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.