Nedra Wheeler: Bass is the Place
After earning her MFA at CalArts, she hit the road: "I was invited by Karen Briggs on a trip to Bulgaria. Tootie Heath, Karen Briggs, and Milcho Leviev. Milcho was invited back to Bulgaria. Thousands of people at the concerts, and they sure loved Milcho. They told us, 'Milcho's like Elivs, so don't be surprised if people follow you.' People met us at the airport with flowers, camera crews, film crews. After that I did a world tour with the Harper Brothers, met them in New York.
While in Europe she crossed paths with the great Dorothy Donnegan. "She was outstanding to be around, she said. "That lady was brilliant, just brilliant. Very truthful. She was no joke. She told me about musicians in her neighborhood would always tell people to come and hear her play, and one time they told Art Tatum about her and he came to hear her play. To have Art Tatum come to your house!
Back in LA, she spent time playing various shows and sessions at the World Stage. Like many young musicians she connected with Horace Tapscott. "He played one of my compositions, he ate it alive. James Newton played flute. Rameses has that on film. Another LA piano great approached her about joining his trio, beginning her association with Nate Morgan. "I didn't realize he was on the Chaka Khan records, he's like the clavichord dude. He's on "Keep on Truckin', Eddie Kendricks, the classic solo, that's Nate. In the nineties they stated playing a lot of that music from the seventies, for Burger King or whatever, and it was like, Nate, I'm hearing you everywhere. I feel really honored to play with him.
With her performance career in full bloom, Wheeler also cultivated her teaching career and spends more and more time with education. "I always wanted to teach in a community college, I like community college. I've taught all levels: private school, elementary, high school. I was invited by the LA Cultural Affairs department to work with the Jazz Mentorship Program with Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancellor, Bobby Rodriguez, on and off for 15 years. We work with students of all ages, most recently we worked at Watts Towers. We do a performance and the students get a chance to work with the musicians. Teaching at Santa Monica College, and her alma mater El Camino has led to an ambitious project that will result in a Gospel music summit between local choirs including Calvary Baptist Church Youth Choir, Crenshaw Elite Gospel Choir, Cal State University Jubilee Chorale, and two gospel choirs from Japan. As part of the cultural exchange the Japanese students will present a program of traditional song and dance. Wheeler's Music Appreciation students will also be in attendance.
All in a day's work. Her current favorite project is her sextet. "I write a lot, but I don't have a lot of time to finesse it. With the new group I've been envisioning an acoustic ensemble. At first I was trying to do it without the piano, trying to make room for the string bass. Piano has a way of filling in all the harmonies, and I was trying to challenge myself. I get a lot of different ideas for a lot of different things, it depends on the players.
I am so blessed. I am so grateful. These musical moments are just so rich, you can't measure it. What beautiful moments, and I treasure every opportunity to play, I'm so happy to be doing it, to be a part of it, here in this time period.