If you had to name just one great pianist in Knoxville, you could easily just say “Wendel Werner.” A 40-year veteran of the local music scene, he’s written and arranged for the Knoxville Children’s Show Choir, UT Singers, and the Knoxville Community Chorus, to name a few. He’s been a familiar face at “Alive after Five” at the Knoxville Museum of Art as well as making appearances around the country.
Werner’s just two months into a new job as the musical director at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Garden Drive. And his new place of employment will be the site for the 20th annual “Wendel Destroys All Christmas Songs” performance on Friday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but he is asking for donations to Mobile Meals.
“Usually, if I’ve become a music director at a church, I find a way to introduce myself to the congregation with some sort of concert. But, it’s December. So, they get this. They’re all going to know me pretty well afterward,” he said, laughing.
Exactly what “this” is started a little over 20 years ago when he was playing regularly in a Farragut coffee house. During the holidays, a patron suggested he do a whole concert with the different ways he plays Christmas songs. His style grew, frankly, out of the need to make them stretch, especially for events that would be more focused on secular instead of sanctified tunes.
“The reality is, most of those songs just aren’t that long,” Werner said. “And while people think they know all the words to them, they usually don’t. So, let’s say I’ve been hired for four hours, I’m done in an hour, playing the songs as is. So, I’d been coming up with ways to play these songs that lasted longer.”
With that, a tradition was born that kept getting bigger, needing larger venues, and more musical friends joined in to keep the party rolling along. Along the way, he decided to turn it into a fundraiser. It’s been on a two-year hiatus, and Werner is glad to have it back on the schedule. His personal favorite Christmas song? “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
And though he is not from here originally, Werner thinks it’s high time he should be able to just say he’s from Knoxville. He arrived here from Memphis in 1981 to attend UT studying classical piano. But he’s not exactly from Memphis, either. His father was in the Air Force, so the family moved a lot. He also didn’t take immediately to the piano as a young child.
“There was a time when another kid tried to show me how to, but I didn’t think I could do it,” Werner said. “Later, my parents bought a piano, put it up in the house. They bought some books on how to start playing and put them on it … I was the first one out of the four kids to try.” He was 11.
While he started in classical piano at UT, he and his professor didn’t see eye to eye on Werner’s extra-curricular gigs playing whatever style of music the event called for, whether blues, rock, pop, jazz or country.
“Don’t lose any gigs,” Werner said. “When I was a freshman, I knew, I will see to it that I never lose a gig because I cannot play all the things I’ve been asked to play.”
He regularly performed at Annie’s (and later, Lucille’s) in the Old City. He switched programs, getting his bachelor’s degree in studio music and jazz.
“I always thought that I was going to be a rock star,” he said. “I was just waiting on that to happen. But when I graduated, a well-known jazz pianist had been hired at UT to teach. And I wanted to learn from him.”
So, short version, Werner figured out a way to stick around, take the classes he wanted and get school paid for on his way to a master’s in choral conducting. And Knoxville is the luckier for it and should be proud to claim him.