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FAMU alumnus returns as youngest member of the Count Basie Orchestra

By Amanda Jean-Mary
On October 9, 2016

Ray Ellis Nelson II, 23, returned to Tallahassee to perform at the Florida Jazz & Blues Festival last month as the youngest member of the Count Basie Orchestra.

The Count Basie Orchestra has been the gold standard of jazz for over 80 years. They have done so by winning 18 Grammy Awards, performing for world royalty and at every major jazz festival and concert hall in the world; while also appearing in several movies and television shows.

Nelson, or Ray ‘Quasi’ Nelson as he prefers to be called, is originally from West Palm Beach. He graduated from Florida A&M University in May of 2015 with a degree in Jazz Studies.

However in October of 2015 Nelson, currently living in LA, would receive a call from Scotty Barnhart: FAMU alumnus and director of the orchestra. This phone call would jumpstart his career as a premiere drummer.

Barnhart was aware of Nelson’s talents having known Nelson’s parents since his college days when he marched with Nelson’s father in FAMU’s Marching 100.

“To me, he's one of the top young drummers in the world,” Barnhart said. “And coming here to play with this orchestra that's 81 years old and [for him to] sound like that, it's really a great thing."

Nelson was originally called to act as a sub for a couple of shows with the band but at the time it was going through a transition period. Barnhart, who was a long-time believer in Nelson’s talents, felt it was time for Nelson to become an official member.

"I got a call from them a couple months later saying, 'Ray, you know, it's been handed down to you,’” Nelson said.

“‘You are now the official drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra.' I was driving down the highway one night and I was almost in tears. I just couldn't believe it.”

But it is no surprise to some when it comes to Nelson’s achievements.

Nelson has played with artists such as Nat Adderley Jr., PJ Morton, Wynton Marsalis, and Wycleff Gordon. He has even had the opportunity to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Having worked with Nelson in and out of the classroom, FAMU jazz studies professor Robert Griffin, is proud of Nelson’s accomplishments.

“It was exciting for me because as a teacher and a director you always want to see your students progress and be successful.” Griffin continued to say “I feel like a proud papa having one of my students achieve that level of success.”

The Count Basie Orchestra was the ending act of the Jazz & Blues Festival Saturday evening in the three-day event, and Nelson was no weak link. His upbeat solos had audience members rising to their feet in applause and approval, his age clearly not a factor to his musical capacity.

“Everybody came out, showing love,” Nelson said. “So it was truly a blessing being able to come back and play for my 'hometown.'"

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