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Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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 ...

AAJ: Funky stuff.

SN: Yeah.

AAJ: So you came to New York via your experience with the Kenny Barron and Spaulding and the rest of the Rutgers crew?

SN: Yes! Sure. Freddie Waits. Let's see, who else came through? Al Harewood came through there. I had a chance to hang out with all those guys and they fed me into the scene, more or less. I think it's pretty safe to say that's how I got started. I have no idea how I met some people. Some things just happened and I for the life of me can't recall. Like how I met Bobby Watson and Curtis [Lundy] and those guys.

AAJ: I'm sure Curtis just heard you and snatched you right up. He's always been quite the talent scout. He must have gotten that from his years with Betty Carter?

SN: I can't remember. I believe it must have been through the Jeffries brother that we met.

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