Peter Welker: Touching All of Jazz's Bases

Nicholas F. Mondello BY

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Bay Area-based trumpeter, composer and arranger Peter Welker possesses one of the most musically historically fascinating biographies. His decades-long career emanates and developed from a robust musical heritage in which talent merged with Life's coincidences to set him on a journey few, if any, musicians have had. From his parents performing the days of radio through the eventual development of one the world's foremost music institutions and on through his performing roster of the greats of jazz and popular music, Welker has seen a kaleidoscope of musical experiences. Life's misfortunes sadly touched Welker's career, too. His is a story of influence, dedication and stick-to-it-iveness that is indeed envious.

All About Jazz: Good afternoon, Peter. On behalf of All About Jazz, we'd like to thank you for taking time to chat with us.

Peter Welker: It's my privilege and pleasure, Nick. Thank you.

AAJ: Thank you for sending me the two terrific albums—Duke, Billy and Tadd and Paradise Is Awfully Nice. You were kind enough to do that. In reading the liner notes, there's a tremendous amount of background there, especially regarding how you got into the music game. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

PW: Absolutely. Thank you for asking. My Mom was born blind and was a wonderful jazz pianist and vocalist. She and my Dad were both band leaders. My Dad was a band leader in New York City and Boston. They both played piano. My Uncle Pete was a drummer with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra for awhile. So I grew up in it. They tried to talk me out of being a musician and do something real. But, I would hear them rehearsing in the apartment and I went, "Man, that sounds really cool. I want to do that someday." I guess that would be my background. I ended up going to the Berklee School of Music in Boston back in 1959.

AAJ: Please tell me about your Mom, Lawrence Berk, and the Berklee School of Music connection.

PW: My Mom was singing on a really big coast to coast radio show out of Manhattan called "The Camel Caravan," sponsored by Camel cigarettes. She was singing on that show from 1935 to 1938. The pianist and arranger with that orchestra was Larry Berk. She and Larry go all the way back to 1935. Larry was the founder of the Berklee School—now College of Music. We've known the Berk family for a long time.

AAJ: And you were in Boston. How did you wind up getting into Berklee?

PW: My Mom went there and actually developed a Braille jazz course that was endorsed by George Shearing. And every time he'd come to town, he'd look up my Mom and they'd hang a little bit. So she taught blind students her method at Berklee. We didn't have a whole lot of money because we were honestly very poor. But the fact that we were like family with the Berks, Larry said: "If Peter wants to go here by all means, he should." I was able to go there on a free pass, which was amazing! I felt very, very blessed to be able to do that.

AAJ: When did you start playing trumpet?

PW: I was nine. Originally my parents wanted me to play piano. They started showing me stuff at age five or six, but I just felt intimidated by both as they were both fine players. I said that I didn't want to play piano so my Mom and Dad, said: "Well, you've got to play something." My Mom had a quintet with a really cool looking trumpet player, Julius Siri, a very handsome Italian guy. He stood out in front of the band and looked really cool in his suit. I thought: "You know, I think I want to play trumpet." So my Dad bought me a "Pan American" trumpet.

PW: I even bent it, because I loved Dizzy. I took the trumpet and I bent it over the corner of a chair. It was crimped and looked terrible, but I thought I was being cool, man. I even bought the black horn rimmed glasses that Diz and Bird wore. Anyhow, I thought that I was looking cool at age 13.

AAJ: Great. What years were you at Berklee with your Mom -and was your Dad teaching at Berklee too?

PW: My dad was killed by a drunk driver in an auto accident. I was 12 and was with him at that time. And so he was not in the picture when I went to Berklee in 1959, '60 and '61. I had some really interesting classmates that were going to the school then. I think there were only about 350 students attending Berklee then. There were some pretty heavy duty ones that went on to become household names.

AAJ: For example?

PW: Well, let's see. When I was going there my classmates were Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Fred Lipsius—an alto saxophonist that went on to be co-leader of Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He arranged "Spinning Wheel" and many of their songs on their first four albums. Ray Pizzi. He ended up moving to Los Angeles and was with Henry Mancini's Orchestra for 25 years. Arif Mardin, Mike Nock, Dusko Goykovich, Steve Marcus, Gabor Szabo, Sadao Watanabe, Hal Galper and Sam Rivers. Toshiko Akiyoshi, Charlie Mariano, and Bill Chase were ahead of me in school. Fourteen-year-old Tony Williams was taking drum lessons with Alan Dawson and Chick Corea was studying with Madame Chaloff—Serge's mother. This was a great time to be living in Boston.

AAJ: That's where you learned your arranging techniques?

PW: Absolutely. I took basic courses at first and then more advanced courses with Herb Pomeroy, like a line writing course. He learned a lot when he was in Duke Ellington's band and hung out with Billy Strayhorn and Duke. Herb passed a lot of that knowledge on to the students, which was great.

AAJ: What happened after Berklee?

PW: After I went three years there, my classmates said: "So are you going to New York or Europe? That's really what you need to do." I said: "I'm a little intimidated by both. I think I'm going to jump on a Greyhound bus and go to San Francisco." And they said: "San Francisco? There's nothing going on there." And I said: "Well, I want to go there."So I came out in 1962 on a Greyhound bus and ended up in the Haight-Ashbury district. I lived there for a few years. Right away I put together the house band at the famed Jazz Workshop in North Beach and did all the writing. George Duke was my pianist and John Heard was my bassist. I had a three horn sextet that played every Monday night there for 4 years. We also backed up people that didn't have bands when they came to the Jazz Workshop. I modeled the band after the Cannonball Adderley sextet sound. We had that kind of sound going and it was a great band, man. We worked quite a bit. The Peter Welker Sextet did a lot of festivals and concerts in the Bay Area and was together for about 5 years.

AAJ: What did you do after that?

PW: Well I discovered Rock and Roll around 1967-ish. I was in a jazz clique in the Bay Area that told me : "If we ever find a Rock and Roll record in your collection, you're out of the clique." The jazz guys would come by and hang out. Around 1967 I discovered Ray Charles, Otis Redding, The Beatles, Aretha, King Curtis, B.B. King and started buying their albums. A couple of the jazz guys came by during that time to hang out and said: "Let's see what new records you've got." They started going through my collection and found some R&B and Rock and Roll stuff that I had just bought. Disgusted, they said: "You're out of the jazz clique! You'll never play any of the jazz clubs, festivals, or concerts again in the Bay Area!" I got frozen out because I discovered Rock and Roll. Around that time I started playing in a really great funk band with four horns. The horn section was Tom Harrell, Steve Turre, Jim Rothermel, and me. That band happened for a couple of years and we recorded an eight tune album of originals that wasn't released until about two years ago. A guy in Japan from Sony—I don't know how he found out about these tapes—called me and asked if he could pick up that album and release it world-wide on Sony? I said: "That would be awesome!" It's really a great sounding album—especially for that period.

AAJ: What was the name of the album?

PW: It was called "Rush."

AAJ: And what was the name of the group? Did your group have a name?

PW: The band was also named "Rush." I was the horn section leader, but it was Marvin Holmes' band. A very good guitarist. He came into a club that I was playing in Oakland with a great horn band . We were splitting the evening with "Tower of Power" We'd play a set, they'd play set. That went on for about three months -a really nice club in Jack London Square. Marvin came in and said to me: "I'm putting a band together and I'd love you to put the horns together and I'll put the rhythm section together." We worked quite a bit for two years.

AAJ: You've played with quite a number of varied acts. Can you can you tell me some of them? I know you said you did some work with "Cold Blood" and "The Jerry Garcia/Merl Saunders Band." Who else did you work with?

PW: After that band broke up, I was able to join a really great Latin orchestra, Caesar's Latin Band that played 4 nights a week in North Beach. I was with them for about two years. There were some great players in that band—Victor Pantoja, Pete and Coke Escovedo, Benny Velarde and Francisco Aguabella. The horn section was Tom Harrell, Jules Rowell , Bob Ferreira, and me. I did that for two years and then I heard "Cold Blood" was auditioning trumpet players. I always loved that band and was a big fan of "Cold Blood." So I went to audition with about 30 different trumpet players. I never thought I'd get the gig, to be honest with you. I was definitely not the best trumpet player of all of the guys who auditioned but I got the call from the leader, Raul Matute, and he said: "You've got the gig if you want it. We are leaving for Chicago in two days." So I was with that band about two and a half years and I played on their Thriller album on Warner Bros. with the Pointer Sisters singing backup. A KILLER album! During the years 1967 to 1980, I played with The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Van Morrison, Cold Blood, Dr. John, Jerry Garcia, The Buddy Miles Express, Malo, Jesse Colin Young and blues great, Joe Walker. I recorded with most of those artists including a fabulous Bob Dylan produced CD entitled The Music Of Jimmie Rodgers—a Tribute. The artists on that CD on Sony were; Bob Dylan, Bono, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Garcia. In 1988, my son Jacob was born and in 1989, at just 13 months old , he was diagnosed with leukemia. We spent the next four years living at the U.C. Medical center in San Francisco and in 1993, Jacob died in my arms at age five. The medical bills were huge and our marriage of 25 years came to an end. I hadn't played any music for over four years and hadn't even thought about it as I was totally focused on trying to save my son's life. After having lost everything due to this crisis, I totally immersed myself in a project to honor Jacob's short life. I spent the next year writing music and relearning how to play the trumpet and produced an album entitled Para Peachy, featuring friends that had known my son. These friends included Bill Watrous, Steve Smith, Bruce Forman, Pete Escovedo, Michael Carabello, Dave Mathews, Fred Lipsius, Mark Levine and Norton Buffalo.

AAJ: Let's talk a little bit about the Duke, Billy and Tadd and Paradise Is Awfully Nice albums. When were those albums originally recorded?

PWParadise Is Awfully Nice was recorded in 2002 and Duke, Billy and Tadd in 2006. They both got picked up by a great record label and received extensive airplay and rave reviews world-wide. Tower Records back then had a label called 33rd Street Records and they distributed these and promoted them world-wide. In fact, All About Jazz.com gave both of them nice reviews. You're working for some great people there, Nick!

AAJ: The personnel on both of those albums are pretty well-established. Can you tell us a little bit about who, what, where and why? People like Herb Pomeroy, Ernie Watts and Bill Watrous were on those recordings and how that came about.

PW: Well, the first one recorded was "Paradise Is Awfully Nice" and it was dedicated to my Mom who died. I was sitting with her in the hospital. She had been in a coma for a week and hadn't said a word. And right before she died, she whispered and said: "Peter," and I leaned in and she got a big smile on her face and she said: "Paradise is awfully nice." And then she passed. That was really touching. So I realized, I've got to do something to memorialize my Mom who I loved dearly. So on my way home, I heard a melody which I wrote out as soon as I got home and harmonized it with a brass choir. That is the short piece that opens the Paradise Is Awfully Nice CD.

Then for the next album—Duke, Billy and Tadd—I asked if Herb would come out and record with me again. I said: "Well, what would you like to be featured on?" And he named three Billy Strayhorn tunes, which freaked me out, because Strayhorn's music is very challenging to play and particularly to arrange attempting to keep the character of Billy Strayhorn's spirit in the tunes. It wasn't like an 18-piece band; it was just five horns with a 10 piece band. So Herb said: "I'd really like to record 'Chelsea Bridge,' 'Ishafan' and 'A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.'" So I started arranging those. It took quite a while. I think each tune was 60 or 70 hours to arrange. I would call Herb for input on various voicings and chord changes. That was because I knew he was an expert, especially on the Strayhorn/Ellington stuff. I pulled that all together and got him out again. I think we recorded maybe four or five songs while he was out here. That was a wonderful and very challenging experience for me.

AAJ: Well, they're both absolutely terrific albums. I enjoyed hearing both of them. Of all of the various artists that you've had the opportunity to perform with, which musically was the most rewarding?

PW: That'd be a tough one, Nick. I mean, I really learned a lot and enjoyed playing with all the different people that I played with. The fact that I got a bunch of my heroes on the projects that I produced and wrote for, meant a lot to me. Herb Pomeroy would stand out, of course. I have this new killer six-piece band that just recorded 12 songs that are all mostly originals . It's a jazz fusion, Latin / funk, band and it's amazing! We have six Grammy® winners on this CD. Drummer Todd Tribble and I are co-producing it. We're mixing it now. Tom Scott, Bill Champlin, Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple), Tony Levin (King Crimson and Peter Gabriel) , Pete Levin (Miles Davis, Bob Dylan) and Dave Mathews (Santana) are our special guests.

AAJ: Do you have an anticipated release date?

PW: You know, we're going back in the studio to mix the last half of the album in two weeks then we're going to shop it.

AAJ: Your arranging and compositional philosophy style -how do you approach it?

PW: You know, I think it depends on what the situation is i.e., if I'm arranging for a singer, or a funk band or a big band etc. Writing for this new band has really been fun, because I'm pulling every genre of music that I have played and love—Latin, jazz and funk. This new band has got all of that going on. We have lots of musicians coming to our gigs checking us out and they say that we sound like a combination of Yellowjackets, The Crusaders and the L.A. Express}. Some of my favorite bands!

Another wonderful period in my career was in 1994 and 1995. I was the horn section leader and arranger for legendary producer and drummer, Narada Michael Walden. I got to go on a two week tour of Japan with his 14-piece band which included Joe Zawinul, Patti Austin, Alphonso Johnson, Alex Acuña, Greg Phillinganes, Sheila E., Mickey Thomas, my four-piece horn section and Narada. We sold out the huge indoor venue Budokan in Tokyo and rode the Bullet Train to Osaka and sold out another huge indoor venue, Royal Hall. HBO was co-sponsor of the tour and documented the tour with a one-hour special which aired nationally after we arrived home. Viewers can go to You Tube and search on "1995 Japan Tour with Narada Michael Walden" and put in the song "Razzmatazz" and hear my horn section and my arrangement with Patti Austin singing. If I may add, my website.

AAJ: Peter, on behalf of All About Jazz, thank you so very much for taking time. This has been absolutely highly great, fun, informative.

PW: I'm really honored and what a privilege to be able to talk with you and thank you for all you and AAJ do for jazz and jazz musicians.

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