Angela Wellman is a trombonist, scholar, activist, a third-generation musician and educator. Angela has performed with musical greats like the McCoy Tyner Big Band & Slide Hampton. After knowing each other for years we finally got a chance to talk about her legacy and her role as an educator. We met at the offices of the organization she founded Oakland Public Conservatory of Music (OPC Music), which shares space with the historic California Hotel in Oakland.
We’ve talked for years but this is the first time we’ve sat down to talk about your work, your process, and your artistry. When you started your music studies, what made you want to pick up the trombone?
[chuckle] An appropriate question would be not about this instrument but about a person who was playing this instrument.
I have a family of musicians and music makers, educators, and institution builders. I used to go to many rehearsals. I was at a rehearsal that my uncle, Eddie Baker, was having for the Eddie Baker Kansas City New Breed Orchestra. My mother was the vocalist.
I had to sit behind the trombone section and there was a man who played the trombone, and I wanna say his name was, Godfrey Powell, but I don't know. He was like this light, caramel-colored man and he was always impeccable.
He dressed nice and he had this wavy hair that was brushed back. The way he played the trombone and the way his lips looked when he placed them in the mouthpiece, his embouchure—how his lips were set to play the instrument—was all very pointed.
I was about seven years old and he always used to be like, "Hey, what's up little girl? What's up little Ang?" He was always really sweet to me.
By the time I was in the sixth grade, where we didn't have a regular band program, this guy came to our school offering instrumental musical wind instruments: saxophones, trombones, flutes, clarinets, and trumpets. He said, "When you see the instrument you wanna play, come up here. If you get a sound out of it, that's the one you're supposed to play." It was as simple as that, I chose the trombone.
When was a time you realized you've fully made a connection with an instrument?
I played the trombone andI was also playing and studying drums and percussion in my uncle's school which was called The Charlie Parker Academy of Arts. I played those drums for 10 years.
I went to an all-girls college prep school and they had a little chamber orchestra. So I played the trombone and then I stopped. When I was a freshman in college, I was studying to become a child psychiatrist but I was still just playing drums and not the trombone. When a man came in and said, "We need people in the stage band." I had been playing drums in these gospel groups around town.
I raised my hand and he said, "Well, what do you play?" Out of my mouth pops, "Trombone!" [laughter] So I said, "I'll play in the trombone section." Then what happened was the CETA program.
What's the CETA program?
Comprehensive Employment Training Act which was a government program to put artists and elders to work with young people. We were learning from the elders and we got paid. A lot of those cats were people who went to school with Charlie Parker and also people who Charlie Parker learned from.
These pioneers of jazz in the '20s who played with Andy Kirk and The Twelve Clouds of Joy, and Mary Lou Williams who was the pianist in that orchestra. People who played in Bennie Moten's Band, who played with Count Basie before he had the Count Basie orchestra. These were the cats who I studied from in the Inner City Orchestra.
Were you learning from someone in particular about the trombone?
One of the toughest cats ever, his name was Arthur Mitchell. He was one of the baddest trombone players around at the time in all of the Midwest.
I was taking lessons from a trombonist in the Kansas City Philharmonic. I was studying some classical and then I was just learning from the cats. Up until that point, I didn't really feel an affinity for the trombone.
Then one day, I was practicing some little run I was doing. One thing you wanna do is something called audiation: knowledge of the presence of the sound before the sound is present. [laughter]
Say it one more time.
Knowledge of the presence of a sound before the sound is present. It's in here. I can feel the vibrations of that sound if I'm just thinking it.
What I mean, the sound is clearly present to me. More than hearing it, I feel it because every sound has a certain number of vibrations.
I was sitting there practicing one day, and I heard something on the radio and I was thinking, "What is that? What is that?”
I was like, "Whoa!" Because that first note I played, was the note I heard and felt. I went straight to it.
There's seven positions on this trombone and there's a whole bunch of notes. I got a lot of notes to choose from in the second but my lips and everything knew. My embouchure had formed right where it needed to be, I had the right opening, I had the right amount of air, and I nailed that A.
Did you have a vision of where you were gonna go after that moment of being connected to the instrument?"
I was really just focused on learning to play the instrument and studying the science of improvisations and black music: The science of this Black musical creation.
Being in the Inner City Orchestra and the CETA program, it was about studying to play the blues and working on becoming a good musician. They were like, "If you wanna play with anybody, you gotta be ready." So you gotta get your chops. You gotta be ready.
I read on LinkedIn that you consider yourself a Creative Academic. Let’s talk about that.
An academic is somebody who immerses themselves in thinking and understanding other people's thoughts. You do research and you report on that research in a certain way. I believe in that type of rigor, and reading, and thinking, and valuing my thoughts and thoughts of others around, to understand the nature of life and things on this planet.
The creative part is interesting 'cause suddenly “creative” has become a noun. There have always been creatives. Every human being that manages to make it out of his mother's womb is a creative and is creative.
After you immersed yourself in studying black music, what was your transition to educating?
I don't think I had a choice because I was born into a musical family. Angela Davis said, "That's what's gonna save black people, we need institutions." So I grew up in a musical institution that was created by my uncle.
I created this school for young people who were like me, who just understood music. We just had to be in that space where we could make music, talk about it, kick it with somebody else who likes that music. Everybody can come study here.
Did you feel like you had a choice in making OPC Music?
This was a choice. When I was a freshman in college, I made a little pit orchestra in the sixth-grade elementary school. That's when I knew, "Wow! I got skills."
I applied that skill to something I cared about, which was these little black children in one of the roughest parts of the ghettos in Kansas City. To me, that was the work.
I'm understanding more now about OPC Music. How long ago did you found it and why?
I moved out here in 1987. I started working in Oakland after I realized I was not gonna be going back to New York. I started teaching music in West Oakland, right here, at Cole Visual and Performing Arts Magnet School. I developed a Jazz Studies program there. That was the beginning of my foray into music education for children.
I became the education director for the Oakland Youth Chorus and these things helped me see that the children who really needed to be studying music were not getting that access. If your parents didn't have money for a private lesson or money to rent you an instrument you're just out there. So many of those children were Black children.
Somebody called me up one day and she said, "I wanna start an after-school music program." The next thing you know, we’re going from an after-school music program to teach piano to a 4400 square-foot space in Downtown Oakland called the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music [in 2005]. I always wanted to have a school. I believed in education and having children in a space and working with them.
What role does music education play in a thriving community?
I haven't found a word that describes what I do in here. The role of studying music and learning music is like glue for a human to develop.
If you were to play a note, or a sound, or a run to cause a sympathetic vibration for healing, what would you play?
What I think of, from an African-American musical experience, is what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the Sorrow Songs, which are spirituals. That music is pre-Blues music. It's the first music of our people over here during the enslavement. So it's one thing I like about the plungers 'cause it gives this thing and I like to play…
"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows but Jesus." Right? So that's what I feel like is healing. When you are in a room full of black folks, they will respond to that.
You see how you're smiling and stuff? That, to me, is healing when you can play music that came out of sorrow. They are the sorrow songs, that don't necessarily mean that they are sorrowful songs or they are sad songs.
What drives you? Is there a sound that you want to hear?
There's a thing, there's a groove, there's an underlying feeling that I always want to experience in the music. You gotta feel that pulse, that feeling. It's not so much a sound for me as it is like a groove. A connection to this, the moment.
Any last thoughts?
I think about Fred and Harriet: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
Frederick said, "We have to raise up strong children."
This is fundamental. One way to do that is to be focused, right here, on the continental United States. The creation of the world's popular musical culture comes right from our ancestors. That's important and it's necessary for me to stay in that place, no matter what. That's what drives me to keep doing what I'm doing.
Then, Harriet is like, "If they'd known they were slaves, I could've freed a whole lot more." What you're doing here with Umber, bringing out my voice and others, is so important. We have to create the history of the future in the present.
In 2016, Wellman received the Cultural Key to the City from the Mayor of Oakland. She is presently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education at UWM.