Travis Wesley

Pianist, Recording Artist, Recording Engineer, Composer, Educator & Musicologist

Category Archives: "Musical Activities"

This Weekend’s Gigs & St. Louis’ Willie Akins

Posted on 4 October, 2015  in Musical Activities

Wow – I’m tuckered out after a weekend of gigs. So great to be playing again with such great players. Returned to EIU for a clinic and concert with my trio (Toby Curtright & Tom Marko on Friday, then last night with Dave Hoffman, former Ray Charles trumpeter. We captured lots of video, so I’ll be posting some things throughout the week. Most importantly, as I mentioned in my previous posts on FaceBook and Twitter this weekend, I learned of the passing of a great saxophonist whom I worked with in St. Louis for 2 years, Willie Akins. While I can’t get over his passing (as it seemed he was destined to be around forever), remembering the time I had with him as his regular pianist, along with bassist, Ben Wheeler and Steve “Lil’ Dynamite” Tatum, I was reminded why I chose this path. We played all over St. Louis, but one place in particular where all the “kats” knew to check him out was our regular gig at Spruill’s in St. Louis City not far from downtown. The who’s who of jazz were often present there every weekend. Even the international acts who were booked at Jazz at the Bistro would come and catch our first set and sometimes sit in with us. Willie loved hiring young artists and shaping them. I was fortunate enough to be one of them, in my mid 20s at the time. Many friends and family came to see/hear us either at Spruill’s or Jazz at the Bistro as well. After recently being sick for a while, and at times physically/mentally unable to play the piano and taking a break from gigging, that somehow all changed this past weekend. I felt Willie’s presence last night during the gig and was grinning ear to ear. Seeing my old friends and the outpouring of support while spending the day at Eastern Illinois University was yet another reminder. I think Willie was up there the whole time looking down on us. Don’t mean to be dark folks!, but he really was that important of an icon and should and will be mentioned soon in the jazz history books.  RIP Willie.  

Article From St. Louis Post Dispatch 


Image result for willie akins jazz


Image result for willie akins jazz


Image result for willie akins jazz


Joey Alexander, The Future of Jazz

Posted on 22 June, 2015  in Musical Activities, Writings

Nowadays, everyone is talking about this little guy, Joey Alexander an 11 year-old pianist from Bali. And why not? He’s playing at a level that academics like myself have strivd their whole lives to get to.  In fact, when I hear him or watch him, I seriously don’t know if I should practice or quit! Of course I’m too invested in this craft at my age to quit, but my goodness, Alexander seems to hold the future of jazz music in the palm of his hands. Check out Joey’s website here:



The “Hang” at Tom Becker’s Home

Posted on 2 July, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities



When traveling, I frequently brag about the jazz scene in Central Illinois that I have been a part of for some time now.  Many folks from Illinois think that you have to go to Chicago, St. Louis or elsewhere to be part of a healthy environment, conducive to artistic growth.  However, if you live in Central Illinois, and are willing to commute 30-60 miles in just about any direction, you may just discover that this region is blessed with world class jazz musicians, enthusiasts and venues
who are willing to showcase the American art form.


Case in point – Champaign-Urbana, IL is currently home to one of the best jazz schools (graduate and undergraduate) in the country.  Its faculty, led by saxophonist Chip McNeil consists of some of the world’s most accomplished instrumentalists and recording artists. Among them are Chip Stephens, Tito Carillo, Jim Pugh, Joel Spencer, Glenn Wilson, Larry Gray and of course, Chip McNeil.  The students come from all over the country to study with these geniuses. This creates an amazing environment in the C-U community, that unfortunately not too many people outside of the jazz circles are aware of.  In Bloomington-Normal, IL there is Tom Marko (director of jazz at Illinois State University), Vibraphonist, and percussionist, Kevin Hart, Bill Schlipf, the singer, pianist and flautist Carl Bopp, Michael Carlson as well as yours truly.  Bloomington-Normal is also the hometown of pianist, John Campbell, and the young saxophonist who is currently making a name for himself in NYC, Adam Larson. In Peoria, IL there is trumpeter and jazz studies professor, Todd Kelly, there’s Tim Brickner, Cory Flanigan, Larry Harms, Randy Emmert and John Dann.  In Galesburg, IL there is the great trumpeter, Dave Hoffman who played with Ray Charles for 15 years, as well as bassist, Andy Crawford who both teach at Knox College.  In Charleston, IL there is Sam Fagaly, Paul Johnston, J.B. Faires, and Jay Ferguson.  Not to mention a great little jazz studies program of which I was a part of from 2000-2005 (directed by Fagaly).  In Macomb, IL there is the pianist, Michael Stryker, bassist Matt Hughes and guitarist George Turner, all of whom teach at Western Illinois University.  In Springfield, IL there is Ahmed Benbayla (who also happens to be an artistic administrator for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra), Frank Parker, Johnny Owens, Mark McNight, Sam Crain as well as Matt Schwartz, who from 2010-2011 bravely funded and ran Remy’s Jazz Club, a block away from the Capitol Building in Springfield, IL. During that year, Matt employed virtually all of the musicians mentioned above. In fact, if it wasn’t for Matt, and Ahmed Benbayla, who later took over the booking side of things at Remy’s, I would have likely would have lost my house. For that year alone, Remy’s has provided a lifetime of memories for many of us.


Am I forgetting anyone?  You bet your ass I am.  In Champaign, IL there is the great (and I am not using that word lightly here) Donnie Heitler, the blind pianist living in Champaign who has inspired countless young jazz musicians and knows virtually every tune there is, and can play them in any key with a hundred harmonic variations.  There’s also the trumpeter, Jeff Helgesen (also in Champaign), who played in Ray Charles’ band for several years and has been part of the Central Illinois scene for well over a decade now.  I must also mention the bassist, Ben Taylor, who I’ve played with off and on, over the last sixteen years. Ben has been a dear friend and mentor in many ways to me. There are a countless number of other students and freelance musicians working regularly throughout the area and interestingly, some making a living just by playing music.  And, the scene is growing.


I’ll admit that as of late, I have taken this little gem of a jazz scene in Central Illinois for granted.  You know how it is sometimes – the grass is always greener . . .  However, this past Sunday (June 30th, 2013), served as a wake-up call.


A couple of weeks ago I met Tom Becker after a gig in Bloomington, IL.  As we introduced ourselves and talked a bit, he invited me over to his house (Bloomington, IL) on Sunday, June 30th to meet the great jazz pianist, Kenny Drew Jr., who would be staying with Tom for several days.  Having listened to several of Drew’s albums, but never having the chance to hear him live, I quickly accepted the invitation.  Tom and I communicated briefly via email prior to his gathering, and he graciously insisted that I did not need to bring anything.  Just myself.  At this point, I was unsure as to whom would be there as well as what kind of environment it would be.  After talking my lovely wife into making a batch of her amazing chocolate-chip cookies (and trust me, these are no ordinary cookies), I drove approximately 2 miles from my door to Tom’s, and was greeted by Kenny Drew Jr. himself.  He just opened the door, let me in, and introduced himself.  Very cool.


Prior to leaving for Tom’s house, I told my wife that I had no intention of playing in Kenny’s presence.  I had resolved to visit with folks and if I was lucky, hear Kenny play in person.  From the outside of the house, music could be heard.  Live music.  And after meeting Kenny, I turned the corner to see Tom playing his beautiful Baldwin grand piano, along with a tenor saxophonist and drummer, Bob McEntyre.  Against my best wishes, Tom immediately insisted that I play as he had to prepare the food.  And there I was, playing the piano with great musicians without having been inside Tom’s home for two minutes!  After playing a couple of tunes, I got up to eat.  Great, smoked pork tenderloin prepared by Tom himself, and a variety of other dishes prepared by his lovely wife Sue, and other visitors. As we ate, the house filled with jazz musicians from all over the region and
country.  The great pianist, John Campbell, bassist, Richard Drexler, saxophonist Chip McNeil, saxophonist Glenn Wilson, trumpeter, Dave Hoffman, bassist, Josh Houchin, guitarist, LaMonte Pearsons, saxophonist, Brad Wheeler, singer and pianist Chuck Senrick, jazz studies students from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, saxophonist and bassist, Jeff Anderson, a fixture from the St. Louis jazz scene whom I crossed paths with during my time with Willie Akins in 2004-2005 and many others.


As the day unfolded, I found myself at one of the greatest jazz jam sessions I’ve ever been a part of, right in the middle Tom Becker’s living room.  Audience members crowded the hallways, the stair case and just about anywhere they could get a glimpse of the “happenings.”  Some of the day’s highlights included Kenny on piano, a brief appearance by John Campbell (if you’re not familiar with him, you should be), the trumpet of Dave Hoffman, and a rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love” in two keys (E-flat and C) by Chip McNeil and Glen Wilson.  Vibraphonist, Kevin Hart showed up, set up, and remained part of the session throughout the afternoon, as did drummers Tom Marko and Bob McEntyre.  Josh Houchin and Richard Drexler shared the upright bass responsibilities, giving ample opportunity for a young jazz bass student (of Andy Crawford’s from Knox College) to “cut his musical teeth.”  A young pianist, Kyle Kunkler, from Knox College who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before, showed up and claimed his place at the piano as well. I’ll proudly mention that these young players more than held their own amongst the seasoned veterans.  Interestingly, there seemed to be more pianists in the house than any other instrumentalist.  A rarity at most sessions!


This was the type of session that is reminiscent of the early jazz days, or “hangs” at a musician’s house that you only read about nowadays.  And these weren’t just your average, run of the mill musicians.  These were world-class, jazz musicians, recording artists, composers and educators all under one roof in a Bloomington, Illinois household.  To hear Kenny Drew Jr. in person was nothing short of astounding.  I used to study his father’s music, also a legendary jazz pianist who recorded with Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and many others.  Kenny Drew Jr. is every bit as good as his father was.  In fact, I’d venture to say he’s better.  Bold statement?  Perhaps, but I’d like to think that those who were present on Sunday would agree.  Thanks Tom Becker, for opening your home to all of us.  For your hospitality and kindness.  This will be an occasion that I will share with musicians, students, family and friends for the rest of my life.


Kenny Drew Jr.

Kenny Drew Jr.


at Tom Becker's Home

Pianist, John Campbell


Chip McNeil w/Kenny Drew Jr.

Chip McNeil w/Kenny Drew Jr.


Great Time At Miller Park With Kevin Hart & The Vibe Tribe

Posted on 12 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

Had a great time last night playing with Kevin Hart, Jeff Helgesen, Tom Marko and Tim Bricker at Miller Park’s summer concert series, “Jazz Under The Stars.” Kevin has selected some great music for this current group.  It’s such a treat getting to play with these great musicians.  Please be sure to check out Kevin’s upcoming events HERE.


More On “Cycle By Three”

Posted on 11 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

By definition, this record falls somewhere between a song cycle and a concept album.  Each of the seven pieces that I contributed was composed or arranged specifically for this album.  Bassist, Toby Curtright also contributed two compositions, For Us This Is The End Of All Stories and But He Himself Was Broken.  Prelude and Postlude serve as bookends and behave much like a theme and its variation. These two pieces contain concepts that are explored by the trio throughout the album: the use of the bass as a melodic voice, creative use of the pedal point, through-composed material and counterpoint.  We attempted to evoke feeling and human emotion through our musical interpretation, and we feel there is a deep, contemplative tone to the set of compositions as a whole.


New Trio Album, “Cycle by Three”

Posted on 7 June, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

I’m excited to finally announce the official release of our new trio album, Cycle by Three.  Since June of 2012, Tom Marko, Toby Curtright and I have been hard at work recording several original compositions.  The mastering is now complete, with a release date of July, 2013.  The album is a cycle of songs I composed specifically for this album and also includes 2 compositions by bassist, Toby Curtright as well as one “standard,” Spring Is Here.  Tracks can be sampled from this website in the playlist.  The album will be available for purchase through all of the major online retailers such as iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon.  We’re very excited about this release and invite you all to check it out, and hopefully purchase a copy!



Album Cover by Dave Scott Design


Last Weekend’s Music

Posted on 28 May, 2013  in Around The Horn, Musical Activities

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play with Kevin Hart and the Vibe Tribe at the Manito Wine, Jazz and Balloon Festival in Manito, IL.  The group featured Tim Brickner on bass, Tom Marko on drums, Jeff Helgesen on trumpet, and of course Kevin on vibes.  While the weather was a bit cold and rainy, we managed to play some great music, and have a great time (thanks to the tent we were under!). I also had the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, all of whom were showcased at the event.  It was great seeing Dave Hoffman, Joe Metzka, Mike Nellas, Jason Brannon and Andy Crawford.  Everyone sounded great.  Thanks to the folks at the festival for having us.

On Sunday, I traveled to Knox College in Galesburg, IL to accompany and assist with Andy Crawford’s jazz bass studio for their final juries for the semester.  It was wonderful hearing these young students, most of whom were much improved from the last time I worked with them last November.

Click on the below links to check out last weekend’s featured artists at the Manito Wine and Jazz Festival.

Kevin Hart

Dave Hoffman

Jeff Helgesen

Joe Metzka