TJ Wheeler oozes the Blues and it shows in a lifetime of commitment to “America’s Original Art Form.” TJ is an original, but his music is steeped in timeless traditions of Blues & Jazz. Born in Bremerton, Washington (1952), as a teenager he saw Buddy Guy, and Son House, instantly became a bona fide Blues Guy and began his lifetime of playing guitar and teaching about the Blues. TJ’s first teaching experience happened at the age of 19 at a school in Poulsbo, Washington (1971) where he did a concert followed by a workshop about the roots of blues music.
The road was and is TJ’s musical university where he honed his craft by seeking out Blues & Jazz greats along the way, not only to learn their musical styles but to learn about the reality of the Blues. “The blues were originally called the Reals,” according to Wheeler. TJ would attend Blues festivals all over the continent and make a point of introducing himself to many of the Blues greats, carry their guitars, get some coffee, and anything else he could do to endear himself to them. Booker White and Furry Lewis saw TJ’s passion, not only for their music, but for everything associated with how the music came to be. They became his teachers and asked him to teach others what they had taught him.
Back home in Washington, TJ met a blues harmonica player from Boston named Pat “Hat Rack” Gallagher. They formed a duo and played around Seattle. In the fall of 1974, Gallagher informed TJ that he was moving back to New England and asked TJ to join him. TJ moved to Maine and formed a band with Gallagher called The Ragtime Millionaires. While in Maine, TJ rekindled his Blues education efforts doing concerts and workshops in local colleges. The Ragtime Millionaires began playing in New Hampshire at the Stone Church, the Kearsarge House and other clubs on the Seacoast. Subsequently, TJ moved to Portsmouth, NH in 1980 where he’s spent most of his life.
TJ’s move to New Hampshire opened up more opportunities to expand his teaching. Although still playing in clubs, in 1988, TJ applied for and was accepted to the “Artist in Education” program of the New Hampshire Council for the Arts. This validation of his education program opened the door to schools throughout the state from preschools to high schools. TJ began doing many more school concerts and workshops which even included a culinary aspect where TJ would have students cooking up meals associated with genre. Fried catfish, beans and rice, anyone?
For over 40 years, TJ has been a leading proponent of Blues, Jazz & overall roots music in school programs, not just in New Hampshire and Maine, but all over America and much of the world. His award-winning Hope, Heroes & the Blues integrated arts program has reached roughly 500,000 students across five continents. In 1993, TJ and his program received the prestigious (national) W.C. Handy (The Father of the Blues) Keeping the Blues Alive in Education award from the International Blues Foundation in Memphis.
“His guitar virtuosity and forceful vocals turned my classroom into an educational juke joint.” –Art Tipaldi, educator, Blues Review critic and past member of the International Blues Foundation Board of Directors.
He introduced his Blues in the Schools program to Ottawa, England, Jackson, (Mississippi), Nashville, the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle, Brazil, Cuba, and Ghana and many other school districts in the Americas, Europe and Africa. All these years later, TJ is still spreading the message that you sing the Blues to lose the Blues.
“I do not believe that anyone has invested the time and dedication to keeping the Blues alive that he has” –Bob Vorel, founder & original publisher of Blues Revue Magazine
“He engages young people in an understanding of history through the music. That need for understanding our history in dealing with issues such as racism is so important.” –Greg Hodgesen, Senior Associate Priest at Grace Episcopal Church, Charleston S.C.
“A tribute to all Black Americans. He revealed and exemplified consequential knowledge of our cultural heritage…a profound impact on our students. The children were exceptionally proud upon discovering how African Americans have influenced the different types of music. On behalf of all Black Americans, I say thank you.” — La Gretta Walker Counselor, Winchester Elementary, Memphis TN.
He’s been featured as a performer and master clinician for such top Blues & Jazz festivals as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, The Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival in Fredericton (New Brunswick), the Ottawa Blues Festival, and Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
In 1985, along with Valerie Cunningham, TJ co-founded the nonprofit Blues Bank Collective. The organization’s primary efforts were put into running two festivals each year for 20 years; the Seacoast Black Heritage Festival and the Portsmouth Blues Festival. From 1986 to 2006, TJ was the Director of the Portsmouth (NH) Blues Festival. Year after year, at this family-friendly event, TJ recruited and introduced some of the icons of blues and jazz like Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, Mose Allison, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, Irma Thomas, Leroy Jones, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Zora Young, the Music Makers Foundation Revue & dozens of others to the attendees of the NH festival.
It was Wheeler who first proposed that the City of Portsmouth adopt a sister city in Africa, and later, was able to personally deliver greetings from New Hampshire upon his visit to Accra, its sister city in Ghana.
TJ was a perennially outspoken advocate for the New Hampshire Legislature’s adoption of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday until it was finally passed in 2000.
Among many awards that TJ has received include, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation in 2008.
Over the decades TJ hass worked, studied and performed with such notables as Mighty Sam McClain, Katie Webster, Nappy Brown, Tiny Grimes, Benny Waters, Honey Boy Edwards and Joe Houston.
During Covid pandemic times, TJ has transformed his in person programs into live, online programs called Virtually the Blues. They’ve been conducted for audiences from across the USA and Canada, to Nepal, India, and Hong Kong. Like the truth, you just can’t keep the Blues, or this Blues Man down!
(by Fred Bramante – February 2022)