John L Nelson bio

The John L. Nelson Project – Don’t Play With Love

“Our personalities are a lot alike but his music is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s more complex. A lot of beautiful melodies are hidden beneath the complexity.” – Prince on the music of his father, John L. Nelson

When pianist/composer John L. Nelson – father of musical wunderkind Prince – was in his final days before passing at age 85 on August 25, 2001, songs that he’d co-written with his son (specifically, to which he’d provided the all-important melody lines) had made many priceless things possible for him. He was able to go places around the world he never dreamed, enjoyed the care of `round-the-clock attention from a personal valet, and otherwise lived the life of a bona fide “artiste” – one whose existence revolved solely around playing and composing songs at his piano and organ in the basement of ‘The Purple House’ (formerly Prince’s abode in Chanhassen, Minneapolis). The man who had contributed the stately longing of “Under the Cherry Moon,” the haunting sensuality of “Scandalous,” the skipping melody of “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” the rapturous movements of “Computer Blue” and – most indelibly – the very essence of the anthem “Purple Rain” to the canon of international pop music had everything a creative could wish for…except one thing: recognition for his own singularly genius solo works. It would be left to another obscured guardian angel, his daughter Sharon L. Nelson, to lovingly and posthumously rectify this oversight by compiling and producing his works with a collective of like-minded sympathizers. The result is the stunning 7-song Don’t Play With Love, The John L. Nelson Project recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis, offering a peek into the romantic soul of a man…from a jazz point of view. The project is being released through Sharon’s Maken It Music Record Company, Inc. (distributed by ropeadope) on March 2, 2018.

The John L. Nelson Project consists of Producer Sharon L. Nelson, co-producer Charles F. Spicer Jr., executive producer L. Londell McMillan plus musicians led by legendary jazz drummer Louis Hayes (nephew of John L. Nelson), pianist/arranger Rick Germanson, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and bassist Dezron Douglas.

In this album, John L. Nelson’s songs are woven through a decidedly modern tapestry of jazz styles, primarily served in a quintet formation. The opener, “Lucky Am I,” is a swing hazily reminiscent of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” conjuring visions of nighthawks at open-air watering holes, parlors and red-lit houses of burlesque temptation. “Heart of Mine,” the album’s first single, is a breezily blossoming samba - a dance to blissful afternoons. “Runnin’ Through My Mind” is a laidback and winding jazz journey featuring trumpeter Pelt, liberally dotted with drummer Hayes’ signature driving ride cymbal and his insistent accenting upon the snare. The ominous “Darkness” features a standout bass solo by Douglas and a closing tag that seems to convey, ‘how long will this darkness cloak my aching soul…’ The closer, “Step Back,” is a soulful rolling groove that captures the bold spirit of the man that seems to say, ‘make way for a bold new voice in music.’

Most transfixing of Nelson’s songs are his ballads. The title track, “Don’t Play with Love,” is achingly cinematic, leaving little to ponder why Prince most often utilized his father’s melodies for his movie music. The melody, brought to lush life by Herring on alto, sounds like one that would waft softly from a radio as curtains dance a minuet and lovers tumble in ardor’s warm embrace. So lovely was this piece that an orchestration for string quartet by Adi Yeshaya was commissioned. Finally, there is “Lonely,” on which the horns lay out making this the sole piano trio offering featuring Rick Germanson at the ivories – the sound of a man who sacrificed for his art and his family longing to fly upon gossamer wings of melody.

“I’ve had the sheet music for these songs since 1978,” says John’s eldest daughter Sharon L. Nelson, herself a musician. “But once Prince became famous around that time, I was gently pushed aside and Dad started giving Prince cassettes of his songs. Dad forgot all about these old songs but I stumbled upon his handwritten charts a few years ago when they fell from a cabinet and scattered to the floor. At first, I would just play them on my piano around the house. After Prince died (April 21, 2016), I got the idea of celebrating my father’s 100th birthday by recording these 7 songs in the jazz style which we discussed and doing it at Paisley Park to tie in Prince and the Nelson family legacy.”

To accomplish this, Sharon brought in her cousin, jazz drumming great Louis Hayes (80), whom she was very close to and spent time with when he had gigs in Manhattan, New York. Detroit-native Hayes was first brought to New York by legendary pianist/composer Horace Silver in 1956 and later joined Cannonball Adderley’s Sextet then played with a veritable who’s who of jazz musicians including John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins and Cedar Walton. A living legend of jazz and a band leader in his own right, Louis Hayes lives and breathes the art form.

“It is such an honor to be a part of this family,” Hayes enthuses. “John was a very complicated human being. His music reflects this aspect of his personality. Like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Horace Silver, what John would write was right…but it was unusual. His musical thoughts were on a very high level. I’m grateful to still be alive and for Sharon to give me this opportunity to interpret this music in a way that John was not able to in his lifetime. We could have gone in many different directions with this music but our way is very modern. I was so surprised by the sound. It’s really up to date and his concept will never get old.

The caliber of musicians I deal with made sure of that.”

Sharon and Louis assembled the quintet that would bring Mr. Nelson’s music to life in a jazz light. Sharon was especially partial to bringing in alto saxophonist Vincent Herring whose passionate rendition of “Love Walked In” (from The Uptown Shuffle – Smoke Sessions 2013) was a favorite. Having played with greats that include Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Dizzy Gillespie, the Charles Mingus Big Band, Phil Woods’ Sax Machine, Nancy Wilson, Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Orchestra and (as most everyone here) The Cannonball Legacy Band, he brings a wealth of soul and sensitivity to the set. Herring states, “John’s music was interpreted on the logic of the melodies and the harmonies that were there, then fleshed out by our natural tendencies and influences.”

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt has worked with everyone from R&B legend Bobby “Blue” Bland, cabaret great Bobby Short and Jamaica’s beloved The Skatalites to jazz royalty Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, John Hicks and Ravi Coltrane. Musing on Nelson’s music as “an interesting study,” he brings great depth to the sessions.  

Bassist Dezron Douglas studied at the Jackie McLean Institute of African American Music at the Hartt School of Music and co-founded the New Jazz Workshop of Hartford (Connecticut) while also a member of the Cyrus Chestnut Trio and holding down the bottom with Louis Hayes himself in The Jazz Communicators. Breaking down Nelson’s music, Douglas elucidates, “You can hear all the Ellington and modern jazz that John was listening to. Still, he had a different approach to composing melodies to changes… some really hip chords. It’s very much African American classical music.”

The task of filtering Nelson’s handwritten charts fell to pianist Rick Germanson, an alumnus of Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine, Frank Lacy, Regina Carter, Donald Harrison, Marlena Shaw and Charles McPherson. Assessing it all, Rick shares, “His music is very unique and moves in unexpected directions - a really unique sound. I’ve never played anything quite like it. You think, ‘Oh, it’s a standard format,’ but there’s little twists and turns…”

Sharon L. Nelson adds, “Because Dad jotted his charts out so quickly, they could be difficult for musicians to read. I’m a perfectionist. So, I had Rick chart them exactly the way Dad had – same notes, same keys…the right hand and the chords - only clearer and on nice new paper. Remember, the original charts were on paper from the `70s! He did a great job. They were clear enough for everybody to play, sticking close to the melody then adding their own improvisations.”

Engineer Jason Miller who gave the recording a pure, open and authentic sound mix, reflects, “Nelson’s songs sound like songs I’ve known my entire life…

Considering the circumstances, it’s really amazing to think the project came out this way. I’d like to think that both John and Prince would be really proud of it and, for Prince, that it happened in his home, in his world.”

John Louis Nelson was born in Cotton Valley, Louisiana on June 29, 1916. His great, great grandfather was a dazzling musician who played 27 instruments. Blessed with both a lineage and a passion for music, John became a self-taught musician/composer on piano. While still a child, his family relocated to Minneapolis where, as an adult, he became the first (and for the longest time sole) Black American employee as a plastic molder for the Honeywell Corporation where he worked for 35 years. Some nights, he also performed under the stage name Prince Rogers leading his Prince Rogers Combo. With his first wife Vivian, he had four children - Sharon, Norrine, Lorna and John - who would drift off to sleep at 7:30pm to his “tuck-in tunes” – both standards and originals. This was his life for many years until John divorced, remarried and sired two more children, the first of which was a son: Prince Rogers Nelson.

The parallels between John L. Nelson and his son Prince would be uncanny if also largely unsung. In a segment from the 90’s TV news magazine “A Current Affair,” Nelson insisted that he taught Prince everything he knows. This stemmed from his impeccable fashion presentation at all times and the immaculate care he took in the maintenance of his hands all the way to his sensitive playing and composing touch at the piano. Sharon, who - quiet as it’s kept - was the first person to shop Prince’s music to New York City record executives just after he graduated from high school, details, “When you listen to Prince on his final ‘Piano & A Microphone’ concert, he’s playing the chords that Dad taught him. Piano was Prince’s first instrument…his father’s piano. Dad would tell him to stop but he’d keep banging away, nothing was going to stop him from becoming the icon he was destined to be.”

On that same television interview, John stated, “I named him Prince because I wanted him to do everything that I really intended to do.”

Now Sharon Louise Nelson is insuring that her father, John Louis Nelson, begins to receive the attention and acclaim he and his music rightfully deserve via the release of Don’t Play With Love, The John L. Nelson Project. The sessions took place January 17 & 18, 2017, which Louis Hayes described as “…a very unique experience, like going to the great Pyramid."

Co-producer Charles F. Spicer Jr. - a 40-years friend of both Sharon and Prince - states, “We wanted to ensure that this music was recorded at Paisley Park. It just felt like this project was driven by the spirits of Prince and his father. It all came together so fluidly and naturally. The band only took 2 days to put down 7 Grammy-worthy tracks. All of the songs were single takes. This music shows the magnitude of Prince’s father’s compositions and how instrumental he was to the music that Prince created.”

Sharon surmises, “I don’t know why Prince never recorded Dad playing his own music… Maybe Dad never asked. I do know that Dad never thought that he was good enough. He didn’t really know he was good until he heard ‘Purple Rain’ on the radio. He was an extremely romantic writer. Prince and I both got that from him. Now is the time for the music of John L. Nelson – a great jazz artist and a prolific composer. Without him there would have been no me, no Prince nor any of us with his good musical DNA. Dad always said, ‘Your money is in your melody.’ I had to bring this vision to fruition.”

'He told me one time that he has dreams where he’d see a keyboard in front of his eyes and he’d see his hands on the keyboard and he’d hear a melody. And he can get up and it can be like 4: 30 a.m. and he can walk right downstairs to his piano and play the melody. And to me that’s amazing because there’s no work involved really; he’s just given a gift in each song. He never comes out of the house unless it’s to get something to eat and he goes right back in and he plays all the time. His music. . .one day I hope you’ll get to hear it. It’s just—it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard.' - Prince

Bio composed by A. Scott Galloway (February 26, 2018