JJ Wheeler – October 2013

Drummer and composer JJ Wheeler used to write for this blog, in between studying at Birmingham Conservatoire. Then he went to London. Then, just as his career was blooming, he found he had cancer. Now he is back in London, stronger once more, and rehearsing a new suite for the London Jazz Festival. I was delighted to get a chance to catch up with this fine musician and particularly insightful interviewee.

JJ Wheeler

JJ Wheeler

Q By the time you had graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire and moved to London to study and play, you had developed your own ideas and style of playing and composing. Could you describe how you see them – your influences, how you would describe your music?

A Open! That’s the biggest thing about me, I think. I’ve always been very open to anything I hear. Personally, I never understood why people would ever dismiss anything before they heard it and I’ve had countless experiences where not doing so has provided great reward. I’d never profess to having expert knowledge in a certain style or period of music, but that’s the flip side of being turned on by a whole plethora of musics, rather than focussing on just one thing. I also think honesty is a big factor.

I have to be honest with myself in many ways, one of which is reminding myself that, I never wanted to be a jazz musician, and certainly not a jazz drummer, I only ever wanted to be a musician. I grew up loving and playing all types of music: funk, prog-rock, metal, jazz, pop, orchestral, musicals, Cuban, Brazilian… whatever. There is an inevitability that those aspects of these genres that move you in a deep way are going to crop up in your musical output somewhere along the line, wether consciously or sub-consciously. But the most important thing that runs through any style is groove (including classical orchestral repertoire). And that, I hope, underpins anything I do.

Another part of being honest with myself is knowing my weaknesses. Often, to turn a weakness into a strength, I’ll write something which challenges that ineptitude so that I have to sort it out! If you want a geeky example, I was always comfortable playing in 7/4 or 7/8, but not in 5/4 or 5/8, so I have written (and now enjoy writing and playing) a lot of tunes in 5/4 or 5/8. Now I don’t really have any issues in that area. Problem solved!

Of course, this means that initially there is always a lot of risk involved in performing my own music. But that is such an important part of jazz, for me! Without the element of risk, music can become stale, so it’s important for me to challenge myself, others and enter “fly by the seat of your pants” mode sometimes. Ok, occasionally you fall flat on your face, but over time I think that is becoming far less frequent, with the rewards being greater creativity and more exciting results.

This approach to playing and writing is also far more engaging for an audience, surely? I don’t want to watch a film or a sports match where I know exactly what’s going to happen all the time. No matter how skilfully the pictures are put together, or the team plays, it’s the element of risk, danger and eventual triumph that gets the heart pounding. So, why not with music?

Q Did that style – and your ideas – change while in London? Or was it a further development of what you were already doing? How did the move affect you? 

A Yes. They have to change, I’m not old or experienced enough to have established a set sound or path yet. And nor do I want to be; the joy is in exploring! I see guys like Django Bates or Dave Holland who never stop searching for new ideas, new music, new approaches. Yet, with just these two examples we could look at their fantastic work 20 years ago and call them masters of their craft. They could have continued producing music in the same way using the same approaches, which audiences and fans probably would have been perfectly happy with, but they don’t. They’re always developing, and that’s why they are such exciting performers and composers to follow. You never know what’s next!

But, back to your question specifically: London? Things have changed dramatically as I am lucky enough to be studying with different tutors (both in performance and composition) like Pete Churchill, Paul Clarvis, Ian Thomas, Barak Schmool, Martin France, etc. I’m also performing and conversing with a lot of different people who have their own styles, opinions and ideas about music. So it all feeds in.

I was really lucky to have come into London the way I have, having studied in Birmingham where I gained so much knowledge from some amazing tutors and peers who were so committed to the music. I remember a discussion I had with a prominent promoter in London soon after I arrived who, when I asked why they had taken a particular interest in my music, they said that I had something a bit more gritty. Something that wasn’t coming from a lot of the (perhaps) more “gifted” students and graduates who had studied here. To be honest, I think that grittiness is largely down to my lack of conventional compositional ability, so there’s always going to be a rough edge. But that, if you look at it from that particular promoter’s perspective, is where I am set apart.

The other thing about moving to London (or perhaps it’s an age thing?) is that I got out of the jazz “hole” I’d dug myself into. At undergraduate level, I had done what I do best which was to get completely stuck in, submerged myself in the music to the point where my listening was often quite narrow. This was great for that time; I needed that intense period of study and practice in Jazz, but moving to London I remembered how important and thrilling other types of music were to me. I feel like, even though I’m still primarily playing, writing and studying Jazz, everything is so much better informed when your line of vision goes way beyond our tiny little corner of the musical universe. After all, jazz only exists because there was an explosion of various styles of music and culture clashing together in New Orleans 100 years ago. So jazz is, bluntly put, the bastard child of other genres!

In London, there is a much more open approach to each other’s music, as well as a much larger pool of musicians sharing information and a wider range of music. Some may disagree, perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough elsewhere, but that’s what I’ve found.

Q You were then diagnosed with cancer. Tell us a bit about how that happened, your thoughts and the process – moving back home, putting your career and art on hold for a while, etc.

A Where do you start? It happened quite suddenly, although looking back all the signs were there. I was officially fully diagnosed at the start of August 2012, about 10 days after seeing my GP. On diagnosis they told me I’d actually had cancer for about six months already, but in that time I’d done so much stuff – a UK tour with my Quintet, released an album, projects with dancers, work with a Motown Recording artist, gained a teaching Diploma, a three-month stint on a musical in London and Cambridge, and countless other gigs around London and the UK, all on top of full-time studying at the Royal Academy of Music (which is a highly intensive course, I can guarantee that!).

So I was flat out, which is why it took so long to get to the GP in the first place. I guess I had three or four months of constant “illness” – colds, flu, coughs, headaches – but I put it down to sheer exhaustion at the time as I knew how hectic my work schedule was. Little did I know, it was actually largely down to a series of cancer growths all over my chest and neck.

So I finally got to a doctor on a rare day off in late July, which just happened to be the same day I woke up at 4am unable to breathe (not surprising with a 10cm cancerous mass taking up a large part of your chest cavity). He took one look at me from across the room and sent me straight off to the hospital for scans and X-rays, so I think he knew. At this point I was in the last week of shows for Ring Round The World, which was a musical written for the 2012 Olympics by Pete Churchill and the English Pocket Opera Company.

Anyway, I carried on with the show and waited for results, but was soon asked to go back to the hospital for another scan. When I did, I hadn’t even made it home on the bus before my GP was on the phone asking me to come into his surgery. They were 95% sure it was cancer so needed to act fast. That was it; the GP asked me where I’d need to be (London or Yorkshire, where my parents live) while I received treatment, the obvious answer being Yorkshire as I couldn’t afford to live in London without working, so I was ordered to pack up my things and an hour later I was in the car back up the M1 to my parents’ house. They were on a short holiday at the time and had to come home immediately, too. We were all as surprised as each other!

At the time the biggest frustration wasn’t having a life-threatening illness, as stupid as it sounds, it was putting my career and life on hold. Through a number of opportunities I had gained during my first year in London I had got to a place where such a wide range of exciting work was coming in that I felt I was earning enough to live off (even with London’s crazy rent prices!). I had to dep out, cancel or turn down a lot of work which, as a self-employed musician, is probably the most gut-wrenching thing to have to do.

Having everything you worked for coming in then not being able to fulfil it is incredibly frustrating; it took three weeks to go through my diary and sort everything out! So yeah, that was horrible. I’m hoping to pick up some of those contacts, but I know that a lot of the momentum I’d built up in terms of networks has been damaged as these things either snowball or die if they stall. But at the same time, I’ve done it once, so there’s no reason why this time next year I shouldn’t be in a similar position.

Q Now you are back in London, cured, and, in your own words, you “come back stronger”. How has your experience with cancer affected your music?

A Most people who knew me before tell me I’ve come back with a lot more maturity. I can’t say I’ve noticed it myself, but I know that I’ve had a whole heap of life-experience in the past year that most people my age haven’t (and I hope won’t have). It’s an extremely challenging situation, so if you come out the other side, you are stronger for it. You have to be pretty damn resilient to maintain a sense of humour and remain positive, but I also think that helps you survive.

Of course, I was really blessed to be surrounded by some amazing people without whom I couldn’t have done it, particularly my family. But there’s also an element of spirituality that comes into play when you’re staring at the prospect of death. I know I had to rely on something beyond myself or those around me, and there were definite times when I had to hold my hands up and say “I just can’t handle this on my own”. And that’s what the initial basis for my latest project is about.

I’ve written a suite of music for 10-piece ensemble entitled A Question Of Hope. Some of the music is about finding strength in something beyond yourself, for some people that is faith in God, for others it may be something else. For me I found real hope at the times when things were at their lowest. Other pieces in the suite are about emotions or specific events that happened during my treatment and recovery. I guess it’s all a bit of therapy, helping me to digest the whole experience, as well as turning it on its head and making something positive.

I guess it’s almost my way of sticking two fingers up to cancer! I definitely wouldn’t have had the time or inspiration to write the music I have done had the past 15 months not happened. I’m delighted with the results – there are some incredible players in the band who are just taking the music up a level every time we rehearse, to the point where sometimes I forget I wrote it!

Q How do you see your future from here on – your ambitions.

A Good question. I’d really love to be doing such a wide scope of things. As long as I’m playing music regularly and still learning, I’ll be happy. I can’t see anything other than a “portfolio” style career unfolding for myself – something that involves bits of performing, touring, composing, teaching, everything! I’m not going to get a regular gig with the LSO anytime soon, and I’m too excited by exploring new avenues all the time to sit in a pit on the West End for years on end (not to say I wouldn’t do a stint if it came in), so I guess I’ll have to settle for everything.

I’m an opportunist – in a good way! I sniff out opportunities and seize them when they come along. They might lead to something else, they might stall. The best way to describe it is that I see myself sitting in the middle of a load of strings, constantly tugging them from all angles. Some are short and die out quickly, some have a bit of length so provide more work before falling to the floor as I reach the end, but eventually there will be strings which are long enough that they turn to rope. It’s just about being ready for when they do!

Q Finally, how are you feeling?

A Optimistic. Why shouldn’t I be? I’m alive… I’m blessed with a wonderful life, I get to play music every day, I can afford to eat, I have an amazing family and friends. And excited. I’ve no idea what’s around the corner, but I think it’ll be great.

  • JJ Wheeler and his 10-piece band, which includes Reuben Fowler, Joe Wright and Kieran McLeod will be playing A Question Of Hope at The Forge on Wednesday 20 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Find out more here.


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