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 American jazz 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.[6][3]

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, this 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 toured West Africa with a small group. 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. His book of jazz practice exercises, Patterns for Improvisation, was published in 1966 and remains highly regarded to this day.

Finally succumbing to the intense pressures of the Hollywood studios, Nelson died of a heart attack on October 28, 1975 at the age of 43.[4]


As leader[edit]

Prestige Records
Impulse! Records
Verve Records
Flying Dutchman Records
  • 1968: Soulful Brass No. 2
  • 1969: Black Brown and Beautiful
  • 1970: The Mayor and the People
  • 1970: Berlin Dialogue for Orchestra
  • 1970: Leon Thomas In Berlin with Oliver Nelson
  • 1971: Swiss Suite
  • 1974: In London with Oily Rags
  • 1975: Skull Session
  • 1976: A Dream Deferred
Other labels

As arranger/conductor[edit]

With Cannonball Adderley

With Air Pocket

With Gene Ammons

With Count Basie

With Mel Brown

With Ray Brown and Milt Jackson

With Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis

With Art Farmer

With Jimmy Forrest

With Paul Horn

With Etta Jones

With Ramsey Lewis

With Herbie Mann

With Carmen McRae

With Wes Montgomery

With Shirley Scott

With Jimmy Smith

With Billy Taylor

  • Right Here, Right Now! (Capitol Records, 1963)

With Clark Terry

With Frank Wess

As sideman[edit]

With Cannonball Adderley

  • African Waltz (Riverside, 1961)

With Manny Albam

With Louis Bellson

  • The Brilliant Bellson Sound (Verve, 1959)

With Chris Conner

  • Free Spirits (Atlantic, 1962)

With Duke Ellington

  • Paris Blues (United Artists, 1962)

With Red Garland

  • Soul Burnin' (Prestige, 1961)
  • Rediscovered Masters, Vol. 2 (Prestige 1961)

With J.J. Johnson

  • J.J.! (RCA Victor, 1965)

With Etta Jones

With Quincy Jones

With Mundell Lowe

With Gary McFarland

  • How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Verve, 1961)

With Joe Newman

  • Live at "Count Basie's" (Mercury, 1961)

With Shirley Scott

  • Blue Seven (Prestige, 1961)

With Johnny "Hammond" Smith


  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]