Sandy Weltman stands in the center of a semi-circle of chairs in the music room at Jackson Park Elementary School in University City. Fourth grade students wait expectantly to see exactly what this tall, lanky man might have in store for them.
Weltman asks the students to guess what instrument he’s going to play. Guesses range from a violin to a keyboard to a trumpet, and through a series of clues, Weltman gets one boy to correctly say the harmonica.
Before turning to the harmonica, Weltman showcases his musical talent on such things as a jaw harp and percussive instruments like wooden bones and tambourine – having students create their own sounds and rhythms on the various instruments.
By the time Weltman – a world-class harmonica player who has performed with legends Howard Levy and Richard Hayman, the Cajun band BeauSoliel, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, the bluegrass band Hot Rize, plus Béla Fleck, Leon Redbone and the late John Hartford -- begins playing a variety of harmonicas for the students, he has their rapt attention.
And when Weltman passes around free harmonicas to all the students, then leads them in playing a blues riff, it’s clear that everyone in the room will rank this class as the most memorable part of the school day. (Article continues below video)
Kay Watts, one of the adults at Weltman’s Jackson Park presentation, is a member of the Municipal Commission on Arts and Letters for University City (MCALUC), the group responsible for bringing Weltman to Jackson Park and other University City schools this week.
Now in its 20th year, the commission’s Returning Artist program brings University City High School graduates who have achieved acclaim in the arts back to the school district to work with students. According to Watts, the Returning Artists program is designed to encourage students to consider careers in the arts and to enrich art programs at each school.
“University City established the commission in 1974, and this program was designed to bring back alumni of University City schools who have made a living in the arts,” Watts said. “It’s a unique program, because the commission works in an advisory capacity with the city and the school district.”
Over the past two decades, Returning Artists have included musicians, visual artists, glassblowers, photographers, writers, filmmakers, graphic designers, videographers, animators, actors, singers and dancers.
“A lot of artists live here, or grew up here,” Watts said. “So every year, we try to find someone who can visit the schools in early February. We’ve been lucky enough to get artists from a variety of fields, ranging from jazz trumpet player Jeremy Davenport and Marlon West, who is an animation artist for Disney films, to photographer Wiley Price. This year, we’re really happy to bring Sandy to the schools.”
Starting with banjo
Weltman is happy to return as well. He got his start as a musician at University City High School – but as he explained in an interview after the Jackson Park presentation, not as a harmonica player.
“Back in the mid-‘70s, folk music was popular, and I had friends who were playing traditional music – blues and bluegrass,” Weltman said. “I was trying to impress a girl, so I started learning how to play banjo. I became the only Jewish banjo picker on my block!”
Weltman said the girl didn’t seem that impressed with his banjo playing, but he stayed with music, eventually taking up the mandolin and finally the harmonica after hearing a solo by renowned harmonica player Howard Levy.
“I guess I was always in peripheral styles of music that were out of the mainstream,” Weltman said. “One day I was listening to the radio and jamming along with the music. I heard a song by a St. Louis band called Trapezoid. There was a harmonica solo on the song with a sound I’d never heard, and it turned out to be Howard Levy. He was playing a diatonic harmonica – but playing it chromatically. I was just blown away!”
“Howard was a guest artist on the CD. I tracked him down and went to a harmonica workshop he was leading in West Virginia six months later,” Weltman said. “I’ve been learning from him ever since.”
Weltman learned his lessons well. He’s developed into a world-class harmonica player, working in a wide range of musical genres ranging from jazz and blues to bluegrass, Klezmer music, Middle Eastern styles and more.
He has released three recordings as a leader: “Banjo Magic" in 1987, "Escape Velocity" with his band “The SanDROIDS” in 1996, and "The Klezmer Nuthouse" in 2002. Weltman has also appeared as a guest artist on such recordings as "New World Harmonica Jazz" with pianist Carolbeth True and her Trio.
In addition to his own band, Hot Club Caravan, Weltman performs frequently with Farshid Etniko. And he spends a good deal of time performing and conducting workshops for young audiences.
“I’ve been doing teaching and conducting workshops with kids for almost 20 years,” Weltman said. “I do a show for Springboard for Learning with Charlie Pfeffer that’s a history of blues music. At the Sheldon Concert Hall, I’m part of a show called Folk Music in the Melting Pot. And I’ve been doing a harmonica residency for years that will bring me into schools for up to a full week.”
Weltman said that even though he’s battling the effects of a cold, he’s relishing the opportunity to interact with elementary, middle school and high school students in University City this week.
“Usually, I work with third, fourth and fifth graders,” he said. “But Monday I had the chance to work with middle school and high school students, and it was really fun, because I was able to go a little deeper into the music – especially with the high school band students.
“I definitely feel very comfortable working with kids like the fourth graders today. I know from experience and through trial and error what they’re interested in, what’s most likely to stay with them after the class and what’s not. And I’ve learned that each class has its own distinct personality – and that a lot of that has to do with their teacher and the school. Today’s class was great. The kids were excited – and so was I.”
For Weltman, the chance to introduce students to the joy of music – whether they continue on to play an instrument or not – is his primary goal in classroom and workshop situations:
“That’s the goal. Try to get their full attention, then get them excited about the harmonica, so that when they get one of their own, they’re really ready to learn how to play it. It doesn’t always work, but it’s great when it does.
“Every now and then I’ll run into someone who was in one of my school classes and is now grown up. They may not still be playing, but they remember the experience, and often still have that same harmonica. And I get notes on my website, where I offer harmonica lessons online. Last week I got a note from a young student telling me they had created a new sound on the harmonica. So that makes it fun!”
Weltman’s workshops at the University City Schools continue through Friday. A public reception for University City residents in celebration of this year’s program will also take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6 at the University City High School Library.