Horace “Steady” Stedman Nelson, jazz trumpeter, was born in Jefferson, Texas, on March 29, 1913. Nelson’s father, John Bryan Nelson, was a violinist who traveled by horseback to perform for local dances. In high school the young Nelson played trumpet and acquired his nickname of “Steady” (family members spell his middle name Steadman, which comes from the mother’s side, but his birth certificate records it as Stedman). After graduation Nelson left town with a traveling minstrel show for San Antonio but ended up in Houston where he worked for a dairy owned by a relative’s husband, Dr. Charles Davis. In 1935 he married Ruth Ezel in Houston. They had five children. Delivering milk during the day and playing music at night in clubs on South Main, Nelson made connections that led to his becoming a member of a big band that took him to New York where he listened to musicians in Harlem.
In the 1930s Nelson became a key member of the Woody Herman Band which was billed as “The Band That Plays the Blues.” One of Herman’s most famous tunes was “At the Woodchopper’s Ball,” based on a blues pattern, and the first recording of the piece in 1939 features a muted wa-wa solo by “Steady” Nelson. The Texan would also solo on the 1941 “Blue Prelude,” which served at the time as the Herman band’s theme song. Nelson appears as well on other Herman recordings both as a trumpet soloist and a vocalist.
After 1941 Nelson returned to Houston and subsequently worked in California as a member of radio bands on the shows of Garry Moore, Dinah Shore, and Jimmy Durante. During his career, Nelson also played with the big bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Hal McIntyre, and Horace Heidt. One of a number of Texas sidemen who recorded with Woody Herman, including Jimmy Giuffre and Budd Johnson of Dallas and Gus Johnson of Tyler, Nelson is the least known out of this group that formed part of Herman’s famous “Herds.” But Nelson was an important sideman in the early Herman band, preceded only by trombonist Sonny Lee of Huntsville who participated on a Herman small-group recording of 1936. As the first of the Texans to record on two of Herman’s best-known pieces, “At the Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Blue Prelude,” Nelson earned a special place in big band history. About 1949 he left music for a short time and became an accountant, but he soon returned and performed with various regional bands as well as his own combo in southern California. Nelson was seventy-five when he died in Orange County, California, on January 6, 1988.