Oliver Nelson was a jazz saxophonist, clarinet player, arranger, and composer. Born in Missouri in 1932, Nelson was not the only musician in the family. His brother was a saxophone player and his sister sang and played piano. Oliver began learning the piano at age 6, and the saxophone when he was 11.
He performed with bands in the St. Louis area starting in 1947, and then joined Louis Jourdan™s big band in 1950. Nelson played alto sax and did arrangements for the band. After serving with the Marines, Nelson came back to Missouri and studied music theory and composition at Washington University. He also studied with composer Elliott Carter.
Following his graduation in 1958, Nelson moved to New York City where he played with Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis. He also worked as the house arranger for the Apollo Theater. In 1959, he spent time on the West Coast, and played with the Louie Bellson big band. At the same time he began recording with some small jazz groups. He was part of Quincy Jones™ band, and played tenor sax on tour in both Europe and the United States in 1960 and 1961.
From 1959 to 1961 Oliver Nelson recorded six albums for Prestige Records as a bandleader. He achieved notoriety with the tune Stolen Moments from the record album The Blues and Abstract Truth, which he recorded on the Impulse! Records label.
Recognized as a composer and arranger, he recorded several big band albums. He also did arrangements for Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Rich, and many more. Nelson led several all-star big bands in live performances from 1966 to 1975. During this time, he continued to perform as a soloist, primarily on soprano sax.
Nelson moved to Los Angeles in 1967. In addition to his big band appearances, he took a small band on tour to West Africa. He also began composing for television and movies. His TV work included such notable 1970s shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, “Ironside”, and Night Gallery. Nelson also worked on the films Alfie, The Death of a Gunfighter, and The Last Tango in Paris.
He has also created arrangements for pop performers Nancy Wilson, James Brown, The Temptations and Diana Ross. Not limited to being a jazz and pop musician, Nelson also composed several symphonic works. Being interested in politics, Nelson composed the albums The Kennedy Dream, and a tribute to Martin Luther King calledBlack Brown and Beautiful.
Nelson was married twice. He had a son, Oliver Junior, by his first wife, Eileen Mitchell. He was married a second time to Audrey McEwen, and had a second son, Nyles. Nelson remained married to Audrey until his death. He died in Los Angeles in October of 1975. He was only 43 years old.
Why is it that so many greats die young..? Below is a video of Oliver playing with Berlin Dream Band: