born on 4/6/1932 in St. Louis, MO, United States
died on 27/10/1975 in Los Angeles, CA, United States
Oliver Edward Nelson (June 4, 1932 – October 28, 1975) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger, composer, and bandleader. His 1961 Impulse! album The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1960) is regarded as one of the most significant recordings of its era. The centerpiece of the album is the definitive version of Nelson's composition, "Stolen Moments". Other important recordings from the early 1960s are More Blues and the Abstract Truth and Sound Pieces, both also on Impulse!.
Early life and career
Oliver Nelson was born into a musical family in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. His brother was a saxophonist who played with Cootie Williams in the 1940s, and his sister sang and played piano. Nelson began learning to play the piano when he was six and started on the saxophone at eleven. Beginning in 1947 he played in "territory" bands in and around Saint Louis before joining the Louis Jordan band where he stayed from 1950 to 1951, playing alto saxophone and arranging.
In 1952, Nelson underwent military service in the Marines playing woodwinds in the 3rd Division band in Japan and Korea. It was in Japan that Nelson attended a concert by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and heard Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Paul Hindemith's Symphony in E Flat. Nelson later recalled that this "'was the first time that I had heard really modern music for back in St. Louis I hadn't even known that Negroes were allowed to go to concerts. I realized everything didn't have to sound like Beethoven or Brahms ... . It was then that I decided to become a composer'".
Nelson returned to Missouri to study music composition and theory at Washington and Lincoln Universities, graduating with a master's degree in 1958. Nelson also studied with composers Elliott Carter, Robert Wykes and George Tremblay.
While back in his hometown of St. Louis, he met and married Eileen Mitchell; the couple had a son, Oliver Nelson Jr., but soon divorced. After graduation, Nelson married St. Louis native Audrey McEwen, a union which lasted until his death and produced a son, Nyles.
After completing his degree Nelson moved to New York City, playing with Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis, and working as the house arranger for the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also played on the West Coast briefly with the Louie Bellson big band in 1959, and in the same year began recording for Prestige Records as the leader of various small groups. From 1960 to 1961, he briefly played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and then joined the Quincy Jones big band playing tenor saxophone, both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe.
Breakthrough and afterwards
After six albums as leader between 1959 and 1961 for the Prestige label, Nelson's big breakthrough came with The Blues and the Abstract Truth, an album recorded for Impulse! also featuring Eric Dolphy, Roy Haynes and Freddie Hubbard, which made his name as a composer and arranger. Subsequently, he recorded a number of notable big-band albums including Afro-American Sketches and Full Nelson.
Nelson worked as an arranger on large ensemble albums for Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Smith, Billy Taylor, Stanley Turrentine, Irene Reid, and Gene Ammons. The music Sonny Rollins wrote for Alfie (1966), a film made in Great Britain, was arranged by Nelson for Rollins's Impulse! album of the same name. He also led all-star big bands in various live performances between 1966 and 1975. Nelson continued to perform as a soloist during this period, now focusing primarily on soprano saxophone.
In 1967, Nelson moved to Los Angeles to be near the television and movie industry and began composing background music for television and films. Television projects included Ironside, Night Gallery, Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man and Longstreet. Films scored by Nelson include Death of a Gunfighter (1969), Skullduggery (1970), Dial Hot Line (1970), Zig Zag (1970) and The Alpha Caper (1973). He also arranged Gato Barbieri's music for Last Tango in Paris (1972). During this time he also arranged and produced albums for pop stars such as Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, and Diana Ross.
Along with his big-band appearances (in Berlin, Montreux, New York, and Los Angeles), he led a small group that included John Klemmer, Ernie Watts, Freddie Hill, and Frank Strozier in a US State Department-sponsored tour of West Africa in 1969. Less well-known is the fact that Nelson composed several symphonic works, and was also deeply involved in jazz education, returning to his alma mater, Washington University, in the summer of 1969 to lead a five-week-long clinic that also featured such guest performers as Phil Woods, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, Sir Roland Hanna, and Ron Carter. Among the student participants at the Washington University Summer Jazz Institute were saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett, who later co-founded the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray. Nelson's book of jazz practice exercises, Patterns for Improvisation, was published in 1966 and remains highly regarded to this day.
Nelson died of a heart attack on October 28, 1975 at the age of 43.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Oliver Nelson among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
- "Oliver Nelson | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved October 5, 2019.
- Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 891. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.