Jon Nelson has worn many hats in his day; he has performed in Broadway orchestra pits, presented musical masterclasses around the world and played with industry legends like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Frank Zappa.
Now, Nelson uses his experiences to connect with students as a music professor at UB.
“Every person has a story, and I try to find out what’s up with as many of my students as possible to hear what they have to say, like in the Zappa class [a class Nelson teaches at UB],” Nelson said. “We could have discussions. It wasn’t me lecturing in a large room. I like having the discussions and the feedback from just hearing what people have to say. I think that’s very interesting.”
These conversations around music began at a young age for Nelson, who was raised just outside of Boston by two music teachers. Their “really good record collection” all but ensured his lifelong love for song.
“[My parents played] mostly classical music and jazz,” Nelson said. “When I was in middle school, my dad started taking me to jazz concerts. And then that got me started with having an appreciation for music and being present at all kinds of concerts.”
But this was only the beginning.
While finishing up his Bachelor’s of Music in classical trumpet at The Juilliard School in 1987, Nelson and a group of friends formed the Meridian Arts Ensemble.
Initially a classical brass quintet, Nelson and his cohort formed the group to perform music not played within their curriculums.
“There are very traditional routes that the institution expects the students to take, but we weren’t interested in any of those routes,” Nelson said. “We wanted to carve our own, so we got pretty serious about rehearsing a lot.”
Enter: the Concert Artists Guild Competition. Open to all classical musicians, Nelson and his band saw this as the vehicle to propel them out of the chamber music bubble. He and his bandmates managed to snatch second place in the 1989 competition from over 500 applicants and went all the way to take home first prize in 1990.
Victory did more than just boost the group’s confidence, status and wallet. Winning the esteemed competition landed the ensemble a management deal, commission from a composer of their choosing and most importantly, a record deal.
What began as a plan to loosen the course restrictions at Juilliard earned the Meridian Arts Ensemble international success, allowing them to release their freshman album in the Netherlands and tour the globe from Europe to Latin America to Asia.
“It may seem glamorous, but it’s probably the most unglamorous thing that you could ever undertake,” Nelson said. “Because it’s a lifestyle. At that point it’s not a profession.”
Glamorous or not, touring the world presented unique limitations to Nelson and his band. Not only was his livelihood directly impacted by the number of people his band put into seats, he was in essence a nomad, traveling the globe without the securities that come with settling down in one place.
“Your income is directly tied with your ability to get people to pay you to come play a concert that depends on the music that you play and how you deliver it,” Nelson said. “I didn’t have my first salary until I was 29 years old. And we all lived hand-to-mouth being on the road. We could play 40 concerts in 40 different places over the course of 45 days, flying directly from Taiwan to Miami, getting off the plane in Miami in the morning and going to work immediately. You can’t really do it if you have a family and there’s no point in even having a mortgage because you’re not gonna be spending any time at home.”
But beyond the wear-and-tear of being on the road, Nelson says his goal was always to put on a good show.
“You don’t know the area. You don’t know what people are into. But if people are coming to your concert, they must be curious about something so you’ve got to feed that curiosity and give them something interesting,” Nelson said.
From their classical success, the group was able to branch out and dabble in different genres, covering artists like Jimi Hendrix and band King Crimson. When Nelson received a Zappa cassette in the mail one day from his friend and nephew of famous conductor Leonard Bernstein, the group was entranced.
“The Meridians were on tour and we had a long drive,” Nelson said. “We put that cassette in and we listened to it over and over, six hours to the gig, six hours back. And when we got back, we looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta play this music.’”
This fascination granted The Meridians the opportunity to perform for Zappa twice, the second meeting while he lay on his deathbed just three weeks before dying of prostate cancer in December 1993.
“It was a really heavy moment. We played for him some of the new arrangements I’ve made, and then we said goodbye,” Nelson said. “And that was that. But even though we only met him twice, he had a big impact on the group and on me. We became known as that classical group that Frank liked. As time goes on and as I get older, I realized what a nice thing he did. He didn’t have to do that.”
When Nelson joined the UB music department in 2000, he brought Frank’s philosophies with him and began teaching MUS 199: Frank Zappa, Media Bias & Censorship.
“When I first started teaching the class, people still read newspapers, online newspapers were not so big, there wasn't Instagram or Facebook,” Nelson said. “I’d get four news articles on the same story and would bring them in but do a comparison and ask, ‘Why was this article written? Is there an agenda or slant?’”
As a professor, Nelson’s real-world experience has allowed him to serve as a mentor for students entering the world of professional orchestral production.
“He’s played in so many ensembles himself,” associate professor Eric Huebner said. “He knows how to work with an ensemble and bring a program together. And unless you’ve really experienced that in the real world, [as a] better-working musician, it’s very hard to show that to the students.”
To music department chair Jonathan Golove, Nelson is a perfectionist, leaving no stone unturned in any project he works on.
“[Nelson is] a kind of ‘get the job done’ guy. When he has an idea about something, he doesn’t need any hand holding at all, he’ll do the whole thing himself,” Golove said. “Not that he won’t involve other people in it. But you can be sure that he’ll look after the details. It’s one thing for somebody to have ideas. It’s another for them to drop the ideas in your lap and make it happen.”
Students like MBA candidate Andrew Hoke say Nelson’s devotion to growth has created a culture where class is something to look forward to.
“Jon has always worked on a ‘come as you are’ mentality,” Hoke said. “It didn’t matter if you were rusty or in top shape. Jon would take you and only ask that you end the semester in a better place than you are now. Band was the highlight of the week, a place where I could express myself, meet new people and play challenging and fun music.”
As a member of UB’s music department, Nelson truly believes that UB has a musical experience for everyone regardless of major, unlike most universities, and encourages students to explore their options.
“[UB students] could do a music minor, and an aerospace engineering major. They could get lessons, take a couple of music classes, and play in ensembles, and get credit in their degree for that,” Nelson said. “A lot of the other famous research one schools, they don’t have any system set up for that.”
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Falter is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.