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Steve Nelson: Vibing

Russ Musto By

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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.

AAJ: Okay, Darryl and Duane, who were promoters at the time.

SN: Yeah, in the original Horizon.

AAJ: Is that where you first met Mulgrew [Miller] also?

SN: Mulgrew and I actually met a little later, even though I had known about him. We met a little later, but actually it was through Rutgers, too, in a sense, because we met through Bill Fielder, who knows Mulgrew very well. He actually brought Mulgrew up to Rutgers one day and we played all day, man, and that was it. From the first time that we played together it was magic, man, and we've been playing together ever since. We immediately hooked up musically; we synced so perfectly that I knew that we were going to be playing together for a long time. So, that's how I originally met Mulgrew—I can still remember that same day, actually, but even then the years go by and you forget how things came about and how they developed and everything, but eventually Wingspan came about and we've been doing it ever since. But that's how I met him through William Fielder.

AAJ: Who else were you playing with when you first came to the New York area?

SN: I was thinking about Donald Brown, as well. There was a period there where I was recording more with Donald than anybody else. I think I've did about five records with him, so I was always doing a project or something with Donald and that was really one of my main recording experiences was with him. All through those records Early Bird (Sunnyside, 1987), Cause and Effect (Muse, 1991)—I think there's one called Cartunes (Muse, 1993); there's one we did with Alan Dawson called, I think The Sweetest Sounds (Jazz City, 1988). You know, I did a lot of recording stuff with Donald.

AAJ: How did you meet Donald? Did you meet him through Mulgrew?

SN: I actually think I met Donald through James [Williams] and that's why I wanted to discuss James, too. All during that period there, I guess it was the period around the eighties, mid-to-late eighties, I did a lot of playing with Donald and also with James, who I think introduced me to Donald. You know, all up in Boston, mostly, at those clubs The Willow, Sculler's and those kind of clubs and James used to play gigs up there all the time and call me for them and he and I and Alan Dawson did a lot of those gigs and John Lockwood would do them. I think that's where I first met Antonio Hart; it was up there, up in Boston he came and did one of those gigs with us. That was a whole network in itself because I had met James and James introduced me to Donald. Then I met Billy Pierce up there and Lockwood and [Bill] Mobley and all of those guys. So the whole relationship with James was real important because I met a lot of cats and played a lot of great music.

James had written a lot of great tunes that we played, so I actually wanted to make sure I said something about that. That was before the I.C.U. thing that he had started. That was all just before that. After that I think he got kind of busy with that band, so I didn't play with him as much, but before that played with James quite a bit. And Donald as well, doing things on the road; go up to Claremont Farond and play. We'd do quite a lot of stuff together. So those two cats, Donald and James, were definitely important cats along the way.
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