Oliver Nelson

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Oliver Nelson
Born (1932-06-04)June 4, 1932
St. Louis, Missouri
Died October 28, 1975(1975-10-28) (aged 43)
Los Angeles
Genres Bebop, hard bop, post-bop, jazz fusion
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, arranger
Instruments Soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, and clarinet
Labels Verve
Flying Dutchman

Oliver Edward Nelson (June 4, 1932 – October 28, 1975) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger, composer, and bandleader.[1] He is perhaps best remembered for his groundbreaking 1961 Impulse! album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, widely regarded as one of the most significant recordings of the modern jazz 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!.[2]


Early life and career[edit]

Oliver Nelson was born into a musical family. 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.[3][4]

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'".[5]

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.[3][6]

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.[3]

Breakthrough and afterwards[edit]

After six albums as leader between 1959 and 1961 for the Prestige label (with such musicians as Kenny Dorham, Johnny Hammond Smith, Eric Dolphy, Roy Haynes, King Curtis and Jimmy Forrest), Nelson's big breakthrough came with The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which made his name as a composer and arranger, and he went on to record a number notable of big-band albums including Afro-American Sketches and Full Nelson.[3]

He worked as an arranger on large ensemble albums for Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, Jimmy Smith, Billy Taylor, Stanley Turrentine, Irene Reid, Gene Ammons and many others. 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, 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) and Zig Zag (1970).[4] He also arranged Sonny Rollins' music for Alfie (1966) and 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 Department of State 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, John Cotter, and Ron Carter. Among the student participants at the Washington University Summer Jazz Institute were saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett, who together with David Murray later founded the World Saxophone Quartet. 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.[4]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

Year of recording Album Notes Label
1959 Meet Oliver Nelson Quintet with Kenny Dorham and Ray Bryant Prestige
1960 Taking Care of Business Quintet with Johnny "Hammond" Smith and Lem Winchester Prestige
1960 Screamin' the Blues Sextet with Eric Dolphy and Richard Williams Prestige
1960 Nocturne Quintet with Lem Winchester Moodsville
1960 Soul Battle Sextet with King Curtis and Jimmy Forrest Prestige
1961 The Blues and the Abstract Truth Septet with Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Eric Dolphy, Paul Chambers and Freddie Hubbard Impulse!
1961 Straight Ahead Quintet with Eric Dolphy Prestige
1961 Main Stem Sextet with Joe Newman Prestige
1961 Afro/American Sketches Oliver Nelson Orchestra Prestige
1962 Impressions of Phaedra Oliver Nelson Orchestra United Artists
1962-3 Full Nelson Oliver Nelson Orchestra Verve
1964 Fantabulous Oliver Nelson Orchestra Argo
1964 More Blues and the Abstract Truth Sextet/Septet/Octet arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson Impulse!
1965 Rita Reys Meets Oliver Nelson Rita Reys with Orchestra arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson Philips
1966 Oliver Nelson Plays Michelle Oliver Nelson Orchestra Impulse!
1966 Sound Pieces Oliver Nelson Orchestra/Quartet Impulse!
1966 Happenings Hank Jones and the Oliver Nelson Orchestra featuring Clark Terry Impulse!
1966 Encyclopedia of Jazz Encyclopedia of Jazz All Stars [split album] Verve
1966 The Sound of Feeling Encyclopedia of Jazz All Stars [split album] Verve
1967 The Spirit of '67 Pee Wee Russell and the Oliver Nelson Orchestra Impulse!
1967 The Kennedy Dream Oliver Nelson Orchestra Impulse!
1967 Live from Los Angeles Oliver Nelson's Big Band Impulse!
1967 Jazzhattan Suite Jazz Interactions Orchestra Verve
1968 Soulful Brass Oliver Nelson with Steve Allen Impulse!
1969 3-2-1-0 Nobuo Hara and His Sharps & Flats composed and arranged by Oliver Nelson Columbia (Japan)
1969 Black, Brown and Beautiful Oliver Nelson Orchestra Flying Dutchman
1970 Zig Zag Original Motion Picture Score MGM
1970 In Tokyo Nobuo Hara and His Sharps & Flats and Oliver Nelson Columbia (Japan)
1970 Berlin Dialogue for Orchestra Oliver Nelson and the "Berlin Dreamband" Flying Dutchman
1971 Swiss Suite Oliver Nelson Orchestra featuring Gato Barbieri and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson Flying Dutchman
1974 Oliver Edward Nelson in London with Oily Rags Oliver Nelson with Oily Rags Flying Dutchman
1975 Skull Session Oliver Nelson Flying Dutchman
1975 Stolen Moments Oliver Nelson East Wind


  • A Dream Deferred (Flying Dutchman 1969-75 [1976]) - Selections from Flying Dutchman albums + 2 previously unreleased tracks
  • Back Talk (Chess, 1964 [1976]) with Lou Donaldson - Compilation of Argo & Cadet LPs Fantabulous and Rough House Blues
  • Images (Prestige 1961 [1976]) with Eric Dolphy - Compilation of Prestige LPs Screamin' the Blues and Straight Ahead
  • Three Dimensions (Impulse! 1961-66, [1978]) - Compilation of Impulse! LPs The Blues and the Abstract Truth and Sound Pieces + 2 previously unreleased tracks
  • Black, Brown and Beautiful (Bluebird, 1970-75 [1989]) - reissue of Johnny Hodges Flying Dutchman LP 3 Shades of Blue + tracks from Oliver Edward Nelson in London with Oily Rags and Skull Session
  • Verve Jazz Masters 48 (Verve, 1962-67 [1995]) - Selections from Verve albums
  • The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions (Mosaic, 1961-67 [2006])

Film and Television Scores[edit]

As arranger/conductor[edit]

With Faye Adams

  • "You Can Trust In Me"/"Goodnight My Love" (Prestige, 1962)

With Cannonball Adderley

With Steve Allen

  • Soulful Brass #2 (Flying Dutchman, 1969)

With Gene Ammons

With Air Pocket

  • Fly On (East Wind, 1975) - producer

With Louis Armstrong

  • Louis Armstrong and His Friends (Flying Dutchman, 1970)

With Gato Barbieri

With Count Basie

With Elek Bacsik

  • Bird and Dizzy: A Musical Tribute (Flying Dutchman, 1975)

With James Brown

With Mel Brown

With Ray Brown and Milt Jackson

With Ruth Brown

With Henry Cain

  • The Funky Organ-ization Of Henry Cain (Capitol, 1967)

With Betty Carter

With Ray Charles

With Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis

With Lou Donaldson

With Jean DuShon

  • Feeling Good (Cadet, 1966) - arranger only

With Lorraine Ellison

  • Heart & Soul (Warner Bros., 1966)

With Art Farmer

With Maynard Ferguson

  • Come Blow Your Horn (Cameo, 1964) - arranger only

With Jimmy Forrest

With Don Goldie

  • Trumpet Exodus (Verve, 1962)

With Leo Gooden

  • Leo Sings with Strings (L.G., 1963)

With Jackie & Roy

  • Changes (Verve, 1966)

With Jimmy Grissom

  • "I've Got You On My Mind"/"Lover's Reverie" (Prestige, 1962)

With Johnny Hartman

  • I Love Everybody (ABC-Paramount, 1967)

With Johnny Hodges

With Richard "Groove" Holmes

  • Six Million Dollar Man (Flying Dutchman, 1975)

With Paul Horn

  • Monday, Monday (RCA Victor, 1966)
  • Paul Horn & The Concert Ensemble (Ovation, 1969) - arranger only

With Paul Humphrey, Shelly Manne, Willie Bobo & Louis Bellson

  • The Drum Session (Philips (Japan), 1974) - producer

With Yujiro Ishihara

  • Nostalia (Teichiku Entertainment (Japan), 1974)

With Etta Jones

With Kimiko Kasai

  • Kimiko Kasai in Person (CBS/Sony (Japan), 1973)
  • Thanks, Dear (CBS/Sony (Japan), 1974) - musical supervisor

With Ramsey Lewis

With Herbie Mann

With Lloyd G. Mayers

  • A Taste of Honey (United Artists Jazz, 1962)

With Carmen McRae

With Thelonious Monk

With Wes Montgomery

With Lee Morgan

With Esther Phillips

  • Esther Phillips Sings (Atlantic, 1955)

With Della Reese

  • "Every Other Day"/"Soon" (ABC, 1967)
  • I Gotta Be Me...This Trip Out (ABC, 1968)

With Irene Reid

  • Room for One More (Verve, 1965)

With Buddy Rich

With Sonny Rollins

With Diana Ross

With Jimmy Rushing

  • Every Day I Have the Blues (Bluesway, 1967)

With Shirley Scott

With Doc Severinsen

  • Rhapsody for Now! (RCA, 1973)

With Bud Shank

With Jimmy Smith

With Ringo Starr

With Carl Stokes

  • The Mayor and the People (Flying Dutchman, 1970)

With Billy Taylor

  • Right Here, Right Now! (Capitol Records, 1963)
  • Midnight Piano (Capitol, 1964)

With Jack Teagarden

  • Jack Teagarden (Verve, 1962)

With The Temptations

With Clark Terry

With Bob Thiele

  • I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood (Flying Dutchman, 1975)

With Leon Thomas

  • Leon Thomas in Berlin (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

With The Three Sounds

With Cal Tjader

With Stanley Turrentine

With Frank Wess

With Joe Williams

  • Jump for Joy (RCA Victor, 1963)
  • Me and the Blues (RCA Victor, 1964)

With Nancy Wilson

With Lem Winchester

  • Lem's Beat (Prestige, 1960)

With Kai Winding

As sideman[edit]

With Cannonball Adderley

With Manny Albam

With Elek Bacsik

  • I Love You (Bob Thie, 1973)

With Louis Bellson

With Clea Bradford

  • These Dues (Tru-Sound, 1961)

With Chris Connor

  • Free Spirits (Atlantic, 1962)
  • Richard Rodgers' No Strings: An After-Theatre Version (Atlantic, 1962) with Bobby Short

With Duke Ellington

With Red Garland

With J. J. Johnson

  • J.J.! (RCA Victor, 1964) - also arranger

With Etta Jones

With Quincy Jones

With Louis Jordan

  • "If You're So Smart How Come You Ain't Rich"/"How Blue Can You Get" (Decca, 1951)
  • "Please Don't Leave Me"/"Three-Handed Woman" (Decca, 1951)
  • "Trust in Me"/"Cock-a-Doodle Doo"/"Work Baby Work" (Decca, 1951)
  • "May Every Day Be Christmas"/"Bone Dry" (Decca, 1951)
  • "Louisville Lodge Meeting"/"Work Baby Work" (Decca, 1951)
  • "Slow Down" (Decca, 1951 [1952])
  • "Fat Sam from Birmingham" (Decca, 1951 [1953])
  • "There Must Be a Way" (Decca, 1951 [1953])
  • "Come And Get It" (Decca, 1951 [1954])

With Eddie Kirkland

  • It's the Blues Man! (Tru-Sound, 1962)

With Mundell Lowe

With Gary McFarland

With Joe Newman

With Shirley Scott

With Johnny "Hammond" Smith

With Leon Thomas

  • Leon Thomas in Berlin (Flying Dutchman, 1970)
  • Gold Sunrise on Magic Mountain (Flying Dutchman, 1970)


  1. ^ Allmusic
  2. ^ Impulse! Records catalog at http://www.jazzdisco.org/impulse-records/
  3. ^ a b c d Joe Goldberg, "Focus on Oliver Nelson" – Down Beat magazine, February 15, 1962 Vol. 29, No. 4. page 17.
  4. ^ a b c Phil Woods, Reflections in E-flat – Saxophone Journal, September/October 1995 page 62.
  5. ^ Garland, Phyl (November 1968). "The Many 'Bags' of Oliver Nelson". Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company: 118. ISSN 0012-9011. Retrieved October 13, 2015. 
  6. ^ Garland, Phyl (November 1968). "The Many 'Bags' of Oliver Nelson". Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company: 110. ISSN 0012-9011. Retrieved October 13, 2015. 

External links[edit]