StLJN Saturday Video Showcase: The legacy of Oliver Nelson

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Today, we pay a birthday tribute* to one of St. Louis' all-time jazz greats, the late saxophonist, arranger, and composer Oliver Nelson, who was born here on June 4, 1932.

Called “one of the most significant jazz voices of his generation" by AllAboutJazz.com, Nelson probably is best known these days for the classic album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which featured his now-standard tune “Stolen Moments." However, his legacy encompasses much more, as Nelson was one of the most prolific and in-demand jazz arranger/composers of the 1960s and early '70s, and, along with Quincy Jones, one of the first African-Americans to get significant work in Hollywood scoring TV and films.

He wrote music for hit TV shows of the period including Ironside, Night Gallery, Columbo, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, reaching tens of millions of people every week. Nelson also wrote the score for the film Death of a Gunfighter and arranged Gato Barbieri's music for the movie Last Tango in Paris.

In addition to his work in TV and film, Nelson recorded numerous jazz albums as a leader, and also did arrangements for well-known musicians such as Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Rich, and Jimmy Smith, as well as for singers including Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, and Diana Ross.



Tragically, Nelson died of a heart attack on October 28, 1975, when he was just 43 years old. While he left behind an extensive catalog of audio recordings, there seems to be very little video or film or him performing available online (or anywhere else, for that matter), but you can see parts of at least a couple of Nelson performances here today.

The Berlin Dream Band was something of a pet project for Nelson during the last few years of his life, providing a vehicle to get his original jazz compositions before the listening public.

Drawing personnel from all over Europe as well as the USA and Canada, the band's members during the 1970 gig seen here trumpeters Milo Pavlovic (Yugoslavia), Ron Simmonds (Canada), Carmell Jones (USA), Manfred Stoppacher (Austria) and Harry Samp (Germany); trombonists Ake Persson (Sweden), Barry Ross (USA), Slide Hampton (USA), Jean Orieux (France), and Kurt Masnick (Germany); saxophonists Leo Wright (USA), Klaus Marmulla (Germany), Rolf Roemer (Germany), Adi Feurstein Germany), Freddy Lhost (Belgium), and Jan Konopasek (Czechoslovakia); and a rhythm section featuring three Germans, pianist Kai Rautenberg, bassist Hajo Lange, and drummer Heinz Niemeyer.

In the first video, they're seen playing a Nelson arrangement of the old spiritual “Down by the Riverside," followed after the jump by his original work “Self Help Is Needed."

Then, there's “Black, Brown and Beautiful," another Nelson original that also features him as soloist. The final Berlin Dream Band clip is a version of “Milestones" that would seem to confirm a certain fondness for fast tempos, while featuring solos by Leo Wright and Klaus Marmulla on altos and Rolf Roemer on tenor.

(You can see the same band doing two more numbers on video that's unavailable for embedding and can be seen only on the website Daily Motion. Those two selections are Nelson's original “Berlin Dialogues" and a high-speed cover version of Duke Ellington's “Rockin' In Rhythm.")

Next are two clips previously unseen here that surfaced online in 2015, the year after StLJN's last Nelson post. Both featuring him leading a big band at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival. The first shows Nelson taking a brief alto solo, while the second has him giving a brief spoken introduction to a tantalizingly brief excerpt from a then-unnamed composition written to feature the somewhat unlikely duo of saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Eddie “Cleanhead" Vinson. Here's hoping a full version of the show, or at least some complete performances, will resurface eventually.

Rounding out the admittedly small collection of Oliver Nelson videos online is a clip made in 1965 in which he basically makes only a cameo appearance. It features Dutch singer Rita Reyes performing “It Could Happen to You" for a TV broadcast in the Netherlands, accompanied by her husband/pianist Pim Jacobs' trio plus horns arranged by Nelson, who can be seen briefly at several points during the clip.

For more about Oliver Nelson, check out Doug Payne's invaluable discography of his work; Nelson's Wikipedia page; and this biographical essay at Jazz Profiles.











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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
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