Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Nelson, Oliver (Edward)

Many know saxophonist Oliver Nelson for what may be the best-titled jazz album of all time, 1961's Blues and the Abstract Truth. But Nelson was also a gifted arranger whose film scores kept him in high demand in Hollywood. He arranged music for Nancy Wilson, James Brown, and Diana Ross, and toured and recorded with Eric Dolphy, Quincy Jones, and Bill Evans before his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of forty-three.

Oliver Edward Nelson was born on June 4th, 1932 in Saint Louis, Missouri. He was born into a musical family. His brother was a saxophonist who played with Cootie Williams’ big band, while his sister played piano. The boy began to play the piano when he was a toddler, but soon moved on to the saxophone by the time he turned eleven.

In the 1940s he played in several local bands around Saint Louis, which included the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and the George Hudson big band. He joined Louis Jordan’s big band in 1950, and played around New York with him that year, after which he left for military service. After being discharged from the Marines, Nelson studied composition and music theory formally at Washington University in Saint Louis, and graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree. In 1958, he earned a master's degree in music from Lincoln University in Missouri.

Nelson moved to New York City after graduating college, where he soon found work playing with the bands of Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davison. He also gained invaluable experience working as the house arranger for the Apollo Theatre. In 1959, Nelson released his debut album entitled Meet Oliver Nelson, which featured Kenny Dorham on piano, Ray Bryant on piano, and Art Taylor on drums. In 1960, Nelson recorded four albums which included Taking Care of Business, Screamin’ the Blues, Soul Battle, and Nocturne.

Blues in the Abstract Truth

Nelson toured with Quincy Jones’s big band off and on between 1960 and 1961, and performed with the trumpeter/arranger in both the United States and Europe. He also filled in for saxophonist Russell Procope for two weeks in Duke Ellington’s band in 1961.

Nelson recorded his best-known album, Blues and the Abstract Truth, in 1961. Nelson’s captivating tenor lines are at their best on this album, which featured Bill Evans on piano, Eric Dolphy on also saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. "Stolen Moments," Nelson's best-known composition, was first recorded by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis a year earlier, but receives its definitive interpretation on this album, as could be expected from such a stellar lineup. Nelson’s solo is warm and inviting, and fits perfectly between the comping of Evans and Hubbard’s trumpet solo. The group also plays the lesser-known, but equally inviting Nelson song “Hoe Down" on this recording.

In 1962, Nelson arranged the music for organist Jimmy Smith’s album Bashin’: the Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, which featured the song “Walk on the Wild Side." Through the mid-1960s Nelson began to work more as a conductor and director, having worked with Dr. Billy Taylor on several live dates as well as with Jimmy Smith for his 1964 album Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also conducted vocalist Nancy Wilson on the sessions for her Capitol album How Glad I Am. Nelson also recorded an album of his own in 1964, entitled Fantabulous. He arranged, conducted, and played tenor saxophone in a band that included Phil Woods and Jerome Richardson. Songs of note from the album include “Three Plus One," “Tennie’s Blues" and "A Bientot."

Nelson began focusing his attention around this time to education and film scoring more than recording and playing saxophone. Nelson joined Leonard Feather as a conductor and arranger for his Verve compilation Encyclopedia of Jazz series, which featured an all-star cast which included J.J. Johnson, Phil Woods, Ron Carter, and Clark Terry.

He formally moved to Los Angeles in 1967, as his stock as a film composer was on the rise. Nelson provided arrangements for the rhythm-and-blues singing group Temptations for their 1967 album Wish It Would Rain and continued to work with many groups outside of the jazz realm. He was a conductor and arranger for vocalist Carmen McRae’s album Portrait of Carmen in 1967 and in 1968 he worked in the same role for vocalist Della Reese’s album I Gotta Be Me…This Trip Out. Nelson continued to work with organist Jimmy Smith and provided several key arrangements for his 1968 album Livin’ It Up.

Nelson scored several cues and musical backdrops for the television show Ironside, which starred actor Raymond Burr and in 1969 he provided the original score for the Hollywood Western Death of a Gunfighter. Also in 1969, Nelson led his own septet that toured Africa and he also conducted various big bands at Berliner Jazztage and at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1970, Nelson composed and arranged the song “Killmanjaro (jazz.com/music/2008/1/14/count-basie-kilimanjaro)” for the Count Basie Orchestra. The record featured Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on tenor saxophone, Herbert Laws on flute and Grant Green on guitar.

Nelson’s television and film score output continued to increase as he composed original music for the television shows Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and Longstreet. In 1971, Nelson released two albums entitled Swiss Suite and Impressions of Berlin. Nelson’s biggest film arrangement contributions came in 1973 when he helped arrange Gato Barbieri’s score for French director Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, which starred Marlon Brando.

In many ways, Nelson's wide-ranging talents to those of another jazz musician who found success in Hollywood, Quincy Jones, Unfortunately, Nelson didn't live long enough to enjoy the same level of success, as he died from a heart attack at the age of forty three on October 28th, 1975 in Los Angeles, California.

Oliver Nelson’s recorded legacy well rewards those who are willing to search beyond that famously-titled album. His work as a soloist ranks among the best on his instrument. His accomplishments as an arranger and conductor paved the way for many other jazz artists to do the same, scoring films and for television.

Select Discography

As Oliver Nelson

Meet Oliver Nelson (New Jazz, 1959)

Taking Care of Business (Prestige, 1960)

Screaming the Blues (Prestige, 1960)

Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961)

Fantabulous (Verve, 1964)

Sound Pieces (1966)

with Jimmy Smith

Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith (Blue Note, 1962)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blue Note, 1964)

Got My Mojo Workin’ (Verve, 1965)

With Sonny Rollins

Alfie (Impulse!, 1966)

Contributor: Jared Pauley