CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — On Aug. 17, the island will be the scene of an unusual jazz concert. Some of the tunes written by the late Charles William (Bill) Whetham, a beloved former resident, will be played for his island friends by a group of five professional musicians to honor his memory.
It will be the first time many of the tunes will be played or heard by an audience.
“We had played some of his tunes together,” said Herb Maine, a jazz bassist and former next-door-neighbor to Whetham on Chebeague. “But I knew there was a body of music he’d written and that I hadn’t heard it all.”
Whetham and his wife, Dianne, lived on Chebeague for five years, then moved to Brunswick. However, he continued to commute to the island all summer, every summer, to do his landscaping work. He was killed in a boating accident last September when he was returning home from the island in his skiff. He was 63.
Maine learned quickly that Whetham was a jazz lover and a saxophone player, and they began playing together.
“He had a sketchbook. He played mostly by ear, but he was teaching himself to read music,” said Maine. When he died, the family brought the sketchbook to Maine, who conceived of the concert idea.
Whetham had fallen in love with jazz at an early age and at age 16 acquired his first sax for $1, an instrument that was held together by Band Aids and rubber bands. At 16-and-a-half years old, he met Dianne at the Needham, Mass., high school they both attended.
“He gave me a copy of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’ album,” the album that made him fall in love with jazz, she said. Bill and Dianne married in 1969 and spent a lot of their early days going to legendary jazz clubs around Boston and events such as the Newport Jazz Festival.
“He always played piano and sax,” said Dianne. His dad, a professional pianist, played piano for Jackie Gleason and was also a choir director and church organist. “More than anything, Bill was always a composer. He was always listening, playing, humming—music was always in his head. He would come from work and sit at the piano and work on one of his tunes to get it right, sometimes he would work on one for years.”
The Whethams were planning a move back to Chebeague when Bill was killed. Island residents said the couple never really stopped being part of the community anyway, because Bill continued working there and their grown son and daughter—Henry (Hank), 34, and Erin, 36—never moved off-island.
Herb Maine (bass), Brent Strombeck (tenor and soprano sax), Michael Whitehead (trumpet and flÃ¼gelhorn), Mickey Felder (piano) and Jeff Densmore (drums) are calling their new group the Chebeague Island Jazz Quintet.
For this summer, the 7 p.m. “Music Sketch Book Project” concert will take the place of the annual jazz concert by Barney Balch’s Novel Jazz Quintet under the island’s Free Concert Fund, started in 2001 by islanders Beth Howe and Mac Passano.
Maine, Strombeck and Ken Gaspar (piano) played a few of Whetham’s tunes at the celebration of his life held last Sept. 28. They can be heard on a Chebeague website along with other musical selections from that memorial. (http://www.chebeague.org/obits/billwhetham/index.html)
“Many of the tunes were written when he lived in Hawaii,” said Maine. Two versions of one tune were played at the memorial: the first, a piano-only version of “Aloha Joe,” written in 1988 (“one he was most fond of,” said Maine) and recorded by Whetham, and later, Maine and the other musicians closed the service with the same tune.
“The venue for the upcoming concert is kind of a natural,” explained Maine. The island’s United Methodist Church was chosen years ago as the location for the Steinway grand piano purchased through donations to the non-profit Free Concert Fund.
There is a certain synchronicity around the concert, Maine explained.
“Brent and Mickey had been interested in forming a quintet for a while. The idea for the concert came up around the same time,” he said. After proposing the memorial concert, the others gladly signed on and the quintet was formed. They practiced all winter whenever possible, learning Bill’s tunes and refining arrangements.
“Bill’s sketchbook usually had two versions of his tunes, the first a ‘dirty’ version and the next the ‘cleaned up’ version after he’d worked on it,” said Maine, who has a music degree and was helping Whetham with the tunes. “Some of my handwriting is in there, 20 years later.”
“We’re very lucky that we are a very close family,” said Dianne. “Despite everything, we are fortunate. And now there’s also a legacy that will live on.”