Woman Bassist Walks in World of Men

Bill Kohlhaase is a regular contributor to Calendar

Chance encounters and serendipitous meetings have played a large role in the budding musical career of bassist Nedra Wheeler.

First there was the scene in Paris that might have been pulled from "Round Midnight," Bertrand Tavernier's celluloid homage to jazz. Wheeler, on a three-month visit in 1990 after a tour of Bulgaria with pianist Milcho Leviev, climbs out of a basement club late one night and passes two men heading the other direction. Suddenly, she's hit by a wave of recognition. As she turns back, they turn as well. It's pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts from Branford Marsalis' band, both of whom she's met briefly back home in Los Angeles.

They go back inside the club, where the French patrons recognize Kirkland and Watts and urge them to the bandstand. Wheeler takes over on upright bass, and the three Americans hit on a fleet-tempo version of John Coltrane's "Impressions." "Something was just right that night," Wheeler remembers. "Jeff was roaring on the drums, the crowd was standing on their chairs and screaming. The joint was on fire."

Wheeler too must have been hot. Watts and Kirkland were so impressed with the bass-toting woman that they went on to forge a strong friendship based on their musical ties. Back in L.A., Kirkland enlists Wheeler to play in his combo, a commitment that included a recently concluded six-month stand at the Bel-Age Hotel.

Being alert to the spontaneously generated possibilities in each moment, whether she's on stage improvising or just following the course of her life, has served the bassist well. "It's like that scene in the movie 'Dingo' (the 1990 Australian film featuring Miles Davis as a Paris-based jazz trumpeter) when the young boy see Miles get off that plane in the outback and play right there on the runway, then ends up following Miles to Paris," explains Wheeler, who is also an avid film buff. "It changes his whole life. Some eye contact is made, something happens and you follow it through--or you don't. Then you have a lifetime wondering what might have happened."

Wheeler is the kind of person that pursues such moments. When Kirkland and Watts suggested she should leave Paris to hang out at the North Sea jazz festival in the Netherlands, she packed in such a hurry she forgot her coat. But it was there she met Winard and Philip Harper, two young musicians with a major label record deal who were in line to inherit the young lions mantle from the thirtysomething Marsalis brothers. The Harpers later hired Wheeler for a four-month world tour, as well as an appearance on the 1991 Harper Brothers recording "Artistry" with saxophonist Javon Jackson.

It's surprising to some that Wheeler, a rare commodity in the men's club of bass players, has been accepted so easily by her colleagues. But not to her. "I've been too involved in music to think about the gender thing," she says. "No one's ever made a big deal about it. People that I've studied or worked with--Kenny Burrell, Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton--they've always encouraged my development. No one's ever told me that women shouldn't play the bass."

Pianist John Wood, who frequently enlists Wheeler to play with his trios, thinks the reason Wheeler is in such demand is due more to her musical skills than the novelty of being a woman upright player. "She's a true bass player in the style of Paul Chambers and Leroy Vinnegar," Wood says. "She has a big sound and she really knows how to lay it down. She's right out of the traditional mold of the great walking bass players."

But Wheeler's not strictly a jazz player. She's been called in to record behind Bob Dylan and spent much of 1991 touring with Pat Benatar. "I like to check out everything," she says. Born in Los Angeles, Wheeler played guitar, piano and organ before taking up the bass in junior high school. Her skills were honed playing upright in the musical ensemble of L.A.'s Independent Missionary Baptist Church.

She spent a good portion of the mid-'80s doing session work, including a three-year stint playing on-camera for the television series "Fame." But it was while studying under master Ghanaian percussionists Kobla and Alfred Ladzekpo at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia that the boundaries of her musical knowledge began to expand. "They had us dancing, playing drums in the ensemble and singing in African languages," she marvels. "Anything to help us get inside the music. It had a very big influence on me."

These influences are apparent on her self-produced recording, "Gifts." At times, the recording is reminiscent of the wide-ranging ethnic influences of saxophonist Pharaoh Saunders' recordings of the late '60s and early '70s.

Currently, Wheeler continues to get calls for studio dates--she's been heard recently on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's "Malcolm X"--as well as making frequent appearances on the local jazz scene, both as leader and side musician.

"This is a time to grow," she says. "I'm taking time to write for the band and study other musical styles, especially East Asian music. I'd like to take the band on a world tour and make a documentary of our travels, a kind of cultural exchange program that's based on the music." She could call it "The World According to Nedra."

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