There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Merchant, minstrel and musician.
A bizarre bazaar, where throngs
Gather to bargain, barter and buy
Tapestries of time, woven on looms of life.
Lawrence P. Wheatley
It’s Saturday, 3:35 p.m., just five minutes after the start of One Step Down’s weekend jazz workshop, and the Bald Guy is already at the bar. He’s always at the bar, week after week. A George “the Animal” Steel look-alike (minus the green tongue), he takes his shot and chases it with a beer, as his eyes scan the club. The workshop’s impresario, Lawrence Wheatley, still hasn’t shown. The pickup band has already started, and the crowd of four seems indifferent when the trio finishes its series of songs. His drink routine complete, the Bald Guy stands up and walks directly to the door and out of the club. It’s another 15 minutes before Wheatley shows, but when he arrives there is no doubt who he is: Wheatley looks eerily like Thelonious Sphere Monk.
The jam’s ringleader greets a semiregular patron and the substitute piano man each with a slight nod. He scopes the room and we lock eyes, though actually I can’t see Wheatley’s lamps through his ever-present sunglasses. “Christopher!” he says and walks over, his semilegendary reputation as a Monklike character arriving just before his extended hand. He sits down across from me on one of One Step’s warped wood pews, digs around in his briefcase, and produces a small pile of papers, mostly poetry and a few bons mots. “I sit here alone/Counting answers to questions/Nobody asked me,” reads “Haiku.” I think the mystery man is ready to talk.
Like Monk, who through press-machine machinations was known as the “High Priest of Bebop,” Wheatley has a title, although self-bestowed, as the “Bard of Bebop.” Wheatley is also well known among his peers, if little heard by the public, much like Monk in his early days. And like the “High Priest,” the “Bard” is a composer of some note. But whereas Monk’s compositions became one of the premier musical languages during his lifetime, Wheatley’s tunes seem destined to be a forgotten regional dialect: He refuses to record them. “But these are records! That’s documentation!” he exclaims, grabbing at his files.
“I’ve been approached [to record] before, and there are people who say, ‘When and if you’re ready, we have funding for you,’” Wheatley reveals, but he’s never felt the time or group was right. “I’ve never gotten into it in terms of saying, ‘This is exactly what I meant.’ It does take craftsmanship to realize a work of art. There’s no way, to me, around that,” he says. “The point being…that if I have to deal with musicians who are simply mercenaries, you know, I already have meaning and purpose. If it’s just to make a buck, there are [other] ways to do that.”
Despite having played with Gene Ammons and Buck Hill, Wheatley has always fallen back on the jam session. He has produced weekend workshops at One Step since 1980 and has led jam sessions in numerous places, including Heidelberg, Germany, in the early ’50s, when he was with the 7th Army special services, and back home at the long-closed Columbia Station and Jazzland clubs. He also scored a suite for modern dance in 1970 for Ethel Butler and played solo brunches in the ’70s at Columbia Station. “I [also] played [brunches at] a place called the 1732 House, which was a gay bar,” Wheatley recalls, claiming he eventually had to quit that joint because “management said I was attracting too many couples and straight females. I used to joke about that, saying I worked at a gay bar but I had to quit because they were always trying to swipe my scarf.”
In this era of huge cover charges and ridiculous drink minimums, Wheatley’s free performances are the best jazz bargain in town. “I’m heavily committed to live music, to live audiences, and it’s going away from that,” he admits. “The art of acoustic projection is in danger of becoming lost, because if you don’t have 25 sound men, someone in the band wants to know why. But that’s not how [the music] was developed.”
Wheatley has hardly missed any weekends in 17 years, except for one extended stretch. “In late ’92 I have a gap in which I’m told I was in the hospital because I had an aneurysm. I have no memory of checking into the hospital or checking out. I was told I was responsive and coherent, but I don’t remember any of that experience,” he explains.
While Wheatley’s One Step gig isn’t done gratis, it’s not a huge moneymaker either. I had assumed he played, or worked, elsewhere during the week, but no. “[I] compose, score, do chores and errands,” he says.
And he’s distrustful of grants. “I used to reply, sometimes with a smile, ‘He who takes the king’s gold must sing the king’s song,’” he says. “I know a few things that solve human problems, or obviate them, like good faith, goodwill, good works. So I try not to become distracted and try to avoid dissipation of [my] impact by the diversion of assets.”
After we run through his writings, Wheatley puts away his attaché case, which is heavy with sheet music, and nestles behind the piano. After a Billie Holiday number, Wheatley announces “Another Day to Rejoice” as his latest composition. His regular workshop band is Australian bassist Neil Lewis, whom Wheatley introduces as “the Walking Wonder From Down Under,” and drummer Gus Johnson.
“This jam session is kind of an institution. It has had a lot of players come through it who no longer live in town and who have gone on to make big names [for themselves],” says Lewis. It is in fact more workshop than jam, because Wheatley “writes a lot of his own stuff, so he tends to bring in a lot of material,” Lewis explains. “Lawrence will often pull out his own tunes when people come up, which they’re expected to play. That’s the workshop part.”
Another walking wonder from down under, Ben O’Loghlin, concurs: “It’s interesting being in a jam session where someone will just start playing a tune rather than asking what you want to play.”
“Lawrence has quite a memory for tunes not standardly played by jazz musicians. He’ll just start playing them, and you have to just hear the changes as you go,” Lewis says.
Wheatley says he tries “to keep [my repertoire] more or less like if you didn’t go there you wouldn’t hear that.” One story he tells, possibly a parable, is of a time he was auditioning a sideman. Wheatley prepared to play, and the hopeful musician innocently asked what the chord changes were. Wheatley says right there the guy failed the audition.
After “Another Day to Rejoice,” Wheatley back-announces the tune with a shout, and Wayne Adell, the pianist who filled in earlier, says, “That’s a lovely tune.” Wheatley hands him the transcription. Shaking his head at the hieroglyphic notation, Adell says, “You have to teach me to read.”
“No. You have to study,” Wheatley replies.
It’s 4:45 p.m., and Adell, Lewis, and Johnson have resumed playing, as Wheatley sits at the bar, sipping coffee from a thick diner mug and smoking a cigarette in a short holder. Adell is in the middle of a solo when Johnson lets out a loud, long yawn. Adell sheepishly looks up and says, “Sorry about that….Here we go!” and picks up the tempo.
Wheatley kills his smoke and wanders over to ask Lewis, “How long have you guys been on?”
“3:30,” he says.
“Well, it’s time for ‘Jive at Five’!” he exclaims, walking around the piano and crowding onto the bench with Adell. On the jaunty tune, Wheatley plays clean, calm, and sprightly lines, which are totally unlike Monk’s angular riffs. Adell smiles as he waits for his turn, and even Johnson perks up, delivering his sassiest solo of the day. The sixtysomething Wheatley’s playing is smooth and controlled, in sharp contrast to the thirtysomething Adell’s enthusiastic pounding. After the tune, the workshop pauses for a break, and Adell asks Wheatley to show him “Another Day to Rejoice” again. “That’s not even a Xerox,” Wheatley declares.
The near-empty room silently welcomes the Bald Guy back to the fold. The dome takes his shot, his beer, and his leave, passing everyone without a word.
The Young Heart is a Wanderer
Seeking something to say, and
Someone to whom to say it.
Lawrence P. Wheatley
It’s just after 6 p.m. now. Before Wheatley takes the stage again, the semiregular customer approaches the pianist.
“You’ll play ‘Janine’ in the second set, right?” the man asks.
“All right,” Wheatley laughs.
“But wait until Brenda comes to play it, OK?”
“I hear ya.”
Sometimes I feel like “going fishing,”
Like life is just a can of worms.
A lonely musician, sitting here wishin’
You’d listen, but on my own terms.
Lawrence P. Wheatley
It’s 7:30 now. After finishing his vibrant set (including ‘Janine’), welcoming both a saxophonist (good) and a singer (not so good) to his stage, Wheatley gathers the transcriptions he handed out to the players. We decide to retire to One Step’s outdoor patio.
Wheatley is a widower whose wife died in the ’60s. He has one son from an even earlier relationship. His father was a cook; his mother worked in the government. He went to Armstrong High School, dropped out, and instead studied for a GED (“I don’t want too much school and not enough education”). This is all the background I can get. Some of my other questions get exquisitely elliptical answers, and the personal questions don’t go down too smooth with Wheatley. “Now we’re getting into one of those things where we’re here for something, but now we’re looking for something else. I’m looking for some publicity, but I also respect [my family’s] privacy,” he warmly warns.
Wheatley’s reputation as a reticent recluse is becoming believable, but the notion doesn’t bother him. “People will form opinions, but…consider that if we’re going to converse we need a community of terms and we have to each listen and comprehend. And if I’m talking to someone and I notice that they don’t really comprehend what I’m saying, then to me it seems that I subscribe to another linguistic convention, because they don’t seem like they know what they’re saying themselves. That’s a kind of loneliness that’s worse than being alone,” Wheatley states.
“I’m not necessarily trying to critique people,” he clarifies. “My approach to relating is that I tend to be independent, because he who is independent can best afford freedom for himself and others. Everything takes time, but only some things are worthwhile.”
Wheatley, in fact, has no regrets about not being very well known. “One of the definitions of ego is self-awareness. One of the things everybody else in the world has in common with me is that they are everybody else. None of them is me. I’ve known that for a moment or three.”
I ask him what he’s doing tonight, now that his gig is done. He says he’s going “uptown,” and I leave it at that. As we bid one another good night, the Bald Guy walks past us, stealing a look and cruising into the bar for another combo of drinks. They’ll both be back tomorrow.CP