STLJN Saturday Video Showcase: Remembering Oliver Nelson


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The nearly ubiquitous Miles Davis notwithstanding, which jazz musician from the St. Louis area has been heard by the most people throughout the world? It's probably impossible to measure something like that with any degree of exactitude, but one certainly can make an informed guess.

Any short list would have to include trumpeter Clark Terry, famed for nearly seven decades as a high-profile jazz soloist and recording artist, member of the Ellington and Basie big bands, and veteran of television and session work; and saxophonist David Sanborn, who has had a very popular career as a solo artist, as well as being one of the most recorded session players of his era and the host of various radio and television programs.

Another, more unexpected contender for the title would have to be saxophonist, arranger and composer Oliver Nelson, who packed a lot of music into his all-too-brief 43 years on planet Earth. Born in St. Louis on June 4, 1932, Nelson was working with local bands by age 15 and joined saxophonist Louis Jordan's big band at 18, playing alto sax and arranging.

After serving in the Marine Corps and attending Washington University in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Nelson moved to New York, where he established himself as a soloist, bandleader and arranger/composer. His big breakthrough came with the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which featured his tune “Stolen Moments," now a standard played by musicians everywhere.

Nelson went on to record many big-band albums and to work as an arranger for a number of well-known jazz musicians, including Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich and Jimmy Smith. In 1967, he moved to Los Angeles, where, along with his old pal Quincy Jones, he became one of the first African-American composers to get significant amounts of work scoring television and films.

Nelson wrote music for hugely popular TV shows such as Ironside, Night Gallery, Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, reaching tens of millions of people every week. He also wrote the score for the film Death of a Gunfighter, arranged Gato Barbieri's music for the movie Last Tango in Paris, and produced and arranged popular music for singers including Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, and Diana Ross.

Tragically, Nelson died of a heart attack on October 28, 1975. Given the vast quantity and generally high quality of the music he wrote during his short life, one can't help but wonder how much more he could have accomplished had he lived longer.

Even so, Nelson's legacy is quite impressive - his recordings still hold up well today; his film and TV music remains emblematic of its era; and “Stolen Moments" likely will continue to be played forever. Moreover, the path he helped to pave in Hollywood has been well-utilized by subsequent generations of musicians; for example, it's hard to imagine someone like Terence Blanchard getting the chance to write all those film scores absent the pioneering work of Nelson and Jones.

Today, as a tribute to this under-appreciated St. Louis jazz great, we've got three videos of Nelson performing and conducting a big band. The first clip shows Nelson's own ensemble performing his composition “Swiss Suite." The multi-part tune features a young Gato Barbieri taking the first solo on tenor sax, followed by Nelson on alto.

The clip is undated, but the album that included “Swiss Suite" originally came out in 1971, and the dress and hairstyles of the musicians suggest that this was recorded around that same time or shortly thereafter. (Note that while the video quality on this one is a little grungy, the audio is fine.)

Down below are two videos of Nelson and the multi-national Berlin Dream Band performing Nelson's arrangements for a TV program recorded in Berlin in 1970. The first tune, “Black Brown and Beautiful," also features Nelson as the soloist, while the second, “Milestones" has solos by Leo Wright and Klaus Marmulla on altos and Rolf Roemer on tenor.

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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