Rich Wheeler – Working Hard and Loving it
Updated: Oct 12
On September 11, 2020 Ensemble Ibérica crowded onto a stage, set in the underground garage of Pod Plex.
Jackie Myers’ open-air KC Drive-In Concerts are typically held under the stars, on the top floor of the Pod Plex parking garage. With a storm brewing that evening, the bowels of concrete served as an apt canvas for an eager crowd to enjoy a live concert of high-quality world music.
During the opening monologue, guitarist Beau Bledsoe said the setting, “was like being on the set of a strange Mad Max movie.” As the concert began, the turbulent summer air seemed to be calmed by the band’s enchanting musical presence.
Then veteran saxophonist Rich Wheeler took the stage. Over the next few tunes, Rich’s musical prowess mixed a magical underground anniversary tribute to 9/11. Ensemble Ibérica’s rich sound reverberating off the concrete created an experience that was sorely needed by those in attendance.
Shortly after the show, JAM’s Joe Dimino caught up with Rich to get a closer look at the brilliance the saxophonist brings to the stage. Rich was happy to share his insight about life, music, the 2020 pandemic and the saxophonist’s hopeful future.
How's everything in your world?
“Not too bad, right now. I'm surviving the pandemic. That's the name of the game, isn't it? It's been a trying six months, being a full-time musician. I've been doing this for 25 years, I think that this is the longest break that I’ve taken.
I hadn't played a gig for 4 and a half months! Before that, I’d been taking things for granted, as far as working, playing and all that.
Seeing you on stage, with the band playing underground was quite wonderful. How did it feel to find yourself back on stage?
It felt great. Playing at a such a high level with really good musicians. That's always the fun part. Ensemble Ibérica is a great group.
Tell me a bit about your childhood and how music became your life.
My family is from Arkansas. I grew up in Herber Springs. I was older before I had thoughts of becoming a jazz musician. Not really thinking of a career or anything like that. As a kid, I heard a lot of folk music.
My grandmother lived in Memphis. We went over there regularly, and I’d get to hear lots of blues and rhythm and blues in Memphis.
I started playing the saxophone when I was 12. In my early teens, my family moved to Kansas City. That’s when my interest in music really took off.
I was lucky to take private lessons with saxophonist, Doug Talley. He's is an excellent tenor player. In high school, the lessons from Doug sparked my interest. Then, when I went off to college, I became heavily involved in music.
I came back to Kansas City in 2000 and I went right to playing. Since then I have been playing professionally and freelancing with groups, such as Ensemble Ibérica.
I also teach saxophone privately. As I get older, I realize that I really enjoy teaching, and that music is my professional career.
I love being involved in the music scene here in Kansas City. Musicians here are trying to do it right.
What about listening to jazz? What musicians were you listening to, and who was a particular influence on you?
For me, the first one was saxophonist, Dexter Gordon. I had a copy of his album, Our Man in Paris. I literally wore it out. After that, I became interested in the music of saxophonist, Joe Henderson. He was probably the biggest influence on me.
When I got a little bit older and started to explore new things. I was way into Michael Brecker for a time, and then more of the modern saxophonists. For years, I listened to everything I could, and I still do.
What was the first live show that made you think jazz would be something you would like to do with your life?
It would have been, believe it or not, someone locally here in Kansas City. That was the first time that I was exposed to live jazz. I grew up in a real small town and there was no live music.
The first person I saw play music at a high level, would have been Doug Tally. I can remember going to see him play and really being super-enthralled about it.
I remember seeing the Pat Metheny Group at the Kansas City Jazz Festival in the early 90s. I was really interested in that, super-impressed, and the music was otherworldly good. I had gotten into playing a bit, and that concert sparked things in me. Since then, I've had a lot of experiences that have reinforced that same feeling about the music.
What do you like the best about Kansas City?
You have access to all kinds of different people here, doing different kinds of music. The main thing is their high level of musicianship. As a musician, that makes hearing them play a lot of fun.
I also feel the KC music community gets along better than those in other places. If you've got an idea and you want to make something happen, they will help you. Everybody here seems to pretty much get along. They’re supportive and they are interested in helping others.
It's a very livable city. Like most musicians, at first, I dreamed of going to New York. Then I started looking at what life would be like in New York City, and how expensive it would be. I decided that we have it really good here. You know, you can afford to have an apartment and can get by, living the way you want to live.
It's mostly the people you know. I have a lot of friends here, and a lot of really good musical connections. For me, that’s what it's all about. It's about having people you like and having super-capable musicians to do music with. We have that luxury. This scene is as healthy as anywhere else in the country. On any instrument you can name, you will see people who are absolutely excellent at what they do.
It's a diverse scene. Everything, from old style Kansas City swing to very modern music. Anything you want, it's all here if you know where to look for it.
What do you like the best about being a musician?
I like the freedom of being able to do whatever I want to with the music. I enjoy the fact that it's not a regular 9 to 5 job, working for someone else, doing whatever they want.
I enjoy working with the people that I get to work with, and I have a lot of respect for them. From an environmental standpoint, this makes things a whole lot more fun. There's not that many people, that have a work environment like that.
After COVID-19, when you return to the stage and the crowds come back, what do you hope to realize about this time away from live jazz?
The biggest takeaway for most people will be how lucky we are to have the chance to make music. That's what I will take away from it. Having several months to just sit on my hands and to not to do anything, I missed it for sure.
I think it's really easy to take things for granted. It's a privilege to get to play and to hear good music. I think people will realize now, because of the times, how lucky we are to have it.
There's always something going on in this town, music wise. For the last few months there hasn't been much going on, because it just hasn't been possible. But, I hope this time shines a light on us not to take it for granted.
My final question to you is this: Everyone has a perception of you; your family, your friends, your fans, but you're living your life. Who do you think you are?
Aw man, you saved the deep one for last, huh? (LOL) You know, on any given day I guess I'd probably give a different answer. I’m just somebody trying to do their best.