vəˈräɡō/: a woman of strength or spirit; a female warrior.

Spotlight on Jessie Nelson: Percussionist Extraordinaire, Brooklynite, Music Lover

KE: When I first met you Jessie, you were playing Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” at the Snap-drag drum workshop at the 119 Gallery with Jane Boxall. That was amazing. Then I got to know you more and realized you love hip hop and musical theater as well. Can you talk a little bit about how you inherited such an eclectic taste in music?

JN: I grew up in the theater, as my mother was a lighting designer in New York for quite some time so I was exposed to musical theater very early on, not only in live performance but the soundtrack tapes she’d play in her car when we were driving. I got more into other music (namely pop first) taking dance classes as an 8-year-old. As a teenager I began digging around for other sounds which lead me to discovering Sonic Youth, Ani Difranco, Jazz and Electronic music. In college I became a music journalist along with majoring in music so by then I was listening to everything under the sun as well as going out dancing, to raves and to lots of live performances.

KE: Who were some of your earliest musical influences? Can you name a percussionist that you heard that made you say “I need to do this” or did you experiment with other instruments?

JN: I heard Tony Williams play “Seven Steps to Heaven” on the Miles Davis album and went “I need to do this!”. I played flute for ten years before that but at age 15 or so, I decided I needed to learn how to play drums. I also went looking for other female drummers hardcore at that point and discovered Patty Schemel from Hole, Janet Weiss from Sleater Kinney and Lori Barbero from Babes in Toyland. I also went looking for other female drummers in jazz and came upon two mentor/teachers of mine, Allison Miller and LaFrae Sci, long before I knew either of them.

KE: I’ve heard it said that it takes a rare breed of person to be a drummer because you’re not always as visible and you have to have an incredible amount of physical stamina to play and to lug equipment. Do you agree with that statement? If so, are there ways that you physically prepare for your gigs?

JN: I don’t agree with that statement but that may be because I never thought about it much, I just kind of did it. From a visual standpoint, I’ve always looked strange behind the kit because I’m a 5’2, 105 lb woman and then when it comes to lugging gear, I also just didn’t think about it too much and just made it happen. Having cases for your gear helps tremendously and a small cart if you need it (when I was living in Phoenix I had a car so having the cart was also a huge help). This all being said, when I committed myself to working out on a regular basis in 2012, it was awesome because lugging gear didn’t hurt so much anymore, so in that way I guess I do prepare for my gigs but it’s more of an overall health thing that becomes a bonus.

KE: You live in Brooklyn where many of the spaces tend to be small. How do you practice? Do you use an electric kit at home or do you go to a rehearsal space? If we spent 24 hours with you, would we find you practicing drum rudiments on a pillow or heading out to a rehearsal space to get in your practice?

JN: I’ve had a lot of different living situations and my practice situation seemed to work out regardless of where I was living. In Phoenix (where I did my undergraduate degree at Arizona State University), I was living in an apartment complex with lots of artists so I was able to practice during the day there. When I moved to New York, the first place I was in, I probably could have gotten away with it but I held off on practicing in that apartment because I was in graduate school at the time at Brooklyn College. So the first few months I rented a practice space in Bushwick from the awesome band, The Shondes and was able to practice at school so that worked out well. The next place I lived after I finished graduate school, I wasn’t able to practice so I rented a space from another friend of mine and practiced there in the mornings for very cheap. Where I live now, I’m fortunate enough to be able to practice in my place so, as you can tell, my practicing situation varies.

KE: I know you spend a lot of time in the pit playing musical theater scores and you also teach. What would your dream gig be?

JN: Dream gig: I would love to do a national tour of a musical theater production and I would also love to be in a working/touring band similar to Robert Glasper (jazz/hip hop/electronica hybrid group).

KE: In NYC, there’s a great community of musicians, but also a lot of competition. Do you have to hustle pretty hard to stay a working musician? Do you have any suggestions for up-and-coming musicians? How are you able to balance your time and still stay open to opportunities that arise? How do you rejuvenate after a long week of playing? What’s your relaxation soundtrack?

JN: I lucked out in that I came upon my first theater gig due to a student in my graduate class forwarding me an audition notice. I went to the audition, got the gig and have been lucky enough to keep working theater gigs for the last three and a half years.

Something I’ve learned is that playing as much as possible is important, but so is knocking on doors of people you’ve worked with after gigs to let them know you’re available so they keep you in mind for their next project.

Up-and-coming musicians: Work on your music and work on yourself. Sometimes the music isn’t the hardest part of the job. Keeping your energy level and mental health together can be the biggest part of having longevity in this business. Being a solid player as well as someone who works well with others is extremely important.

Balancing time: You become determined to make it all work, regardless of your work situation at the time. I have done things where I’ve taught in the afternoons and gigged at night, I also had a short period working an office temp job and did shows and rehearsals at night. You drink a lot of coffee and just push to make it all happen. Rejuvenation after a long week of playing: I love to go look at art when I can. When the weather is good, I love walking around the city with no particular destination in mind or hanging out in bookstores. I’m a big reader.

Relaxation soundtrack: Yuka Honda, Jeff Buckley, Dj Shadow, Robert Glasper with Erykah Badu, Air, Telefon Tel Aviv, Shudder to Think, Lemongrass, Everything but the Girl. A mix of jazz/ambient/soul/electronic/indie.

KE: What are you working on right now?

JN: Currently, I’m getting ready for a performance of Cabaret in early May at LaGuardia Performing Arts High School (the Fame school) and a jazz/r&b gig with the Icqk Ensemble at Somethin’ Else jazz venue in late May.

(Link for jazz gig here: https://www.facebook.com/events/581128391906755/?group_id=0

KE: Thank you, girl. I’m so happy to have met you. Looking forward to your next musical adventure.

JN: Thank you!

To get in touch with Jessie and for samples of her work, check out her website at http://jessiemnelson.com/

Jessie Drum Solo Spring 2012 from Jessie Nelson on Vimeo.

About Kristen Demesilda

Kristen Demesilda

Writer and Photographer for Virago Magazine, Kristen grew up listening to vinyl and highlighting the dictionary. Her work has appeared in IrockJazz.com, The East Harlem Journal, Boston’s Culturehive, the Ithacan and other publications. Her love of music cannot be eclipsed by her love of words. She’s been coined the “Akira Kurosawa of Blogs” by such people as herself. An aspiring musician, she has a serious penchant for peach-flavored anything, multi-tasking, slow-paced thrillers and dreams of going back to South America, laying on the beach, and drinking from a coconut.

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