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Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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.

AAJ: Opportunities to cut your chops.

SN: Yeah, opportunities to cut your chops and just learn the basics of the music. I think I learned most of my standards, a lot of the standards, from the guy I was telling you about. Then as I met a lot of the younger musicians I started getting into more into the things that Miles was doing and everything around that time. I got exposed to the Four & More (Columbia/Legacy, 1964) album and just tons of things that guys do who are coming up. You know, it was about the usual evolution of a young jazz musician I would say. I was real fortunate, I would say, that there was still a relatively active scene around Pittsburgh at that time, so it enabled me to work around town a little bit. Then Nathan Davis actually came on the scene a little later, so I played with him a bit.

AAJ: How did you make the move from being a high school dropout to getting a college degree in music education?

SN: [laughs] Actually, I have a Master's in music performance.

AAJ: From Rutgers?

SN: From Rutgers, yeah. Well, around that time my brother lived up in New Jersey, in New Brunswick. So, I was trying to find some direction and stuff, trying to figure out what to do and I wanted to come to New York, so my brother said "Well come on up and hang out with me, 'cause I'm close to New York and we'll go there and hang out and whatever, at least. At that time Rutgers was just starting their jazz program and I actually—my brother took me over to their campus to hang out one day and I sat in with some cats. Who was over there—Larry Ridley and Ted Dunbar, Kenny Barron—and I went over and sat in. They were having an outside jam session, I took my vibes over there— actually my brother took me over there, so I actually owe most of it to him, the whole education thing—and sat in with the cats and that was the beginning of it.

I guess they kind of liked what I was doing and they wanted to get me into the program, which was a fledgling program at that point. They were really trying to get people in, so they made quite easy for me to get in. So that's how I really got started on the scene in New York, man, because I had met all those cats—Freddie Waits was around there—it was just fate or something that I was there—you know Kenny Barron was there. Eventually I wound up playing in Freddie Waits' band—he had a band called Colors Revealed around that time—and eventually ended up playing with Kenny's band, too. I met James Spaulding there and did a lot of things with him and really got fed into the scene through that whole experience.

AAJ: You had played with Grant Green before that?

SN: Yeah, when did that happen? Somewhere in the interim there, around the time that I was still active in Pittsburgh, a little bit before I came up to New Jersey. It was around that area of time, anyway. There was a guy in Pittsburgh who is from Pittsburgh, another guy, named Jerry Byrd, who you might know; he plays a lot with Freddie Cole. I knew Jerry from Pittsburgh and we had done a lot of gigs around Pittsburgh together and had another one of those unofficial bands together. He knew Grant Green very well and Grant always used vibes in his band around that period; he always had a vibes player and his vibes player had broken his leg, or something like that and Jerry actually recommended me for that gig with Grant. So, I went with Grant and that was kind of my first road experience. It was only about a year or so that I stayed with him, so it wasn't extensive, but it was quite an experience to be next to that guitar.

AAJ: Did that bring you to the point that you heard the record Idle Moments (Blue Note, 1963) and were exposed to Bobby Hutcherson?

SN: No because at that time—I actually heard Idle Moments later—at that time that was in that period, man, where cats were into, you know cats like Lou Donaldson were into Alligator Boogaloo and all that stuff, so there was a little bit of a different vibe, even though we did play ... every night we'd play like a set of straight ahead tunes, but we'd also play sets of—I don't know what you would call it ...
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