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Steve Nelson: Vibing

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Vibraphonist Steve Nelson began his career during the seventies, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, following the straight ahead path blazed by his first major influence, Milt Jackson. After a year with guitarist Grant Green he was playing and recording with his Rutgers professors James Spaulding and Kenny Barron, before landing a spot in David "Fathead Newman's quintet. Throughout the eighties Nelson was the vibists of choice among some of his generation's most talented up-and-comers, including Bobby Watson, Curtis Lundy, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, Geoffrey Keezer and Lewis Nash, developing a harmonically open sound, influenced by the innovations of Bobby Hutcherson, that led him to a spot in Dave Holland's award winning band. In between he's recorded a half dozen dates as a leader that showcase his own personal voice on the vibes.

AllAboutJazz: There have been so few vibraphonists in jazz; what first attracted you to the instrument?

Steve Nelson: Well, actually, there are probably more vibists than you think there are, first of all. I mean everywhere I go, at least since I've been traveling so much with Dave Holland, I actually meet— in every town that I go to—a few vibists. I guess compared to the other instruments there's not so many vibists, but there seems to be more and more coming around these days.

But anyway, I actually got into the vibes because a young guy that I used to hang around with in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was born and grew up—his father actually played the vibes. He was one of those kind of guys that existed then [laughs], at that time, I guess it was the seventies or something, who lived in a town like Pittsburgh and played and was a great player, but was raising a family, worked in the steel mills, etc., etc., so he never came to New York, but was a tremendous vibraphonist. So, I actually heard him play and that's how I fell in love with the instrument. His name is George Monroe. I actually dedicated a song to him on one of my records called George A—"Blues For George A, and that's how I got started—through hearing him play.

AAJ: Were you playing any other instruments before that?

SN: Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that, Russ. I played a little drums, with the emphasis on very little drums, at that time and I never continued much on drums, after that. But, he got me into vibes and he also got me into piano, so I started playing a little piano around that time, too.

AAJ: When was that? About how old were you at the time?

SN: My dates are usually off, man. I don't know what year it was; I was around fifteen years old I guess—fifteen, sixteen years old.

AAJ: What kind of music did you play, once you began playing the vibes? Did you start playing jazz right away?

SN: You know, at the time ... yeah! It's a funny thing, I didn't really go through an extensive thing, like I guess most cats my age do; an extensive R&B thing and go through that whole thing, etc., etc. I had listened to all that as a kid, but when I heard this guy play, it immediately turned me around and from then on—I would really say that from the time I was fifteen or sixteen years old—I was hooked on playing jazz from then on. Before that I did everything else any other young guy would do. I listened to all the R&B stuff and everything like that, but from that moment on that was pretty much it for me.

AAJ: What music did you start listening to right away to study the vibes? Did you start with Lionel Hampton and move on to Milt Jackson and then Bobby Hutcherson?

SN: Oh, well it was Milt Jackson or nothing with this guy because he was a Milt Jackson lover in the greatest sense. Milt was his main man, so everything was Milt Jackson with him. So, I really got most exposed to Milt Jackson with him, so that was the main person on vibes I was listening to, but of course through meeting him and starting to learn how to play, I met a lot of other musicians in town, so it kind of blossomed into a thing where I started listening to everyone, to put it in a wide range.

AAJ: Did you start working right away, playing professionally on vibes?

SN: It didn't take me very long, because at that time, at around that age, I actually had just dropped out of high school, so I had nothing but time on my hands [laughs], so I just went into it full force. I didn't start working right away, but I would actually say that within about two years—which seems amazing to me now—I wasn't working, but within two years I was making my first jam sessions and everything, at least around town. I had at least gotten good to that point. I definitely would say that after three or four years I started doing gigs around town with local cats.

AAJ: Who were some of the musicians that you played with?

SN: Let's see, who was around at that time? Probably no one that you would know. None of the famous Pittsburgh cats were around at that time. They were all mostly musicians who were in that same vein, you know, who had stayed in town and who had played with all those great players, like Ahmad Jamal and Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams and all of those great people, but they never quite made it out of town. So, there was a guy that I met in Pittsburgh at that time, his name was Kenny Fisher, he was a saxophonist. He was quite popular at that time in Pittsburgh, so I actually got into his band and started playing with him quite a bit. Who else was around? J.C. Moses, had come, the drummer who had played with Trane in the later years and played with Eric Dolphy. He had come home about that time, back to Pittsburgh, so I did some playing with him.

Who else? Actually, Tommy Turrentine had come in, back to Pittsburgh around that time, so I met him and played with him, actually in Kenny's band. Him and Kenny Fisher—he knew Kenny quite well. I mean there were tons of cats around. Roger Humphries, of course was around. Different pianists; who I can't remember all the guys' names. A guy named Jesse Kemp, he was a fine player. He was around. There were tons of cats. Eric Kloss, of course, was around Pittsburgh around that time. I did quite a few jam sessions and stuff with him. There was a little scene still in Pittsburgh around that time. Nothing like the earlier years of course, but there were still a few things going on.

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