JOSH NELSON - Exploring the Possibilities
August 25, 2016 by Helen Borgers

It was so appropriate that I should get a chance to catch up with Josh on the day that the news was confirmed that there is a rocky planet named “Proxima b,” orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, which may have water on its surface, and may be the closest possible home for life outside our solar system.  Josh is a visionary, inspired by science fiction and science fact, whose artistry is expressed through music, lyrics, prose, and multi-media installations. I know they'd love his work on "Proxima b!" 


Josh is very familiar to KJazz listeners because we regularly boast about his being a graduate of the Jazz Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach, the home of KJazz. But he is not only a CSULB grad, he is also a Long Beach native!


He was born at St. Mary’s Hospital, where his physician grandfather was Chief of Staff. His grandfather was also a classical pianist and, although he died when Josh was just 14, his influence definitely made an impact. Josh credits him with introducing him to music, getting him to listen to Andre Previn and Leonard Bernstein, among others, at an early age.



One of the original Metronome All Stars!  Photo courtesy of Josh Nelson.

But Josh was also inspired by his parents. His father was a Walt Disney Imagineer… installing rides and helping to build Epcot Center! What a playground for a kid! His father got him reading science fiction classics. Josh says they would watch films like The Time Machine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and then he would read the books. So he grew up loving, old movies, great literature, and science.


His mother worked in community theatre in Simi Valley (where Josh grew up), another great funhouse for a budding artist. There were low-budget productions of The Man of La Mancha, Romeo and Juliet, and so on. Josh performed in the shows, and made his parents proud when the Calendar section of The Times noted his performance as Peter Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, saying he had “teen idol potential!”


That's Josh on the left in Romeo and Juliet.  Teen idol potential and all! Photo courtesy of Josh Nelson.

However, fate intervened when Josh started playing trumpet and piano. Theatre was all well and good, but Music was IT!

Photo courtesy of Josh Nelson

When looking for a college to attend, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to move into a studio attached to his grandmother’s property, which was across the street from CSULB. He could walk to school, take care of his grandmother, have his own space, get a scholarship, and study with the great musicians who were part of what was then called “The Commercial Music Program.” The faculty at that time included Cecilia Coleman, Bill Watrous, and Peter Erskine, among others.  


Upon graduation, Josh decided to put off grad school because he wanted to get into the jazz scene. And that decision has certainly paid off! Some of his long-lasting jobs have come about as a result of people who have played with him, or heard him play, and recommended him. For example, bassist John Belzaguy suggested Josh to Natalie Cole, with whom he played regularly for four years, and then on-and-off until her death.


With Natalie Cole - photo courtesy of Josh Nelson

Natalie got a kick out of Josh’s obscure knowledge of old movies and the Great American Songbook, and would quiz him on stage without warning! “You know the verse to that?”  “What movie did that song come from?”  And she took a real interest in his career, even showing up to some of his gigs, including one at Vibrato with Pat Senatore’s trio (because she had heard the disc featuring Josh on KJazz)!


Being in the jazz scene also brought him together with Sara Gazarek, who was just beginning to get attention about the time Josh was heading into his last semester at CSULB. The two of them clicked and have been working together in groups of various sizes in various settings ever since, recording and touring. They were recently together as guests on Kurt Elling’s Passion World … Sara sang and Josh wrote the arrangements for the backup vocals!


Josh and Sara Gazarek - photo courtesy of Josh Nelson

The latest news is that their August 2016 duo release, Dream in the Blue, has already hit #10 on the Billboard chart! Also, in October, they’re taking their quartet on their first tour of Europe! They’ve been to Japan 8 to 10 times, and have a big following there, but this is their first time in Europe:  Portugal, Spain, Italy, Paris, and more!


Josh's arrangement of "Mood Indigo" off of Dream of the Blue with Sara Gazarek



Josh's original, "All Again," on Dream of the Blue with Sara Gazarek


When he has time, and finds an appropriate location that can handle the scope of the projects, Josh organizes multi-media presentations inspired by his love of Science and Sci-Fi. Initially a CD release called The Discovery Project, inspired by the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and others, the concept of “Discovery” has expanded. His most recent installation is called “The Sky Remains,” and it is an exploration of Los Angeles—past, present, and future, with spoken word, pictures, videos, and, of course, music! It covers everything from drought to floods, freeways, tunnels, the old Red Cars, the modern Metro system, architecture, racial tension, multiculturalism, and the arts. Visually dazzling, aurally awesome. The music includes originals by Josh, along with other composers associated with L.A. (Jimmy Rowles, for example) and Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting theme for the film, Chinatown.  


Josh’s second Discovery Project CD is called Exploring Mars (2015). I started the blog with a video inspired by that release. I end here with the full track, “Spirit,” featuring Josh on piano, Larry Koonse on guitar, vocalist Kathleen Grace, Dave Robaire on bass, Dan Schnelle on drums, and John Daversa on trumpet.


For more information about Josh, visit his website:

On-air personality, Helen Borgers, can be heard on KJazz 88.1 FM from 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday. As a jazz broadcaster, Helen has been invited to give pre-concert lectures at various performing arts centers, served on panels in jazz conventions all over the world, and lectured about the history of jazz in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She has also written articles for international jazz publications and regularly emcees concerts, festivals, and club dates throughout southern California.

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