Lawrence Wheatley; D.C. jazz pianist, composer emphasized the live setting

Lawrence Wheatley (left) performing in 1990 at One Step Down in Washington, D.C. Besides an appearance on a 1955 record, the only known recordings of his music are private concert tapes. Lawrence Wheatley (left) performing in 1990 at One Step Down in Washington, D.C. Besides an appearance on a 1955 record, the only known recordings of his music are private concert tapes. (Steve Jones/Washington Post)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / November 23, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Lawrence Wheatley, 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. He was 73.

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 force 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 has to be spontaneous. If not, you just have affectation."

Lawrence Prewitt Wheatley Jr. was born in the District. Showing early talent on piano, he dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music. 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, reviving and continuing sessions there 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.

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

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