Nelson received classical training on piano and violin, but became best known in jazz as a trumpeter; he also was an arranger, having studied under Richard M. Jones. He played in Chicago with the Marie Lucas Orchestra, then worked with Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, Edgar Hayes, Jimmie Noone, Leroy Pickett, and Luis Russell. Having been informally associated with King Oliver early in his career, he officially became a member of Oliver's band in 1929, playing trumpet on his recordings for Victor in 1929-1931, as well as composing and arranging the pieces. He also led his own ensembles from the late 1920s; Jimmy McLin was one of his sidemen in the 1930s. Late in his career he worked mostly as an arranger, and was on the staff of Lewis Publishing.
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