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Petaluma performer brings music to the people

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JAZZ ON THE RIVER

What: Peter Welker Sextet plays jazz on Petaluma’s waterfront

When: 6-8 p.m. Friday nights through August, 5:30-7 p.m. in September

Where: Outside Graffiti, at 101 2nd St. No. 190

More information: peterwelker.com

Peter Welker’s life in music spans more than six decades, and though his career has led him around the globe to perform alongside some of the top names in the business, he’s remained deeply involved with his Petaluma community.

While the horn player, composer, arranger, bandleader and producer has played with a voluminous list of major artists, including Van Morrison, Santana, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Dr. John, and Jesse Colin Young, he’s also entering into his 21st year of playing free waterfront jazz concerts on summer nights in Petaluma.

“I love this town,” he said. “I love the community, I love the weather and I love the history.”

Welker, who’s turning 74 this year, has been present on more than 50 CDs, including six of his own, for which he spent 3,000 hours producing and arranging, sometimes in coffee shops around town, music spread out before him. He records with two takes, with no overdubbing. He never rehearses his live bands.

In 1962, Welker left his hometown Boston for San Francisco. Back home, his parents had been jazz piano players and bandleaders. His mother, also a vocalist, had sung with the coast-to-coast radio show, Camel Caravan, from 1935 to 1939 and an uncle played with Tommy Dorsey’s band. Welker occasionally joined the bands of both parents, and was to be paid to play for the first time when he was 9 years old. Welker describes his mother, Elisabeth, as his “main influence,” and after her death, Welker dedicated an album to her. He recalls sitting with her at the end, holding her hand. She had a little smile on her face, he says, and her last words, which became the title of the album, were “Paradise is awfully nice.”

Though blind, she raised him from the age of 4, while she played music and traveled with jazz bands. They lived in Boston’s worst neighborhood, where he did all the cooking, while learning to box and joining a gang for protection from frequent beatings by peers.

After graduating from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, where his mother had been a teacher, Welker boarded a Greyhound and landed in the Haight-Ashbury district with $100, two horns, and a couple of changes of clothes, he said.

At the time “there was still a little of that Beatnik vibe,” and, after auditioning at the venerable jazz workshop in North Beach, he got hired to lead the house band, which also included George Duke and Jules Broussard, from 1962 to 1965.

The ‘60s were a peak era musically. Welker joined the Glenn Miller Band for eight or nine months, and lived on the bus while touring. When rock ‘n’roll came to town, he became a member of Cold Blood for two years, at a time when Bill Graham managed the group, and sometimes joined them on the road.

After leaving Cold Blood, Welker met drummer Buddy Miles, who lived in Novato. Miles, in the process of putting a new band together, wanted Welker in his horn section. Since this involved frequent trips from San Francisco to Novato, Welker bought a small Victorian in Petaluma in 1971, when the town only had three restaurants, and “they were all terrible.”

JAZZ ON THE RIVER

What: Peter Welker Sextet plays jazz on Petaluma’s waterfront

When: 6-8 p.m. Friday nights through August, 5:30-7 p.m. in September

Where: Outside Graffiti, at 101 2nd St. No. 190

More information: peterwelker.com

Later, Petaluma supported him when his 5-year-old son passed away in 1993, after a long bout with illness, leaving Welker with $2 million in medical bills. More than 700 people turned out for the funeral, and the community donated money and left meals on his porch.

After becoming one of the original members of Petaluma’s Carousel Fund, whose mission is helping families with children who have catastrophic illnesses, he spent 20 years with the nonprofit. Partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, he also founded the Petaluma Music Festival, an annual concert that benefits music education programs in Petaluma area public schools.

Welker continues to play on, even after permanently losing the hearing in one ear 15 years ago. He currently leads five groups, including The Peter Welker Jazz Sextet, which has existed for the past 35 years and has included vocalist Deborah Winters for the past six. His other bands include a 10-piece, a “three-horn jazz band with no vocalist,” “a funky blues band” called 707, and a new one he describes as “fusiony, jazzy, funky, Latiny.”

Nowadays, as is almost always the case with older trumpeters, he says, he plays the flugelhorn.

“It’s more forgiving than the trumpet,” he said. “It lets you be older and still play.”

The trumpet is “a very physical instrument” and harder on the necessary muscles.

“The flugelhorn is more mellifluous; a nice, warm instrument that blends well with vocalists,” he added.

The Peter Welker Jazz Sextet plays every Friday night, 6- 8 p.m., during the summer, by Graffiti’s outdoor patio on the Petaluma River.

“It’s a sell out crowd every Friday night,” Welker said.

(Contact Robert Feuer at argus@arguscourier.com)