Art Wheeler, practicing his craft
“The king of gospel keyboards” and “the Lucky 7 philosopher”– these are just two of the titles that have been bestowed upon composer, keyboardist, and all-around musician extraordinaire Art Wheeler.
Wheeler tells a reporter he’s played in more than 1,000 homes in Charlottesville, and in over 100 local venues from the Rotunda to Fellini’s. He’s played piano for five United States presidents and Aretha Franklin, received invitations to tour with Diana Ross, taught music to Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepherd, John Kluge, and Tommy Lee Jones, even composed and performed original material in Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning feature film Blue Sky.
Now he adds a coveted local feather to his cap. Wheeler has just been tapped as the new music director at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, the largest African-American church in town, and an important piece of Charlottesville history.
Wheeler has performed gospel music in African-American churches from Charlottesville to Los Angeles, and lectured on the history of blues and jazz piano at the University of Virginia.
"He is truly a genius," says Mark Graham. "He is the most versatile musician I have ever known."
The manager/engineer of The Sound, a local studio with national chops, Graham says that starting in January, The Sound will begin offering the Art Wheeler College of Music.
"Five minutes with that dude is all you need to see how much information just pours out of him," says Graham.
A Charlottesville resident since 1971, Wheeler explains why he never left for bigger entertainment centers like Los Angeles or New York.
“I love all of my friends, my acquaintances, and passersby in Charlottesville,” says Wheeler. "I don't like the anonymity of the big city." And there's something else: "If my car breaks down here, ten people will pull over and offer to help."
Wheeler’s most recent major composition is a score based on Aesop's Fables and featuring librettos by Paul Reisler and Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner Tom Paxton. The work met with critical acclaim when it debuted two years ago at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center, bringing to town Jamie Bernstein, daughter of longtime conductor of the New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein, and attracting the attention of former Philharmonic maestro Lorin Maazel. Wheeler tells a reporter that Steven Spielberg is considering adapting the composition into an animated film.
Wheeler also plans to give back to the Charlottesville community by using the Aesop’s Fables score as the launchpad for a production entitled “It’s Just Us, It’s Justice,” a collaborative show in which he hopes to enlist Dave Matthews to benefit Operation Smile, a charity that helps treat facial deformities in children world wide. The show would feature music from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and will be hosted at the Paramount.
Wheeler’s impact will not go undocumented. Filmmaker Megan Eckman (The Parking Lot Movie) indicates that she's in the early stages of producing a new documentary that will feature Wheeler prominently.
Wheeler says he loves getting feedback from community members. “Please stop me on the street and say hello.”