Jazz Pianist, Mentor Lawrence Wheatley

Lawrence Wheatley wouldn't allow his music to be recorded.
Lawrence Wheatley wouldn't allow his music to be recorded. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lawrence Wheatley, 73, an enigmatic Washington jazz pianist and composer who led jam sessions for more than 40 years but refused to allow his music to be recorded, died Oct. 19 of vascular disease at his home in the District.

Mr. Wheatley was a memorable figure, even among jazz musicians, and was known as much for his exotic wardrobe and voluminous vocabulary as for his talent at the piano. Over the years, Washington Post accounts described him as a "local music godfather" and "something of a legend in Washington's jazz community" who helped many younger musicians find their musical footing.

"He was the champion and main mentor in town for jam sessions," saxophonist Andrew White said this week. "I had my first jam session with him at the Bohemian Caverns in 1960. My national career started right here with Lawrence."

Mr. Wheatley appeared on a 1955 recording with saxophonist Gene Ammons but otherwise made no commercial recordings and seldom performed outside Washington. Many musicians believe he would have been better known had he moved to New York and pursued a recording career.

"He was uncompromising and not accommodating," said his son, saxophonist Lorenz Wheatley. "Everyone was dying to get him into a studio to record his stuff, but he was against that. He was more interested in getting people to come out and hear his live music."

Mr. Wheatley was in many ways Washington's answer to Thelonious Monk, the eccentric "High Priest of Bebop" who was a major creative forces in jazz in the mid-20th century. Mr. Wheatley, who dubbed himself the "Bard of Bebop," often performed in sunglasses, hats and unusual clothing ensembles.

"He was a beatnik back in the day," his son said. "Thelonious Monk was definitely one of his influences."

His music echoed Monk's modernist sensibility, combining lyrical beauty and surprising harmonic structures. As a pianist, he could play in any style and knew hundreds of tunes by memory.

"A lot of people have an instrument and a desire to play," he told The Post in 1993, "but jazz comes from the inside. It was has to be spontaneous. If not, you just have affectation."

Lawrence Prewitt Wheatley Jr. was born in the District on Dec. 28, 1934. Showing early talent on piano, he dropped out of Armstrong High School to pursue a career in music. Drummer Maurice Lyles, who has been a part of Washington's jazz scene since World War II, recalled first hearing Mr. Wheatley in the 1940s.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Wheatley was in an Army band in Germany, and by 1960 he was leading a jam session at Bohemian Caverns on U Street. He later appeared regularly at Columbia Station, at a piano store on 18th Street NW and, for 20 years, at One Step Down on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. He led a revived session at Columbia Station until last year.

"He was a mentor to quite a few of us," said trombonist Lincoln Ross, who later performed in the Count Basie Orchestra. "He was a tough taskmaster."

Mr. Wheatley, who often invited musicians to his home after the jam sessions, was known to play for hours on end.

"You almost couldn't pull him away from the piano," Ross said.

The only known recordings of his music are private tapes from concerts, which Lorenz Wheatley hopes to release on compact disc.

Mr. Wheatley wrote poetry, studied dictionaries and word origins and taught himself Latin, Arabic, Spanish and German. He was an excellent cook and chess player and could often be found at the chess tables in Dupont Circle.

In addition to his son, survivors include his son's mother, Lya Wagner, and a sister, Ann W. Forrest, all of Washington; and two granddaughters.

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