Woman with a Horn Wanda Sabir Sunday, March 25, 2007 The trombone is more than half her height when it's stretched out completely, but this doesn't keep her from delivering. At the recent inauguration of the Robert Porter Jam Session at Oakland's New Earth Artist Cafe, Angela Wellman was in her element. Wellman's life was already mapped out in the stars, if not the genes, before she took her first step. Her mom was a jazz vocalist who studied classical piano, her father was a pianist, and her grandfather was gifted at stride. She was only 4 when she fell in love with the trombone the first time she sat behind the trombonist-trumpeter in her uncle Eddie Baker's New Breed Orchestra. "There was something about this trombonist that touched me," she said during a recent interview at her Oakland home. "I wanted to sit next to him. This was the first time a trombone made this kind of impression on me." Wellman began to play the trombone in elementary school, then studied percussion in high school, and snagged regular gigs playing in gospel and funk bands. Jazz great Max Roach even gave her a private lesson at her uncle's music school, the Charlie Parker Academy of Performing Arts in Kansas City, which she began attending when she was 10. At Penn Valley Community College, Wellman was working on premed requirements when she was recruited for the college jazz band and then hooked up with a band funded by the now-defunct Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program (CETA). Although she hadn't touched a trombone in years, she figured she had a better shot at getting into the band if she told the recruiter she was a trombonist rather than a drummer. As a member of CETA's Inner City Jazz Band, at 18, she was surrounded by professional artists such as Orville "Piggy" Minor; Andy Kirk and the 12 Clouds of Joy; Ernie Williams; Willie Rice, or "Prof," who directed the band; Jay McShann; Claude "Fiddler" Williams; Ben Kynard; and Baby Lovett. Wellman was the only woman in the band. "It's one thing to be in an environment with people in the forefront, those musicians at the head of the scene. It's another thing to be with those guys who were present at the laying of the foundation -- cats from the '20s, the Pendergast era," Wellman said. "These guys were the cornerstone of the music in Kansas City. They were all teachers in the Inner City Orchestra. What an awesome opportunity that the government supplied." Wellman learned a lot back then, and not just about music: She saw a good deal of alcoholism and drug addiction among the Inner City Jazz band faculty. Much of that, she believes, was related to the disappointment that came when previously segregated musicians' unions merged and black musicians no longer worked as frequently. "I learned about the blues," Wellman said. "I learned about the brilliance of black musicians. It's not for the weak. ... They taught me about the legacy, what we do around the world. I learned to be proud of the choice I made. I learned about my own weaknesses as well. I fell for a short period of time into alcoholism. At one point I realized I had to get out of this mess." The band rehearsed in the historic Black Musicians Union Hall, Local 627. Called the Foundation, it was a place where black musicians went after hours to jam until daybreak. There Wellman was exposed to the music of trombonists Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton and J.J. Johnson, whose album "Proof Positive" had a huge impact on her life and her artistry. Many years later, after she'd moved to San Francisco, she finally had a chance to meet her idol when he was performing at the Great American Music Hall. But she was so awed by him, she couldn't speak. "I have been thinking a lot about J.J. Johnson and the sound of the trombone," Wellman said only days before a recent tribute to Johnson that she organized. "The sound of the trombone is really nothing. It's just a brass instrument played in a particular register, but the voice is about whoever the person is who dares to play the damn thing." Although Johnson committed suicide in 2001, Wellman has found a way to continue his legacy through the National Treasures Concert series featuring work by Johnson or work he inspired. She took the name for the series from the 1987 congressional resolution recognizing "jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure." "What I learned from J.J. is to take the instrument and express a musical voice through it," Wellman said. "I'm reading a book about him now, and the biographer says J.J. wasn't influenced by another trombone player. Neither was I. The musical voice that influences me is John Coltrane." Wellman went on to get her undergraduate degree in musicianship and teacher education from Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a graduate degree in music education from the Eastman School of Music. She moved to the Bay Area in 1984 and founded the Oakland Public Conservatory two years ago. The purpose of the school, she said, is to serve people traditionally unable to afford good-quality music education. In its first year the conservatory student body was 225 with a faculty of 14. Year two, first semester, has 65 students and 10 faculty. Wellman is its founding director and dean. "It's all about remembering where we came from," Wellman said. "So at the conservatory we've got Ed Kelly Hall and the Smiley Winters percussion studio. We've changed the name of the Count Basie Studios to the Buddy Conner Studio, so the names will resonate life." At the heart of the conservatory's ideology, Wellman said, is American musical identity. "When you look at what's pop music," she said, "you cannot deny at the heart of American music is the African American experience, and without that, it would be a whole other thing." Wanda Sabir is a freelance writer. This article appeared on page PK - 22 of the San Francisco Chronicle PRINT E-MAIL SHARE Comments(1)View Comments Â» Share your thoughts on this story. Add Your Comment You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign In | Register Surprising state symbols of Hawaii The Glory of 'Inglourious' Ban brie! Boycott Whole Foods! Mission murals capture local color After takeoff, man takes off clothes Ads by Yahoo! school trombones Sale High Quality school trombones at Discounted Price with Free Shipping. 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"The Conservatory is an excellent resource for all members of our community. It is truly incredible. My 15 year old son thinks of it as his second home. He is having up close and personal experiences and mentoring relationships with jazz greats there, and is becoming an exceptional drummer. It enriches our lives tremendously!" -Georgia Webb, parent