braxton’s leadership along with the freedom of raw improvisation developed and influenced Wheeler’s sound.

In 1973, Song for Someone linked these two threads of Wheeler’s career. The album features both orchestral breadth with free improvisation interlaced through the pieces.

The seventies also saw Kenny’s small group output increase, with critical successes like Gnu High and Deer Wan released under his name.

Wheeler hit more success late in his career with his 1997 effort Angel Song. This ambient jazz album features a drumless quartet of Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Bill Frisell on guitar, Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, and Dave Holland on bass. The album presents haunting lines swirling around each other without the backbone of the drums, allowing aerial flights of fancy.

Kenny Wheeler died on September 18, 2014 in a London nursing home. He left behind an incredible legacy in the British and international jazz scenes, working alongside generations of musicians. His high level playing and composing in many forms of jazz ensures his relevance and influence continues.