Born: August 2, 1922 | Died: October 19, 1997 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Tenor saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas was active for more than 50 years without ever receiving consistent recognition or material rewards commensurate with his contribution to early modern jazz. He is usually remembered as the caloric soloist who improvised for 16 bars on Dizzy Gillespie's 1947 recording of Manteca; as the honoree of a warmly whimsical portrait recorded by John Coltrane with Duke Ellington in 1962, and as a weathered veteran who enjoyed a brief comeback during the 1980s.
George Walker Nicholas was born in Lansing, MI on August 2, 1922 and studied clarinet, saxophone, and piano during the years 1933-1939. Sturdy and large-boned, he was already being called Big Nick at the age of ten. Young George practiced blowing his horn out of doors, playing the same song in multiple key signatures, a tendency inherited from earlier jazz masters and solidly in step with where modern jazz was heading. His father, a saxophonist, mentored him while encouraging his son to sit in with various bands in the Detroit area throughout 1939 and 1940. During adolescence he performed in a group with Thad and Hank Jones, who hailed from nearby Pontiac. In 1942 he gigged with Kelly Martin at Club Congo in Detroit.
Nick's primary influence was Coleman Hawkins, and by the time he moved to New York he had settled permanently upon the tenor sax. A regular participant in after-hours blowing sessions at Minton's Playhouse on West 118th Street, he worked with Earl Fatha Hines for three months in 1942 and gigged with Tiny Bradshaw for half a year in 1943. After serving in the Second World War, Nick entered his busiest period, studying music theory and harmony at the Boston Conservatory from 1944-1946, appearing at the Savoy in Boston with pianist Sabby Lewis (who was soon to become that city's first African-American radio DJ), sitting in with the Claude Hopkins orchestra, and recording with vocalist Sarah Vaughan. He was featured on Lucky Millinder's Decca recording The Spider and the Fly. On January 4, 1947 Nick's tenor anchored a group led by drummer J.C. Heard that backed comedian Dusty Fletcher on his famous recording of Open the Door Richard; three days later he recorded with Fats Navarro and Miles Davis in a 15-piece big band led by Illinois Jacquet. During that year, Nick began collaborating with singing trumpeter Hot Lips Page, who featured the saxophonist on Take Your Shoes Off, Baby and La Danse; they would continue to work together until Page's death in 1954.
Also during 1947, Nicholas joined the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra and was featured on Manteca and Ool-ya-koo. John Coltrane caught Nicholas with Gillespie during this period and was greatly inspired by what he heard. In February 1948, Nick performed live in Paris with Gillespie's big band during a three-month European tour. In 1950 he recorded with pianist Una Mae Carlisle, and began leading jam sessions at Harlem's Paradise Club, where he developed a tendency to sing in what has accurately been termed a joyous, booming voice.
On September 29, 1951 Big Nick locked horns with Eddie Lockjaw Davis on-stage at Birdland with the Miles Davis Sextet, a trailblazing unit that included Billy Taylor, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey. A few days later Blakey, Nick, and Lockjaw were in the studio with a sextet led by trombonist Bennie Green, recording the Tenor Sax Shuffle and five other titles for Prestige. In 1953, Nick worked with Jonah Jones backing vocalist Timmie Rogers, and in 1955 he collaborated with trumpeter Buck Clayton and vocalist Frankie Laine on the album Jazz Spectacular, taking memorable solos on Baby Baby All the Time and Sposin'. During the mid- and late '50s Big Nick lived on 139th Street in Queens; he played the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, N.J. and was featured soloist with the Shorty Allen band at Elegante in Brooklyn.
When Coltrane recorded Big Nick with Duke Ellington in 1962, he used the soprano saxophone to invoke the man's personality rather than employing the tenor to emulate his tonality. While Trane's friendly tribute alerted large numbers of record-buying jazz fans to Nick's existence, his career was more or less on hold during much of the decade. In 1964 he participated in a benefit for the ailing Pee Wee Russell; unfortunately, the same alcoholism that did in the clarinetist in 1969 gradually took its toll on Big Nick. During the '70s he lived and taught in Charlottesville, VA, where in 1979 he held down a regular booking at a country club lounge. This was followed by a successful engagement in New York, a 1980 European tour with John Hicks, Walter Booker, and Jimmy Cobb, and a brief comeback following the release of his first album as a leader in 1984, forever preserving his wonderfully eccentric scat singing on a disarming version of Corrine Corrina. Big and Warm was followed in 1985 by Big Nick. Neither of these India Navigation albums has received the attention they deserve. George Walker Nicholas passed away in Queens, NY on October 19, 1997.