Although resident in England since 1952 and often thought to be an English musician, Kenny Wheeler was born in Canada in 1930. He began playing in his hometown of St. Catherines, encouraged by his father, a trombonist. His formal studies include composition with Rodney Bennett and William Russo.
His earliest influences included Buck Clayton and Roy Eldrige but, by the time he left for London, he was looking towards bebop, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro particularly.
After his arrival in London, Wheeler balanced commercial dance band work with gigs alongside modernists like Joe Harriott and Ronnie Scott, and in 1959 joined the Johnny Dankworth band in time for their breakthrough Newport Jazz Festival appearance. He consequently came to be one of the major solo voices in the Dankworth orchestra, and during the end of his stay recorded his first album as a leader Windmill Tilter (Fontana), which featured compositions for big band based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote stories.
In 1966, a chance encounter with drummer John Stevens at the Little Theatre Club in London set Wheeler on a new course. To the surprise of many musicians of his generation, the trumpeter became deeply involved in free music and joined both Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Tony Oxley group. Through saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey, Kenny was initiated into the Globe Unity Orchestra, the German-based big band led by the pianist Alexander von Schlippenback. His membership continues - he is prominently featured on the three albums the Globe Unity Orchestra has recorded for JAPO/ECM.