Kenny Wheeler obituary

Modest jazz trumpeter revered for fearless improvisation and prolific composing

The trumpet is by tradition a loud, warlike, declamatory instrument, but the art of playing it quietly goes back a long way. Bix Beiderbecke brought coolness to the instrument in the 1920s, and some of the most inspirational jazz stars have been predominantly quiet players, notably Miles Davis and Chet Baker. That select circle includes the trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler, Canadian-born but long resident in Britain, who has died aged 84.

Unlike Davis, Wheeler was as revered for his composing as his playing. His poignantly harmonised pieces were eventually played all over the world, studied assiduously on college courses and sometimes embellished with lyrics. Wheeler was legendarily shy, with a capacity to denigrate his own work and be astonished by anyone else's interest in it. For a man fascinated by the subject of losers (his first album, made under John Dankworth's wing in 1968, took the windmill-tilter Don Quixote as its theme), his achievements were immense.

Wheeler composed prolifically into his 80s, and some of his themes – poignant, softly falling melodies such as Everybody's Song But My Own and Kind Folk – became jazz standards. His big-band music took the legacy of his fellow Canadian Gil Evans and joined it to harmonies drawn from the German classical composer Paul Hindemith, from Debussy and Ravel, and from North American folk music, but he never insisted that soloists rigidly adhere to his rules, and was happy for them to shred his lustrous backdrops with howling free-jazz odysseys if they felt like it. He did not even much like the title "composer", saying that he was "just someone who takes pretty tunes and joins them up".

Wheeler was a native of Toronto. His family moved around Ontario in the 1930s, and his semi-professional trombonist father played regularly in local bands in the city of St Catharines, where they settled in 1945. One day, he brought a cornet home for his son to try, and that set the boy on his life path. Kenny studied harmony and trumpet at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto (1950-51), then went to London (rather than the US, where the Korean war draft was under way) to pursue his developing obsession with jazz.

Wheeler was first inspired by such mainstream American brass players as Buck Clayton and Roy Eldridge. Later, the more advanced approaches of the second-generation beboppers Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Art Farmer and Booker Little became powerful influences. Wheeler's luxuriant sound and balanced, unhurried phrasing had their roots in Brown and Farmer.

He studied harmony in London with Richard Rodney Bennett and the highly original former Stan Kenton arranger Bill Russo, who was working for the BBC in London in the early 1960s. Although he loved Duke Ellington, the blasting brass energies of the Kenton Orchestra and the effortless swing of Count Basie, Wheeler believed that his biggest influence as a composer was Hindemith, whose harmonies sounded jazzy to him. Fascinated by Hindemith's Mathis der Maler – an opera about the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald composed alongside a symphony – Wheeler devoted a lot of time and effort to unpicking its methods.

All of these compositional inspirations were processed by an increasingly agile improviser's mind. Wheeler played with the technically demanding sax soloists Joe Harriott and Tubby Hayes, and took naturally to the challenge of free improvisation, exploring it fearlessly with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which he joined after he drifted into Covent Garden's Little Theatre Club, a free-improv haven run by the drummer John Stevens. He later worked with the experimental composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and the Globe Unity orchestra run by the German free-jazz piano virtuoso Alexander von Schlippenbach. Any technical challenge could engage the young Canadian, including one from the contemporary classical pianist Frederic Rzewski that obliged him to play 100 bars straight, and then play them all backwards.

In 1973, Wheeler made Song for Someone, an adventurous blend of call-and-response big-band jazz, graceful ballad themes and edgy outbursts in which Derek Bailey's splintery guitar sound and Evan Parker's guttural sax replaced the summery cadences of Norma Winstone's voice with lowering storm clouds. Two years later came Gnu High, an occasionally enigmatic set that nonetheless featured telling solo contributions from the leader and the pianist Keith Jarrett. In 1977, Deer Wan proved to be a vividly atmospheric session featuring the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the guitarists John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner.

Intermittently, Wheeler performed in the pathfinding Azimuth chamber trio with the pianist John Taylor and Winstone. He was also a regular member of a creative European fusion group, the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble. In the 80s he played in the first of the bassist Dave Holland's influential small groups, and in 1990 came perhaps his finest recording, for the German label ECM. Music for Large and Small Ensembles was a modern big-band landmark (and a treasure trove of ideas for jazz students) in which luxuriously hued orchestral episodes, shaved-down jazz and folk themes, and some of the most creative settings for Parker's sax playing were elegantly joined.

Wheeler continued to record and tour through the 1990s, and the following decade saw a fine new big-band album, Nineteen Plus One (2009), of only one original but seven glowingly rearranged standard songs, with an Italian lineup, the Colours Jazz Orchestra. The Italian Cam Jazz label initiated the session (with Taylor), that brought him to string-quartet composing for the first time, for Other People (2008). He became a patron of the Royal Academy of Music's junior jazz course, and was encouraged by Nick Smart at the academy to make the weekly taxi trip from his home in Leytonstone, east London, for informal jams with students including the pianists Kit Downes and Sam Leak, and the drummer James Maddren – all destined for successful jazz careers.

In the Guardian in 2010, Smart (who is now at work on Wheeler's biography with the American trumpeter and academic Brian Shaw) admiringly analysed Wheeler's methods: "Kenny uses intervals in his writing that he's learned as an improviser. His melodic ideas are wonderful, and his timing of when to put in the big interval leap or spring a surprise in the tune is impeccable. He can also create so much music out of just a fragment – played straight, then in and out of time, against another instrumental voice, or the full orchestra." All 23 musicians involved in Wheeler's 80th birthday concert at the academy that year waived their fees, and the profits founded two Kenny Wheeler jazz prizes for the institution's most promising students.

In 2011, the trumpeter Dave Douglas curated the four-day Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York as a Wheeler celebration, with the guest of honour – unsteady on his feet but still practising four hours a day and composing for another four – playing in a variety of groups, and in a triumphant finale at the Jazz Standard club in a quintet including Craig Taborn and Holland. Cam Jazz followed it with the release of The Long Waiting – a session featuring an almost entirely new, totally characteristic set of bittersweet themes and patiently unfolding Wheeler songs wrapped in rich, choirlike arrangements.

In early 2012, Douglas led a big-band gig at the Royal Academy in Wheeler's honour, and announced that the quiet star's entire composing archive was to come into the institution's care. That year, a Wheeler band also headlined at the London jazz festival with the Long Waiting repertoire, and in December 2013 he recorded a new album for ECM at the Abbey Road studios, with his British quintet, and ECM's Manfred Eicher in attendance. The final mix was completed just days before the composer's death, so he was able to hear his swansong. Through it all, Wheeler's wife, Doreen, was as much of a rock for him as any of his most devoted musical partners had been.

However road-weary he occasionally became in his later years, Wheeler always knew that making music was the most inspirational stimulant of all. "The best time of day is always when you're on the stand," he told me. "If the music's good, it always puts everything else into perspective."

He is survived by Doreen and his children, Mark and Louanne.

• Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler, jazz musician and composer, born 14 January 1930; died 18 September 2014


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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