Garland Nelson: Changing the World One Note at a Time

GARLAND NELSON / Photo by Tracey buyce

GARLAND NELSON / Photo by Tracey buyce

Every artist is driven by a burning passion. For Garland Nelson, that passion is service towards others. 

“Service was the objective and music became the delivery mechanism,” he says. “It’s who I am as a man.”

Growing up in the Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn, Nelson had a love for all kinds of music.  He'd raid his uncle's massive record collection, admiring and mimicking all he heard -- a lot of B.T. Express, Commodores, and Earth, Wind & Fire. He had always enjoyed singing along and harmonizing, but had never attempted to turn his passion into a career until one fateful day when, two years after graduating from Skidmore College, he went to an Open Mic Night at Bailey's Cafe, the Saratoga Springs nightspot previously known as the Golden Grill, which was "the city's last black club, so to speak." 

"Even after the remodel, there was still a spiritual power to this place,” Nelson recalls. "Open Mic Night attracted everyone who was in the local scene, mostly hailing from a 
folksy kind of background.” 

Singing a cappella, Nelson performed "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" by James Taylor, and a gospel song, "He Looked Beyond My Faults." 

"People were like turning around and saying 'Oh, my God, who is this guy?'  I said, “Thank you very much” and everyone was clapping like crazy. A friend chased me into the bathroom and said, "What you just did tonight, I want you to do next week." 

From that moment on, “it was off and running,” says Nelson. 

Exploring New Genres

"As I began my career, it became evident to me that the thing that made me feel best about helping people also coincided with this artistic expression," he says. "They just kind of found each other.” 

In 2001 he joined a regional nine-piece band called the New York Players. Three years into his five-year tenure, he joined three friends in creating Soul Session, a soul singer-fronted acoustic outfit that has become a mainstay on the fundraising, private parties, and wedding circuits in the Capital Region and around the country. 

Nelson has an almost magical ability to connect with audiences, the result of a decision he made early in his career to be an entertainer, performing all styles of music for a wide demographic: classic R&B, Hip Hop, worldbeat, and more. He had not acquired a love for rock, but he knew his audiences liked it, and so, he says, "I had to diversify quick. I had to have an appreciation for that diversity, and develop a love to go into this music." 

Nelson’s intuitive side took over and he developed a fascination with understanding how recordings were produced. This helped him not only understand the artistic complexity that went into developing this music, but truly enjoy the music. 

He hasn't lost his love for the music he grew up with. That would always hold a place in his heart, but he began exploring, and excelling at, different genres. 

Continuity is Success

In 1999, Nelson was selected to represent New York State in a national talent competition, and was flown to Nashville to compete against performers from the other 49 states. While waiting in the green room for the 'Ns' to perform, Nelson started singing and harmonizing with the competition for creative fun. Rather than being intimidated by these remarkable musicians, Nelson saw this as an opportunity and began to think about how incredible it would be to work with talent like them back home.

'I was no longer seeing it from a competition perspective. What I noticed instantly and what changed in me was that everyone has something to get out of themselves.” 

This helped fuel the business aspect of Nelson’s career. In this moment, the "producer" aspect of his career began. Nelson had a blast being able to just jam out with all of these talented musicians regardless of the competition's outcome. 

Nelson didn’t win in the end. Looking back, he thinks this may have been for the best. He enjoys the freedom of being able to perform anywhere, anytime. While he thinks it would be great to perform at Madison Square Garden and make it big, he also knows there are tradeoffs. "That’s a different kind of success where you can’t sit down at Spot coffee and just kick it without being inundated by 40 million people.”

Everyone has to figure out what level they want and how they view and value success. For Nelson, "continuity is success for me.”

Nelson is an all-star talent whom the Saratoga community is fortunate to have. He can be found performing at various locations in the area, such as the Diamond Club Restaurant and Firestone 151. On May 18, Soul Session will perform at the American Cancer Society's 2019 Gala of Hope.

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A senior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Jake Somoza has a dual interest in journalism and sports, runs the 400 and 800 meters on the track team, and sings in the SSHS choir.