Nellie McKay

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Nellie McKay

Nu-Jazz / Folk / Acoustic

A multi-talented "youngster" of 19, Nellie McKay is already a seasoned In 1994, following a mugging and the murder of Tenant's Association leader Bruce Bailey, Nellie and her mother traveled west in a Volkswagen Beetle bus towing a Volkswagen Beetle bug, a contraption so precarious the pair had barely made the on-ramp to the Washington Bridge when the engine puttered to a halt. "We were basically towed cross-country," Nellie recalls. "Between the numerous cups of hot coffee spilled in our laps, our dog Joe sleeping in the kitty litter tray, and the cats meowing silently, it was a catharsis of motion, a real violent trip, and a real testament to how badly we wanted a little peace and country quietude."

They did not find it in Olympia, Washington. It was Nellie's first encounter with suburbia, and though she liked her teachers, "I found [suburbia] a strange and foreboding place, much scarier than the city," she remembers. It wasn't long before a friend of her mother's back East, Nellie's future step dad, had found a home in Pennsylvania and so Nellie and her mom launched another cross-country trip, this time with a 24-foot tractor trailer towing their Beetle-bus. Nellie attended junior high and high school in Pennsylvania. She had begun playing cello in Washington and now played the saxophone in concert band, the piano in jazz band, and cello in the local orchestra. She began formal jazz piano studies at East Stroudsburg University and took up mallet percussion--"xylophone, timpani, vibes, triangle - you name something to whack and I played it"--in the school marching band. Throughout the course of high school Nellie was a member of the COTA Cats, the high-school jazz band that played yearly at the Delaware Water Gap Jazz Festival, and HOBY, a selective leadership conference. She played in Pocono Youth Orchestra, District Band, Regional Band, the All-State Jazz Band, East Stroudsburg University Jazz Ensemble and Phil Woods' Orchestra. She was section leader in marching band, treasurer of the student government, and secretary of the chorus. Music was not her favorite subject, at least not in a secondary school environment. "Music sucked," she remembers with irony. "I really wanted to be a WNBA superstar. Or a model. Or a bus driver. Or president. But my grades were terrible and I figured I should apply to music school." (Brief research attests that Nellie's grades, by her senior year, were dangerously poor; her school file is crammed with numerous summonses to the guidance counselor, several in-school suspensions, and warnings of late graduation.) Nellie entered the Manhattan School of Music in the fall of 2000, and dropped out the spring of 2002. "I wandered the dorms only at night, to put up fliers for my shows," she says. "I had no desire to see anybody, to have to be funny or pretty or 'cool'--being 'cool' is the bane of all existence--I was either locked in my room, not answering when people knocked, or in Greenwich Village, playing 'She Loves You' and meeting drunks and loners of all description." Eventually Nellie found herself playing up to eight gigs a week at such piano bars as Don't Tell Mama's, Stonewall Bistro, the now defunct Psychic Cafe, Regents, Rose's Turn, and Mozart Café, where she was canned because, "I liked to play Christmas songs in August because people would smile and it was the best time to play them 'cause people weren't sick of them. I got fired for that." After her gigs, she would often stop by Smalls jazz club, "the late, great, beautiful little Smalls," mainly to talk to the owner, Mitch Borden, and to give beer to the musicians and treats to Smalls' mascot, Snow (an albino dog) and the cats wandering about backstage. Occasionally she would sing, but "jazz musicians don't like singers, generally, and I hated to do that to them; I also felt like a bimbo without the piano." In September of 2002 Nellie performed at the Mountain Valley Arts festival in Lake Guntersville, Alabama, where she won both 1st Place in her category (Variety) and Best in Show, for "Won't U Please B Nice?," one of her first attempts at songwriting. Nellie returned to New York and moved to Staten Island, where she rented a room "in the witch's castle." She began frequenting the East Village and debuting her music in a steady flow: one song every week for a time, sometimes two, a three week hiatus now and then.

 

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