Sierra Mountainaires musical director prepares for Sept. 22 concert
Chris Nelson performed with some of the biggest names in song – Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Mathis – but what he finds most memorable about his music career is teaching.
“Throughout the years I’ve had up to 20,000 students that I’ve taught in jazz history,” he said. “Maybe that’s not any particular memorable experience but I’ve had a great effect on a lot of people. I still have a lot of past students that I run into on the ski hill and (they) say, ‘Oh, you were my jazz history teacher.'”
Nelson moved to Truckee in 1999 after retiring from his position as head of the music department at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Last summer, he took on a different lead role in a music program – director of the local barbershop chorus, the Sierra Mountainaires.
“Somehow or other I got listed to take over.”
Nelson began his music career very young, playing trombone in school bands. He received his bachelor and master degrees in music from the University of Utah. While in college, Nelson performed in big bands that backed some of the most well-known singing groups and solo artists of the ’50s including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, The High Lows and The Four Freshmen.
“I was getting a feel for the real professional world and their approach to music which is not exactly the same as a student’s approach,” he said. “Being in the real performing world and just getting to know them a bit – that was very interesting.”
Interesting, but with big egos, not always easy.
“Sinatra was very professional, a bit cool about everything and he was not one that was warm to the group – as most of the stories about Sinatra go,” Nelson said.
In 1964, Nelson moved to California to direct jazz and orchestral music at Belmont High School, where he worked for seven years before moving to Diablo Valley College.
Nelson’s passion for teaching music began to overshadow his desire to perform it, but he still played his trombone – mostly with rehearsal bands down in Bay Area “more for the enjoyment of playing big band music than actually looking to become a performer.”
As director of the Mountainaires, Nelson said he’s tried to bring his experience as a music teacher and jazz historian to the group’s performances.
“The influence I’ve brought is to help them do these swing and jazz things with a little authenticity,” he said.
For the group’s next performance on Sept. 22, titled “Harmony Through the Years,” Nelson has arranged a set of tunes that stretch several decades – the Gay ’90s, the Roaring ’20s, the Swing era of the ’30s and ’40s and even some rock from the ’50s and ’60s.
“We’ll be doing some old time favorite barbershop music as well as some period music throughout all these decades,” Nelson said. “I think that most of the people who come will find something that they enjoy, that there will be music they remember well.”
In the spring, Nelson will return to teaching on a part-time basis here in Truckee. Sierra College will offer a barbershop class and a chorus class.
The group also hopes to start a community chorus and will promote a Dec. 7 community sing-a-long at its Sept. 22 performance.
“Harmony Through the Years” featuring the Sierra Mountainaires, Santa Rosa’s champion high school barbershop group The Refreshments and Reno’s women’s vocal group Rainbow Reflection will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22 in the Truckee-Tahoe High School auditorium. The show starts at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $12 each and are available at Eagle Mortgage in the DMV Plaza, at Bradbury’s Office Supplies, or by calling 582-9957.
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