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JJ Wheeler

Drummer Jonathon James Wheeler says: ‘I've never known whether I'm a Northerner or a Southerner, and tend to be berated by those on either side for being the other!’ He was, in fact, born in South London and spent his first eleven years there before the family moved to the little town of Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. London can claim JJ’s initial love of drums and music, JJ Wheelerhowever. ‘All my life I have had hearing issues,’ he explains. ‘In fact I have hearing aids, which I refuse to wear…they change the balance of sounds too much to appreciate any music! This meant that it was years before I learned to speak properly. Instead I hit things and played rhythms! I guess, an instinctively primitive form of communication dating back to early man! So my parents bought me a toy Mickey Mouse drum kit’

JJ’s growing interest in percussion was picked up on by his parents. ‘They hooked me up with London session drummer Mark Claydon (who has since worked with the likes of Liberty-X, Gene Drayton Unit and currently Gizelle Smith) who took me on when I was eight. Apparently it was a year or so before I could reach the pedals from my drum stool and both Mark and my parents tell of the day Mark told them I had the potential to play professionally - much to their shock - they thought they had a doctor or a lawyer, not a musician! To this day Mark and I remain very good friends, often depping for each other on gigs one of us can't make. He's an amazing player, nobody grooves like he can. And that's what he instilled in me from the off - there's no point in all the fancy trickery often lauded by drummers (and despised by everyone else in the band!), if it doesn't make people want to dance. Funnily enough, that's exactly the way Paul Clarvis, one of my current teachers and mentors works and that has made his name, too.’

When JJ moved up to Yorkshire, he started senior school and took lessons with the local peripatetic teacher. After a year he had passed his Grade 8 exam so he focussed mainly on classical percussion in his lessons. ‘I am still trying to decide whether the exam system is a help or hindrance’, he says.

Meanwhile, JJ was picking up gigs locally with everything from rock bands, the local amateur symphony orchestra, big bands and church groups. ‘If there are any young drummers out there who want to learn how to use their ears and play 'on the fly', he says, ‘get yourself down to the local community church! The nature of 'the spirit' often means that worship music can go anywhere at any given time.’

‘I had just turned twelve when I appeared on BBC1 with a band much older than myself', JJ recalls. ‘I have a really funny video of the interview in which my voice is the only one which hasn't broken!’ By sixteen, JJ was travelling to Leeds to study with the local 'don' of drums, Paul Smith. ‘He was great and gave me a good basic platform of information and listening material on jazz,’ says JJ. ‘Despite playing in a few big bands and 'jazzy musicals', I had never really been exposed to that music.’

JJ WheelerJJ spent the next couple of years balancing A-level studies with several gigs a week and four nights of private drum tuition. ‘It made me a lot of money for a teenager!’ he says. ‘As well as that, I tried my hand at writing some big band charts. For several years I had been writing pieces for pop groups, percussion ensembles and various other settings, but big band was something completely new. I remember sitting down and starting a chart with the idea that I simply wanted it to groove. It was nothing complicated, in fact the whole piece flipped between just two chords (1 and 4, of course!), but that piece ended up winning the composition prize for myself and the overall 'Big Band of the Year' award at the National Festival of Music for Youth, with the judging panel being Trevor Tomkins, Izzie Barrett and Jeremy Price - who turned out to be my Head of Jazz a short time later in Birmingham.’

This was not the only award to come JJ’s way. He had been the winner of Harrogate Young Musician of the Year (Percussion) award in 2004, 2005 and 2007, and winner of the Knaresborough & Boroughbridge Young Musician of the Year award in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, JJ started at Birmingham Conservatoire of Music where he studied until 2011. ‘I remember walking in and thinking I was already quite good.’ he recalls. ‘This is not uncommon for a new student at a Conservatoire, having had years of being told how good you are at music in high school, but very quickly you have that confidence and arrogance destroyed with the realisation of, not only how good your peers are, but more so just how far those guys in the years above you are. I think this comes as a shock to a lot of young musicians when they get to music institutions, and it often goes one of two ways; either you are totally deflated and lose a passion for your craft JJ Wheeleror it gives you a real kick up the arse, which I definitely needed at this point! Percy Purseglove still takes great delight in telling first year students at Birmingham about one of our first 'small band' sessions he was leading where mid-tune, the time wandered inexplicably. When he turned around, apparently I was playing away on the ride cymbal with my right hand whilst attempting to tie a shoe-lace with my left! Criminal.’

‘Anyway, from there it's a bit of a blur. I remember spending my first couple of years locked away in practice rooms for anything up to eleven hours straight … which is good, but bad as I inevitably developed some pains and problems with Repetitive Strain Injury which have taken a long time to resolve. By the third year, I had already been hustling and setting up mini-tours for a co-operative fusion quartet with some peers from my year group called the Labyrinth Quartet (click here for a video of the group). Those gigs were great fun and it's probably the band I most wish hadn't faded out. In fact I'm not sure why it did, we had a blast playing and even got through to auditions for the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award when I was nineteen, but I guess we all did the same thing at the same time, which was to start our own individual bands.’

It was at this point that JJ first launched the JJ Wheeler Quintet. ‘This is a project I've been immensely blessed with,’ he says, ‘and when I look back at some of things we have done, and some of the reactions we have had from audience and media alike I get a real sense of joy. Of course, most of it was just luck, but I think that rehearsing religiously for two or three hours a week for almost two years really helped form our sound and direction. Certainly when I started I was taking in charts that just didn't make sense! My harmonic language was appalling and I quickly learned that a little time making music as readable as possible has a massive impact on how fast the dots come off the page and can then become music. But over time, and with a lot of patience from the other six guys who've been involved in the group these last three years, I learned lot’.

JJ Wheeler Quintet

‘We were also very lucky to get the support very early on from Tony Dudley-Evans. In musicians' circles, Tony is spoken of in high regard, but I don't think he has received enough recognition for his services to the British jazz scene over the last however many decades. He is Director of both JazzLines (formerly Birmingham Jazz) and Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It was Tony and Jeremy Price who collaborated to get me the band showcase slot in the first ever 'Jazz and the Media' conference in 2009, which exposed us to jazz media aficionados from all over. I remember giving Alyn Shipton a CD that day. Next time I saw Alyn, he grabbed me to say he'd opened his jazz show on one of the major Asian airlines with one of my tunes and that I could expect to have it played every hour of every flight by that airline. Oh dear, I thought… as if the fear of flying wasn't enough already!’ Click here for the Quintet playing at Stratford Jazz in 2011.

The JJ Wheeler Quintet has completed two great tours around the UK, played festivals including Cheltenham and Swanage; been aired on radio stations world-wide and even featured at the BBC Proms series 2011. JJ is particularly proud that the band was featured on BBC Radio 3's ‘Jazz On 3’ (‘I love that show!’ he says). They played the 'late' slot at the Royal Albert Hall, which was also recorded and aired on Radio 3 (click here). Writing in Jazzwise magazine, Duncan Heining said: "It's all too rare to hear music as simultaneously fresh and mature as this from musicians of any age bracket. This record reminds me why I got into Jazz in the first place!"

‘At the same time, we had just finished recording our debut record, Unconventional, and were 'shopping' this around to various labels,’ JJ explains. ‘We had a couple of very generous offers JJ Wheeler Unconventionalfrom some well-known UK labels, but in the end I went with my gut instinct, something I rely on a lot, which was to release it ourselves. There were two reasons for this. The first was my desire to have my own label. I've always been quite into business and all the stresses and things that come with it (a lot of musicians are adverse to these, but I enjoy the cut'n'thrust of it all!), and I see being self-sufficient in terms of control over my own recorded output as a bit of a target. The other point was that, with the way everything is opening up for a DIY culture - online publishing, marketing, promotion, sales, the eBook revolution - coupled with the near extinction of record shops, I really felt that the only benefit the labels were offering was to do with their established fan base and perhaps a bit of push in terms of marketing clout - established record labels can afford to advertise their releases in JazzWise magazine and get the CD reviewed more easily simply because of the name of the label. Personally, I also find it detestable the prices some of record shops charge for jazz CDs! Just walk into HMV and try to buy a new jazz release for less than £15!.’

‘So I decided to go it alone and set up Mongrel records ('Mongrel' refers to my mixed North/South heritage and also a very messed-up musical appreciation!). After all, these things have to start somewhere, right? I believe Dave Stapleton's first release for the now revered Edition label was of his own band, as was the case with Mike Janisch's brilliant Whirlwind Records.’

‘I know Mongrel has some way to go before getting anywhere near these two, and at the moment it's just a title under which I'm releasing my own stuff, but one day (when I find some time andMongrel Records logo perhaps some money!) I hope to really give this a push and help other musicians release records. At the moment, I'd be really interested in a smaller-scale project helping music college grads get their music out there. There is so much amazing music coming out of all the major music institutions and yet we only really see one or two guys (or gals) breaking through each year.’

At the same time as setting up Mongrel Records, JJ met pianist Steve Tromans. ‘I'd seen Steve play a couple of times,’ says JJ. ‘I heard him play with John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet in 2010, but for some reason hadn't really taken notice. Then one day we were brought together by bassist Mike Green on a Sunday lunchtime residency at The Hyatt in Birmingham. Man, I fell in love with his playing from the first tune! He was really in touch with what I was into rhythmically and shared the same desire to take standards, which can sometimes become a bit stale, and give them a really good shake up; to explore where they could go and see if we could reach the unexpected points. I remember coming away from that little gig in a hotel lobby where we were meant to be 'background music' absolutely buzzing. We were fortunate enough to do it all again a week or two later … and I was convinced. Next day, I called up a sound engineer I knew, booked a studio, called Steve and said "Hey, let's play duo. I've never done that with a pianist before. In fact, let's do it under the microphones and see what happens!”

‘I was completely prepared for nothing to happen. I would have quite happily done the session and purely used it to assess my own playing, then confined it to the bin had it been a bit bland or awkward. But fortunately it came out really well. I don't really remember much about playing it, I Steve Troman JJ Wheeler Blue Roomthink it was one of those times musicians really look for where they can transport themselves fully into 'the moment', and that's what made it so special. So that's what I released first; Steve Tromans & JJ Wheeler, Blue Room (click here for sound clip of Ida Lupino) in December 2011. Since then we've had a few gigs and a little residency at a club in Newark, but I'll be pushing for a lot more gigs with this project as it's something I think is really special. There's always something new every moment we play and Steve is an unbelievably well versed guy. He was recently awarded a PhD from Middlesex University for his doctorate into performance practice, and has years of experience behind him. I think he's off to play with Ken Vandermark in Chicago some time in 2013 so it might be a while before we can play more gigs’. Click here to sample the tracks on Blue Room. Click here for a video of Steve and JJ playing at Dempsey's in Cardiff in January 2012.

JJ Wheeler graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire with a First Class honours degree and in 2010 he won the Conservatoire 'Outstanding Contribution to the Jazz Scene' Award. He says; ‘My time there was amazing and really formed me as a musician; I got to work with some amazing tutors (some resident and some visiting) including Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, Jeff Ballard, Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, George Colligan, Julian Siegel, Phil Robson, Clark Tracey, Andrew Bain, Jeff Williams, John Taylor, Jon Irabagon and Tony Levin, who I know is sorely missed by Jazz musicians, students and fans all around the country.’

From Birmingham, JJ went on to study for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music. ‘With a lot of financial help from various scholarships and friends, I've managed to get my way through my first year of that’, he says. ‘I have been studying with the likes of Martin France, Mike Janisch, Pete Churchill, Paul Clarvis and Ian Thomas, as well as performing in bands run by Iain Ballamy, Gareth Lockrane, Nick Smart and Martin Speake. I've also participated in workshop and concert collaborations with some killer players like Dave Douglas, Sam Yahel, Stan Tracey (in fact, I got to play in a trio with him in front of a packed out Duke's Hall!) and so many other great artists. And yet, the best thing about being at the Academy is your peers. All the way from the first years to the post-grads it's just a pure gold-mine of talent. Guys like Kit Downes, Josh Arcoleo, Trish Clowes, Gwilym Simcock, Jasper Hoiby, Ivo Neame…they've all graduated from there in the not-so-distant past and the current crop of students I really believe will become mainstays in the UK Jazz scene in the same way.’

Rhythmic Trialogue Face and DrumsJJ has also been working on various 'new' projects. In January 2012 he debuted a suite of improvisations/compositions for solo drum kit in partnership with contemporary dancer Noyale Colin (PhD) at the Siobhan Davies Studio in London under the name Rhythmic Trialogue. ‘We've since performed this at Middlesex University and hope to do a lot more work with this in the future,’ he says. Click here to watch a performance video. Click here for more information.

JJ has also set up a new Trio called Mittere, with Alex Roth and Joe Wright. ‘We were meant to make our debut at The Forge in Camden as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival', but as JJ has recently been unwell that has been postponed. He says: 'The trio is all about using as wide a range of sounds and techniques as possible to create music which I hope will be highly emotive. Joe and Alex use various electric devices alongside their guitar and sax, which makes things very exciting and sound-scapey.’

His illness has resulted in his MA studies being postponed until September 2013, but JJ says: ‘In the meanwhile I am writing a whole heap of music for a larger ensemble, which has great plans attached to it and may be unveiled as early as November 2013’. JJ has also has written a number of really useful transcriptions for drummers to study or use as they wish for free. The transcriptions are available on JJ's website (click here) where you can also read more.

November 2013 and JJ was as good as his word. He will be presenting his new suite of music at The Forge in Camden on 20th November with an impressive band that features many of the UK’s new and rising jazz musicians including Reuben Fowler (trumpet), Joe Wright (saxophones), JJ WheelerSam James (piano and Rhodes), Ralph Wyld (vibraphone), Sam Rapley (soprano sax, tenor sax and clarinet) and Paola Vera (vocals).

JJ says: ‘Cancer is a bitch. The torment, the pain, the unknowing extends beyond the sufferer, resonating through the lives of family, friends and on-lookers. It is the single biggest killer of our time and something more than three of us will be afflicted with. 890 people in the UK alone are diagnosed with cancer every day, but only one percent of these will be under the age of 24. But cancer also brings a new perspective; a drive to succeed, a willingness to fight and the acceptance of fate.’

'This suite, A Question Of Hope, is a unique and highly personal musical insight into my own recent journey with cancer. Having written the whole suite with specific musicians in mind, I am delighted that every single one of these is eager to be involved. The ensemble is comprised of some of my favourite musicians. Most are friends made through college at the Royal Academy, but others I met through the National Jazz Orchestra or other groups beyond academic life.’

Click here for a video of JJ giving background to the project. For more details, click here http://www.jjwheeler.co.uk


© JJ Wheeler and Ian Maund 2012 - 2015

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