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.