Oliver Edward Nelson (June 4, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri - October 28, 1975) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger and composer.
Early life and career:
Oliver Nelson's family was musical: his brother was also 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. From 1947 he played in "territory" bands around Saint Louis, before joining the Louis Jordan big band 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 realised 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 in 1958. Nelson also received private tutoring from 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 Audrey McEwen, a union which lasted until his death; they had a son, Nyles. Audrey was a native of St. Louis, Missouri.
Nelson moved to New York, 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 as leader with small groups. From 1960 to 1961 he played tenor saxophone with Quincy Jones, 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 (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, on Impulse!, featuring the tune "Stolen Moments," now considered a standard. This made his name as a composer and arranger, and he went on to record a number of big-band albums, as well as working as an arranger 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, though increasingly on soprano saxophone.
In 1967, Nelson moved to Los Angeles. Apart from his big-band appearances (in Berlin, Montreux, New York, and Los Angeles), he toured West Africa with a small group. He also spent a great deal of time composing music for television (Ironside, Night Gallery, Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man and Longstreet) and films (Death of a Gunfighter and he arranged Gato Barbieri's music for Last Tango in Paris). He produced and arranged for pop stars such as Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, and Diana Ross. 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. Nelson died of a heart attack on 28 October 1975, aged 43.