BRANDON — Since the age of 3, music was his life, his passion.
That’s when Nathan Mitchell started playing the drums. At age 7, he added the keyboard, followed by the saxophone at 13 and the bass at 18. From there, he continued to add more instruments to his repertoire, such as the guitar, trumpet and clarinet.
Mitchell grew up in a military family that traveled often, but they took music everywhere they called home. His mother sings, and his father — in addition to serving in the Air Force— was a deacon and choir director at numerous churches.
So it was natural for Mitchell to play gospel music.
Yet, today he identifies as a contemporary jazz artist.
“I was a church boy,” Mitchell said. “Jazz was never an option. I didn’t know what smooth jazz was. I knew one song by Norman Brown, That’s the Way Love Goes, and that was it."
But jazz became the best “option” for him to make a name for himself in the music industry.
Now 44, Mitchell is nominated for a coveted NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Jazz Album” for his album, SoulMate.
He’s competing against four other accomplished artists in the category, including Grammy-award winning saxophonist, David Sanchez and returning nominee and saxophonist, Najee.
The NAACP Image Awards is a multicultural award show that celebrates the accomplishments of people of color in the fields of television, music, literature and film. It also honors individuals or groups who promote social justice through creative endeavors.
The winners will be announced during a live, two-hour special that airs on BET networks on Feb. 22 at 8 p.m.
It’s a star-studded event that has included a host of celebrities from Oprah, to Anthony Anderson, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union, Kerry Washington, among others.
Mitchell got a taste of the big day on Saturday when he attended the NAACP Image Awards luncheon in Los Angeles held for all the award show nominees to receive their official certificate confirming their nominations.
In an environment around so many celebrities and successful actors, filmmakers, singers and industry executives, it could be easy to become starstruck.
But for Mitchell, he felt right at home.
Usually, when you deal with artists or actors, they have a sense of fakeness because they’re amongst fans. But in this particular setting, there were no fans. Everybody’s equal.'
To his surprise, Mitchell learned he had a few “fans" of his own.
He said veteran actors like Loretta Devine and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers recognized him and told him they loved his music.
“It’s really humbling because when I first got there I was like ‘Well, why am I here?’” Mitchell said. “And then I’m in the room and people are just showing me so much respect. It’s like, ‘You belong here just like we belong here.’”
That’s when it hit him — he made the right decision to pursue jazz music.
But he wasn’t always this sure. And he remembers a time when he was ready to give up on music completely.
In 2004, his then-wife was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare type of head and neck cancer that starts in the upper part of your throat, behind the nose. She lived six years longer than what doctors predicted and passed away on Sept. 4, 2010.
After her death, Mitchell was tasked with the responsibility of raising their two children on his own, a girl who was 1 year old at the time and an 8-year-old boy.
Mitchell didn’t have much time to grieve or to focus on his music. So he went on an eight-month hiatus.
Then in April of 2011, a friend called him for a gig in Boca Raton to play the keyboard for two jazz artists, Will Donato and Marcus Anderson, who played for Prince and now works with Ceelo Green.
Mitchell turned down the offer several times because he simply lost a desire to perform.
“My passion was just done,” he said.
But his friend persisted, and after multiple attempts and after listening to Anderson’s music, he agreed.
Mitchell played keyboards at the show, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day weekend, and by the end of the show, he was completely in tears.
“Everything that I couldn’t express verbally came out on the keyboard,” he said. “It felt good.”
It was his first-ever jazz performance.
But as a Christian who solely played gospel music, he was hesitant to dive deeper into the world of jazz.
It took a lot of convincing from a friend, another Christian who attends Majestic Life Church in Orlando, to reassure him of the feeling he had but was trying to ignore.
“She told me, ‘when the door opens up, go through it’,” he said, “' It won’t be gospel, but you’ll never be broke again in your life.'”
Mitchell said he walked through the door and hasn’t looked back.
In 2018, he started his own record label, ENM Music group and released his first single, “Inspiration” which spent some time on the Billboard smooth jazz charts at No. 22. Swing City from his latest album, SoulMate, featuring Jasmine Ghent, a Central Florida saxophonist and previous NAACP Image Award winner, charted at No. 32 on Billboard’s 2019 year-end smooth jazz charts.
SoulMate is a dedication album that honors his late wife and what scored Mitchell the coveted Image Award nomination.
Although an NAACP Image Award is a major accomplishment, Mitchell is still working on leaving a local imprint.
Just last year, he was apart of a host of jazz artists, including Marcus Anderson, Kyle Schroeder, Dee Lucas and others, who brought live jazz to the annual Gasparilla parade.
He also recently made an appearance on stage at this year’s Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival supporting Tampa native saxophonist Eric Darius.
Next up he’ll take the stage at the Uptown Music Festival held at the University Area Community Park in Tampa on March 28.
“For him to be honored on a national level, that’s great,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch. "We’re proud of him on a local level, I’m proud to say that he is from Tampa, but I would be even prouder to say that he is a member of the branch.”