Nedra Wheeler anchors any ensemble in which she plays with a rhythmic authority blended with a melodic playfulness. Her big bass sound drives a variety of bands, including Nate Morgan's hard swinging trio, Tracey Chapman's latest Roxy performance, the Women's Jazz Ensemble, and her own sextet. The LA native has taken her art to Europe and New York, but her home town audiences reap the greatest rewards for her years of training and broad playing experience. Wheeler's protean schedule finds her playing somewhere in SoCal almost every week, sometimes playing a gig, zipping her bass case shut to head to her second or third engagement in a day. These days her hyper performance schedule competes with a burgeoning career as an educator, teaching in community colleges, and participating in mentorship programs.
My dad's a singer, she said, "so I was inspired being around him. He was a singer/songwriter, had his own band. Both my parents liked different types of music so that totally influenced me. I learned how to play bass at church, I later found out my dad had played bass in church. So I grew up around the music, and after going to CalArts everything just came together.
I took up the string bass in high school. Jr high school was really the critical time when I got into strings. My jr high school teacher definitely encouraged my playing."
Her early promise as a musician landed her a gig with jazz legend Freddie Redd at age 16. She joined him on a live tv date. "I don't even remember where I met him, she recalled, "but he had a gig at a public access studio, somewhere out in East LA. I used to go to the jam sessions when I went to El Camino College. Major artists after major events would come and hang out till 2 or 3 in the morning. There was a club on Adams, the Blue Jay. An open mic, late. I knew tunes from hearing them, but didn't know the titles. You put your name on the list, and they call your name. During that time I met all kinds of people. I used to jam at Marla's Memory Lane. I met Ndugu, Munyungo, Rick Zunigar, Tony Dumas.
Although she had her eye on a career in education, a teacher familiar with her musical interests encouraged her to check into CalArts. "By the time I went to El Camino I knew I wanted to play jazz, I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. An audition for Cecil Taylor alumni bass virtuoso Buell Neidlinger clinched the deal. Her first year attending had her steeped in New Music, but she laid out the next year to contemplate her direction. "They didn't have a jazz program at the time. There was no such thing as jazz education. We were just on the wave of that happening in the early '80's. Myself and about six other people were really the first graduates of the jazz program. The dean that was there called and said, Nedra, if we had a jazz program do you think you'd want to come to school here? I said, ok. Next thing you know, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Pat Metheny, and Dewey Redman came and did a concert.
I didn't know who Charlie Haden was, but I remember hearing him with Alice Coltrane on the radio. Sam Fields, this guy was playing some of the most interesting music. I remember him playing this album by Alice Coltrane with this bass that was so deep, and so resounding, but I didn't know it was Charlie Haden. "Journey to Satchitananda, that moved me in a way I couldn't even put to words. The bass and what she was doing on her harp, I didn't know what I was listening to, but it was just so awesome. Once I hear something it just becomes a part of my existence, something like that. I just listened to the music, I didn't pay attention to who the makers were. I really had no idea who my teacher was. I took a jazz improvisation class with him and one of the cool things he would do was bring compositions, new compositions, hot off the press, by Ornette Coleman. He come to school and go, 'Hey, I just got back from New York and here's some new stuff Ornette wrote.' So, we'd play stuff that wasn't even out yet. I think it was a really good place for me.
With her playing in local jam sessions and gigging with different bands, word traveled fast about the gifted bassist. One day another jazz legend surprised her by searching her out. "At CalArts Eddie Harris walked into my class, in the middle of my class, and said, 'I'm Eddie Harris, composer of 'Freedom Jazz Dance,' is Nedra here?' So, we talked, and he said, 'That's great, I've heard about, you sound good, you finish school.' And I was like, wow, yeah, okay. I'd heard of him, of course, but that was the first time I met him. My teacher and the class are all looking at me like, what? I did get a chance to play with him in Ojai at Wheeler Hot springs with Tootie Heath, and Milcho Leviev, and Les McCann.
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.