One of Tampa Bay's best jazz guitarists, LaRue Nickelson, defies all the stereotypes

Nickelson takes the stage this Valentine's Day at the Palladium Theater.

click to enlarge One of Tampa Bay's best jazz guitarists, LaRue Nickelson, defies all the stereotypes

LaRue Nickelson is, in the minds of his musical collaborators, friends, critics and people who know about such things, a terrific jazz guitarist. The 45-year-old possesses a bountiful imagination as an improviser, considerable technique, a deep knowledge of harmonic theory, formidable composing chops and, perhaps most important, a voice on the instrument that is very much his own.

But a lone holdout in this glowing appraisal of LaRue Nickelson is—LaRue Nickelson.

“Sometimes people will come up after a gig and say something to the effect that I’m really talented,” the guitarist muses. “But that’s not the case, not to me at least. I have to really work at it.”

Whitney James “Jazz Valentine” backed by LaRue Nickelson Trio
Fri. Feb. 14, 8 p.m. $25-$30
Side Door Cabaret at Palladium Theater
253 5th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

Nickelson, who lives with his wife, Joy Thompson, in Tampa, is a self-professed homebody. He teaches guitar at the University of South Florida (USF) a couple of days a week and gives private lessons to a handful of students. He does not currently lead a band, nor is he a regular member of one. He gigs sporadically—when they arise through his network of connections. Nickelson hasn’t released a full-length album under his own name since 2011. His social media presence is mostly confined to posting snippets of home recordings on Instagram.

“I enjoy sitting at home and practicing,” he says. “I don’t really enjoy the social aspect [of music]. It’s fun when I’m playing with a good band, but I don’t really hang out after gigs. I don’t drink at all.”

Despite this reticence, Nickelson is one of the most revered musicians of any genre in all of Tampa Bay. He’s the lead guitarist for the Florida Bjorkestra, a critically-lauded local music collective that’s not in any way restricted to jazz. When Bay area luminaries such as saxophonist David Pate, bassist Michael Ross, singer Whitney James and a roll-call of others need a guitar player, Nickelson is usually their first choice. 

Chuck Owen, the director for jazz composition at USF and a five-time Grammy nominee, regularly comes calling. A few years ago, he used Nickelson on an early, stripped-down version of his epic River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone & Orchestra (2013). Owen sent the piece to Pat Metheny, requesting that the star guitarist play on the final recording.

“He politely declined,” Owen recalls. “But Pat added, ‘I don’t know who the guitarist is, but he sounds great. Why do you need me?’”

When I mention the anecdote to Nickelson, he professes ignorance. He’s either never heard about Metheny’s praise, or he’s forgotten about it. In either case, it’s an insightful tale about LaRue Nickelson, the embodiment of an inner-directed, ego-less musician.

• • •

It was a Saturday afternoon in December, and LaRue and I were sitting in my living room in St. Petersburg. He had stopped by between a large-ensemble rehearsal in Sarasota and a duo gig that night at a Clearwater beach bar with acoustic rocker Paul Reynolds.

Nickelson was cradling a nylon-string acoustic guitar. After quickly tuning up, he played me a snippet of a lovely tune with a sequence of tricky chords that he wrote for an all-ballads recording. The project was shelved indefinitely because the young bass player had a new baby at home and could not make the sessions. Nickelson played for about a minute and stopped after running through the melody. No solo. He shrugged and murmured, ‘Y’know.”

“I’m not much of an entertainer,” he said. “It’s not my goal to put on a show. If I could put a paper bag over my head and play, I would.”

Nickelson’s close cohorts chuckled knowingly when I brought up his self-effacing nature and apparently dim view of his own abilities. Nonsense, they scoffed, although the handful of players I spoke to allowed that Nickelson’s musicianship is likely more a product of his diligent work ethic than an abundance of God-given talent.

“Every good musician I know has those kind of doubts,” said bassist Ross. “LaRue expresses them openly, perhaps to his detriment, but it’s something that everybody at least thinks.”

Said saxophonist Pate, who was one of Nickelson’s instructors at Gibbs High School’s arts magnet program: “First of all, I think he’s amazing. He has an incredible worth ethic, but he has become so original, there is no question that there’s real talent there.”

Nickelson will own his composing prowess, if a little grudgingly.

“I’m a better natural writer than an improviser,” he said. The guitarist has stacks of tunes that he’s written, some of which he’s only played once or twice. 

In the first half of the 2000s, Nickelson was a member of the Michael Ross Quartet, which included Pate. Ross encouraged his young guitarist to contribute original material.

“It was the most writing I ever did, just to try and keep up with LaRue,” Ross said with a laugh. 

From 2008-2011, Nickelson released five albums. He had a backer for the first, Dark Water. One, Labyrinthitis, was financed by a grant. Nickelson paid for two duet records—both with saxophonist/clarinetist Jeremy Powell—out of his own pocket.

None gained much traction outside the close coterie of Tampa Bay jazz aficionados. At some point, the guitarist failed to see the point of continuing to shell out money to record music that was unlikely to garner an audience.

“I’m not a career-minded guy,” he said. That’s one reason he never made the pilgrimage to New York in hopes of earning his stripes in the world’s largest jazz market. He likes the idea of it—mostly “to learn and play with musicians better than me,” he said.

But the pragmatist in Nickelson, mixed with his tendency toward self-doubt, would not allow him to entertain the notion of becoming a big success. And further, he simply didn’t crave it. So he has stayed in Tampa—and not to be a big fish in a little pond. He doesn’t seem to much care about being in a pond at all. 

“It’s a cliche, I know,” Ross said. “But for LaRue, it really is all about the music.”

• • • 

“I was not musically inclined,” Nickelson says of his early childhood. He was born in Kennesaw, Georgia and moved with his mother to Palm Harbor at age 8. His mom, who sang and played folk songs, asked her son if he’d like to learn to play. LaRue declined.

“I listened to Michael Jackson and Prince and stuff,” Nickelson recalls. “I was good just listening. I didn’t care to sing at all.”

Then Black Sabbath came thundering along.

“I think it must have been the song ‘Paranoid,’” he says. “Something clicked.” 

(Here Nickelson picked out the riff of “Iron Man” on his nylon-string. “I still love that,” he said, grinning.)

In a two-person household with limited resources, mother handed over her Silvertone acoustic, with the promise of an electric if he stayed with it for a year. On his 11th birthday, LaRue got an off-brand model and a small amp.

“After that, guitar was front and center,” Nickelson says.

In his teens, Nickelson was a member of the Americana rock band Unpainted Souls, led by Billy Whiting. The guitarist soaked up the likes of Van Halen and Jeff Beck, inching toward jazz-fusion. Those floodgates opened when he heard Allan Holdsworth, a slippery-fingered wizard who played with Tony Williams Lifetime, French-violinist Jean Luc Ponty and released a number of influential solo albums during the fusion movement’s heyday of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. 

Nickelson’s horizons expanded at Gibbs High.

“I was the jazz band director and LaRue was one of the first members,” Pate recounts. “We actually needed him to have enough for a combo. He basically knew some blues licks. I made him play bass for a year. We needed a bass player.”

Pate set aside his own time to tutor Nickelson in music theory.

“He had the stuff to work and work and work,” the saxophonist adds. “He grew so fast.” 

Nickelson took the well-trodden road of learning the jazz canon, working backward from Bill Frisell, the Brecker Brothers, John Scofield and the like, to the post-bop of Grant Green (one of his faves), Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw and Miles Davis’s fabled (and guitar-less) 1960s quintet. 

He matriculated into the well-regarded music education program at USF, majoring in Jazz Performance. His reputation as a talented—yes, talented—committed and easy-to-work-with musician began to spread. His elders sought him out for gigs and recording sessions. He has shared stages with Chick Corea, Peter Erskine, Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Liebman and other prominent jazz names.

• • •

To this day, Nickelson is constantly on the lookout for weaknesses in his playing and insists on continually adding arrows to his musical quiver. He discards none of the information. That’s why he can rip through bebop solos, turn up the sustain and wail with fusion-esque fervor, hammer out rock and blues licks, and play sensitive acoustic chord melodies. 

He will not countenance repetition. It’s one reason the guitarist refuses to listen back to recordings of his live solos: he might hear recycled phrases, which drives him batty. It’s also the reason that, unlike many of his fellow instrumentalists, he does not accept work in pit bands, which can go a long way toward paying the bills.

“I did one rehearsal with a Frank Sinatra impersonator and had to quit,” he says. “The idea of doing the parts the same way 30 times on a tour, I just couldn’t do it. I played in the pit band for a week for the show “9 to 5” at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. I almost got driven insane.”

Nickelson recently unveiled two new tracks—both running just over three minutes—on Bandcamp, pieces recorded last year that showcase his writing more so than guitar work. “Motian in Motion” is slow-moving and warm like a hug, with Nickelson’s washes of guitar and understated lines integrating into the melody and ensemble work. 

There’s nary a hint of flashiness in his playing, but it brims with substance and maturity.

“I’ve never been a look-at-me kind of player,” Nickelson says.

It’s one comment among many that reflects his unwavering commitment to music as a personal pursuit.

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About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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