Oliver Nelson needs to be reconsidered by music listeners for what he was - one of the most significant jazz voices of his generation, and an important big band composer and arranger of the 1960s. Perhaps the skill he mastered most keenly was his ability to turn listeners on. As difficult as his music might have been to play, and as hard as it is to analyze, it is extremely easy to listen to.
Born June 4, 1932 in St. Louis, Oliver Nelson came from a musical family: His brother played saxophone with Cootie Williams in the Forties, and his sister was a singer-pianist. Nelson himself began piano studies at age six and saxophone at eleven. In the late ‘40’s he played in various territory bands and then spent 1950-51 with Louis Jordan’s big band. After two years in a Marine Corps ensemble, he returned to St. Louis to study composition and theory at both Washington and Lincoln universities.
After graduation in 1958, Nelson moved to New York and played with Erskine Hawkins, Wild Bill Davis, and Louie Bellson. He also became the house arranger for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Though he began recording as a leader in 1959, Nelson’s breakthrough came in 1961 with “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” (Impulse) featuring an all- star septet of; Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers and Freddie Hubbard. With the success of that deservedly acclaimed album, Nelson’s career as a composer blossomed, and he was subsequently the leader on a number of memorable big-band recordings, including “Afro-American” (Prestige) and “Full Nelson” (Verve). He also became an in-demand studio arranger, collaborating with Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges, Stanley Turrentine, and others. In addition to dates he led under his own name, he wrote, scored and conducted under the names Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz All Stars and the Jazz Impressions Orchestra; did a date for Shirley Scott and another for Ray Brown and Milt Jackson; five sessions with organist Jimmy Smith, including the legendary “Walk on the Wild Side, another headlined by Smith and Wes Montgomery; and the incomparable Pee Wee Russell. During the Sixties, Nelson became one of the most strongly identifiable writing voices in jazz. Since Nelson was schooled in both the American jazz and European music traditions, his arrangements can be intricate, but when it comes time for a solo, it's clear that Nelson (who was himself a brilliant soloist on tenor alto and soprano saxophone) has fashioned everything as the proper set up for the featured player.