Oliver Nelson Biography

4 June 1932, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, d. 28 October 1975, Los Angeles, California, USA. After studying piano and alto saxophone, Nelson settled on playing the latter instrument, paying his dues in various territory bands. In the late 40s he was with the popular Jeter-Pillars Orchestra as well as that led by Nat Towles. Early in the 50s he was briefly with Louis Jordan but then resumed his studies at universities in Washington, DC, and Missouri, also taking lessons from the respected composer Elliott Carter. In New York in the late 50s, he worked in bands led by Erskine Hawkins and Louie Bellson, then moved on to the bands of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. He was writing extensively at this time, both as arranger and composer, and made several records under his own name, the best known with a small group that often featured leading jazz soloists such as Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. He later turned more to big band work, recording with numerous soloists who included Johnny Hodges and Pee Wee Russell.

By the mid-60s Nelson was in great demand as a teacher and arranger and he was also called upon to write scores for films and television. His classy arrangements with Jimmy Smith during this period were particularly fertile, and included orchestrations of Bashin’ and The Dymanic Duo (with Wes Montgomery). He played much less frequently in these years but did lead a small band from time to time and also formed all-star big bands for festival appearances. Nelson’s work ranged widely, covering R&B and modal jazz, and he also composed pieces in the classical form. Much of his writing suggests considerable facility, though very occasionally slipping a little into being merely facile. Nevertheless his recordings as a performer, especially the majestic Blues And The Abstract Truth, on which he is joined by Dolphy and Hubbard, are extremely rewarding. ‘Stolen Moments’ from this album is an unsung jazz classic. Many of the other albums he recorded as composer/leader, such as the excellent Sound Pieces, remain interesting for their unstinting professionalism. Nelson died from a heart attack in 1975.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.