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Bringing home the blues: TJ Wheeler to play concert at Island Center Hall
An excited young boy, recently recovered from a major surgery, sees the Beatles perform on television and begs for a guitar, determined to be a rock star.
It’s the beginning of a great story, right?
It is, especially if that boy grew up to be renowned bluesman and music education advocate TJ Wheeler.
“At the age of 10, I had a double hip operation,” Wheeler remembered. “It was only a 65 percent correction, I was cast up to my waist for an entire summer. I had to learn how to walk again, which I did. I wasn’t allowed to compete in sports and take PE classes, what every other regular kid could do. [Then], immediately after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, I asked for a guitar.”
He got what he wanted, and starting playing the guitar on his 12th birthday.
Years later, 50 of them to be exact, Wheeler is returning to his hometown of Bainbridge Island for a free anniversary homecoming concert event Saturday, April 12.
“It feels so good to be home,” he said earlier this week. “I originally left in 1972, this [past seven years] has been the longest period of time I’ve been away since then. I usually make annual trips home, sometimes more often.”
The road has kept him away as of late, and between his personal music projects and work with educational outreach programs like “Raising the Blues,” and his own program “Hope, Heroes and the Blues,” Wheeler’s calendar has been largely consumed.
Saturday’s show, however, is comparatively lighter fare.
“I’ll be 62 [on] April 16,” Wheeler laughed. “This is my jubilee concert. I started playing the guitar 50 years ago based on, and inspired by, the Beatles.”
Now, just as the Fab Four inspired him once upon a time, Wheeler is bringing music to tomorrow’s rock stars through programs like “Raising the Blues.”
“Shortly after I came back from Bainbridge the last time I started working with them,” he said of the nonprofit group. “Their mission is to bring music especially to kids who have a special need for it, maybe they’re in hospitals or maybe they’re somewhat at risk, or in an alternative school. [It’s] the uplifting message of the blues, and the cathartic renewing and healing power of the blues, which we find is good for kids in those types of situations.”
The uplifting power of the blues is a passionate subject for Wheeler, and though the group is active elsewhere in the country, the two concerts he performed in Seattle earlier this week are the first Raising the Blues events in Washington, Wheeler said Tuesday.
“So much of our diverse canon of musical genres in this country stem directly out of the blues,” he said. “The original pioneers, mostly African American men and women, can be looked at as heroes.”
Discussing musical education in this country today, Wheeler says that it’s critical for educators to take advantage of the storytelling abilities of the medium in other classes as well.
“I think it’s totally important,” he said of music education. “I think it’s totally under used and under appreciated. [Music is] underutilized for it’s ability to teach and bridge education for a lot of students to not only [the subject] of music, but to use music as a means of teaching history, social studies, language arts.”
It’s an irony Wheeler is well aware of, using what is traditionally thought of a seedy and darker musical genre to educate children. However, it’s an irony based on an image that he says isn’t true.
“The original mission [of his program] was to dispel the negative stereotypes that exist about the blues,” Wheeler said. “And blues musicians, and the people who listen to it, and really kind of take the mask off of it and reveal that [this] music is the music of hope.”
“You sing the blues not to get the blues, but to lose the blues,” Wheeler laughed.
Saturday’s solo show offers a respite from the otherwise hectic schedule of events that dominate the rest of his time at home, Wheeler said.
Beginning Monday, April 7, Wheeler will be the featured musician of the Experience Music Project’s Artist in Resonance “Blues Roots to Hendrix” educational program where he will instruct students from several area schools throughout the week.
Artist in Resonance invites selected professional musicians and gifted teaching artists to work in tandem with talented local youth and their stated mission is to promote a deeper understanding of music and performance, offer collaborative opportunities, and a unique insider’s view of the music industry.
Wheeler’s curriculum as the lead instructor will include the weeklong residencies in guitar instruction and ensemble music classes at Sedro-Woolley High School and Cascade Middle School, instruction on historical topics such as the influence of the blues and various blues artists as well as the evolving style of blues and jazz guitar and Jimi Hendrix’s own impact on generations of musicians.
“EMP is delighted to provide this opportunity to our local students,” said Bonnie Showers, EMP’s curator of education and interpretive services. “T.J. Wheeler’s artistic credentials, and proven ability to work closely with participating youth and classroom teachers, will impart experiential lessons about the unique roots and culture of blues music and expose new audiences to Jimi Hendrix’s place in American music history.”
The entire program culminates with concerts at each school and a final performance in EMP’s renowned Sky Church at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 12 featuring the early music of Hendrix performed by Wheeler, his hand-picked guest artists Ted Enderle and Tom Svornich, and the participating students.
The EMP concert is free and open to the public.
Regardless of the stage, be it the EMP’s Sky Church or the Bainbridge Island Center Hall, Wheeler is adamant that the star of the show is the blues, and the history.
“The blues was, in a way, like gravity,” Wheeler said.
“I gravitated to the blues because it was the realist music I ever heard. The blues is the feeling, the blues is truth,” he said. “I was basically pretty lost and the blues was the glue that held me together.”