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All That Jazz

Actor Gail Nelson’s portrayal of legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter required more than the usual preparations. She listened to records, studied documentaries, and even spoke with Hunter’s own musicians to learn the music and mannerisms of the feisty singer made popular by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. Clearly, her efforts paid off.

“What the very pleasant Cleveland Playhouse edition of Cookin’ at the Cookery has going for it is a perfectly wonderful performer in Gail Nelson,” noted a Cleveland reviewer of the Hunter-themed bio-musical last spring. “Nelson has clearly studied Hunter’s recordings and occasionally duplicates the elder singer’s stylistics. But more often, Nelson just bodaciously belts out [songs] with a mellow bellow and an infectious joy that radiates to the back of the house.”

As an accomplished Broadway performer with notable roles in Hello Dolly, The Tap Dance Kid, and On the Town, Nelson ’65 is quick to credit Oberlin for instigating her “performance addiction. I loved being at Oberlin,” she says. “My most extraordinary year was the one I spent in Austria with the Conservatory.” Later, with a master’s of music degree from the New England Conservatory, Nelson toured throughout the United States and Europe with such groups as the Vienna Chamber Opera and the Philadelphia and Boston Pops.

Nelson’s flare for popular singing lends itself well to jazzy musical roles, such as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. She also performed the role of Coretta Scott King in the musical King, written by Maya Angelou to commemorate the 53rd presidential inauguration and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson’s own recordings include Gail Nelson Sings and readings for the Talking Books series produced by the American Foundation for the Blind. When not acting, Nelson teaches private voice lessons in New York City and gives college-level master classes titled “This Business We Call Show.”

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