Jessie Nelson’s drum journey began when she heard Tony Williams drumming on a Miles Davis album at 17 and knew she had to play. After receiving her BA in Music (drum set / percussion / jazz studies) she jumped feet first into professional gigs with various jazz groups. She then got her MFA in Performance and Interactive Media and hit the Off-Broadway theater scene. Jessie continues to perform in musical theater pits, jazz clubs, and wherever innovative music can be found. An educator as well, Jessie can be found teaching the next generation of percussionists via artist workshops and private lessons.
Women are underrepresented in the percussion world. Our weekly series, Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW), aims to recognize, celebrate, and inspire female percussionists of all stripes. Each Wednesday we’ll feature a profile of a drummer, who will share tips, advice, and videos.
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What is your city, country, and age?
New York, New York, 36.
What kind of gear do you use? What’s your setup?
I use a Mapex Venus Series Jazz Kit. Depending on the gig, my setup might be: Zildjian K 22″ Dark Ride or Sabian HHX Duo 20” Ride, Meinl Dark hi-hats, and a Gretsch Catalina refurbished snare.
What bands/groups do you perform with, if any?
Various artists from musical theater to jazz to R&B to singer songwriters, such as Jordan March and Whitney White, and my R&B/soul/jazz quartet Linetilter. My musical theater productions include Rent, Cabaret, Next To Normal, and many others.
What led you to your instrument?
I heard Tony Williams on the Miles Davis album Seven Steps To Heaven when I was 17 years old and decided I needed to do that, even though I had never played drums before in my life. I then spent six years at Arizona State University learning drum set, mallets, and various percussion. By the time I graduated at 25 I was playing restaurant, wedding, jazz gigs, and a church gig on percussion regularly.
I started writing about music for the Village Voice, Billboard Pro, The L Magazine, and other alternative weekly publications from 2001 to 2006 because I didn’t know if I was going to get to be a professional working drummer.
By the time I was 25 the gigs started coming and kept coming and I then transitioned from a music journalist to a working musician. I had a lot of doubters, especially when I decided to move from Phoenix (where I had done my undergraduate degree in music) to New York where I completed an MFA at Brooklyn College and immediately started playing Off Broadway shows and other gigs at night.
People who doubt me only make me work harder to accomplish what people think I can’t. That belief also extends to using my musical knowledge as a DJ at the Ace Hotel in New York as of 2017. I had never DJ’d in my life, but I learned the technology and hustled to get the gig, and successfully killed it twice that year!
How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
I never go into a practice session without a plan. I warm up with a hands and feet combination exercise consisting of samba feet over sixteenths, triplets, eights, and then sixteenths with the accents moved around each beat. I then work on whatever music I’m learning for gigs. At the end I play along to tunes I really enjoy and leave some time for groove improvisation, which consists of trading fours and eights with myself in various styles (Latin, R&B, jazz).
What’s something you believe about drumming or music that other people think is crazy?
It is entirely possible to making a living playing drums. I’ve paid tons of bills with gig money.
As artists, the goal post for “success” is always moving. There’s not one “I made it!” point. How do you think about and define success?
My definition of success has become working consistently on high-quality gigs with professional players and I’ve been doing exactly that the last few years, for which I’m extremely grateful.
If you use every failure as a lesson in what not to do next time, it’s not failure.
Do you have any quotes or sayings that you live by?
Keep it professional, keep it moving, and the work will continue to come.
And “Nobody’s going to steal my peace,” which Cindy Blackman Santana said.
Any advice for girls contemplating getting started and making it in this arena?
Do it because you love making music and love the process.
Where else to find Jessie