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Local music legend leaving Petaluma

Sometime in the next few days, musician Peter Welker will pack up his car and start the long drive to Arizona, where he will begin a new life after residing in Petaluma for nearly a half century.

Welker, a composer, arranger, band leader and trumpet player, will subsequently add a new title to his resume — college professor.

A Petaluma resident since 1972, Welker is arguably the town’s best-known and most accomplished musician. Primarily a jazz player, he is equally adept at rock ’n’ roll, R&B and other genres. He has been a member and founder of several bands and has recorded multiple CDs over the last 40 years.

Welker and his wife, Carole, had hoped to move to Arizona earlier this year, but the pandemic put their plans on hold and delayed their ability to sell their house.

“We’d been thinking about moving for a while because Carole has several family members who live in the Glendale and Peoria area (suburbs of Phoenix),” Welker said. “And it’s gotten a little too expensive to live in California.”

In anticipation of the move, Welker reached out to the deans of six different colleges in the Phoenix area inquiring about a faculty teaching position.

“They asked, ‘Well, you have at least a master’s degree, don’t you?’” A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Welker admitted that he did not have a graduate degree and had never taught music at the college level. “But I’m a ‘Road Scholar,’” he said, referring to his many years of touring, composing, arranging and recording.

After reviewing Welker’s impressive resume, the deans at all of the colleges called him back. He had six interviews scheduled in May, but had to postpone them due to the pandemic.

However, once he gets settled in Arizona, he has set his sights on a position as adjunct professor of music at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix.

“It’s a beautiful campus with a state-of-the-art auditorium,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about it, but I’m also a little nervous about moving at my age.”

It won’t be the first time that Welker, 78, has relocated to a new state. A native of Massachusetts, Welker boarded a Greyhound bus in 1962 and headed to San Francisco.

“I was a little intimidated by the prospect of trying to make it as a musician in New York or Europe,” he explained.

He wound up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and soon put together the house band at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach.

“I had a three-horn sextet that played there every Monday night for four years,” he notes. His sextet played at concerts and festivals around the Bay Area for five years.

In 1967, Welker discovered rock ’n’ roll, opening up a new world of musical possibilities, including Latin, funk and fusion. Within a year, he was playing in a four-horn funk band called Rush. After that band broke up, he was invited to join Cold Blood, a popular East Bay R&B group.

While playing with Cold Blood in the early 1970s, Welker played a few shows with drummer Buddy Miles’ band.

“He was putting together a new band and asked me to do the arranging,” he said. But commuting from San Francisco to Miles’ house in Novato every day became problematic, so in 1972 he moved to Petaluma.

Between 1967 and 1980, Welker played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Van Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Malo, Jesse Colin Young and Joe Walker. In 1981, he formed WBBH, a jazz-funk-soul group that recorded one album. In the mid-1990s, he played on a CD produced by Bob Dylan, “The Music of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute,” and a CD produced by Garcia and David Grisman, “Not for Kids Only.”

In 1989, his 13-month-old son, Jacob, was diagnosed with leukemia and died four years later. Welker, who had put his musical career on hold to focus on his son’s health, spent the next year writing and re-learning to play the trumpet. He then produced and recorded “Para Peachy,” an album dedicated to Jacob and featuring musician friends who had gotten to know the boy.

He arranged, produced and recorded two more jazz CDs, “Paradise is Awfully Nice” (2002) and “Duke, Billy and Tadd” (2006), that were picked up by 33rd Street Records and were distributed and received airplay worldwide.

His latest project is the Sidemen, and the ebullient Welker is as excited about the group as anything he’s ever done. The Sidemen are a six-member jazz-funk-Latin group whose debut CD features six multi-Grammy winning musicians.

“It’s the best band I’ve ever put together,” Welker enthused.

Besides Welker, members of the Sidemen are drummer Todd Tribble, guitarist Morris Acevedo, bassist Cliff Hugo, saxophonist Steve Steinberg and keyboard player Ruben Valtierra. Welker and Tribble co-produced the CD. Guest musicians who appear on the recording include saxophonist Tom Scott (L.A. Express), singer Bill Champlin (Sons of Champlin), guitarist Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple), bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson and Peter Gabriel), keyboardist Pete Levin (Miles Davis and Bob Dylan) and keyboardist Dave Matthews (Santana).

Welker has been shopping the CD and is in negotiations with Summit Records, a Tempe, Ariz.-based label, to distribute and promote the album.

“I recently had a 50-minute phone conversation with the owners of the company,” he said. “We feel that this CD has Grammy written all over it. Summit is primarily a jazz label, but they think this CD will really stand out.”

His friendship with Mike Vax has helped. Welker met Vax while he was playing with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. After Kenton died, Vax took over as leader of the jazz orchestra and moved to Arizona several years ago. Welker quipped, “I am three months older than he is, so I always tell him to respect his ‘elders.’

“Mike is connected with all of the best musicians and clubs in the Phoenix area and he has shared my CDs with them,” Welker continued. “He told me that they all love my CDs and that they can’t wait for me to get there and play with them.”

Welker has also been in touch with two composers and arrangers he considers to be the best in Arizona.

“One of them is the head of the music department at Arizona State University,” he said. “And the other is a fellow graduate of the Berklee College of Music.”

It appears that Welker has prepared a strong musical foundation for his relocation to Arizona. But he will leave behind an indelible legacy in Petaluma. For the last 26 summers, his jazz sextet has been playing at various venues on Friday nights along the river in downtown Petaluma, always drawing a devoted following.

Welker was also the founder of the Petaluma Music Festival, which has grown to become an annual event, raising money to support music instruction in local high schools.

“I went to the Chamber of Commerce and offered to have my band and some others play and we would donate all proceeds to the high school music departments,” he recalled. “At first, the festivals were held at Foundry Wharf and we cleared about $3,000.Then we moved it over to the Golden Eagle Shopping Center, Water Street and the former Apple Box.

“Then Cliff Eveland (Petaluma High School music director) helped get the sponsorship of Lagunitas Brewing Co. and he felt that they could take the event to another level,” Welker said. “I continued to book the bands for a while, but after the event moved to the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, I stepped back.”

Welker was also one of the founders of the Carousel Fund, an all-volunteer organization that was dedicated to raising funds for Petaluma families with children who suffer from life-threatening illnesses. The organization held an annual fund-raising “Casino Night” for more than 20 years, featuring well-known musicians as the headliners. Welker booked and was the bandleader for such acts as Huey Lewis, Elvin Bishop, Eddie Money, Norton Buffalo, Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond and Roy Rogers.

Welker may be leaving Petaluma, but he won’t be forgotten. Jim Stern, who has known Welker for almost 50 years and has engineered all of his albums, said, “We’ve spent a lot of time in music together, including some 30 years playing in a bebop rehearsal band.” Stern says that Welker always brings “clean and clear charts that are excellent arrangements,” with no wrong notes or chords. “One of his incredible talents is to put together band members who are all the best musicians he can hire at the time. Petaluma and, indeed the entire Bay Area, will be losing a great talent to Arizona. I hope they appreciate and nourish Peter in his new home.”

(Chris Samson is the former editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Contact him at chrispetaluma@gmail.com.)

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