Oliver Nelson: Stolen Moments, Passion Filled

Ed Hamilton remembers the legendary jazz saxophonist, arranger and composer

Oliver Nelson was a saxophonist, arranger, and composer born in St. Louis and from a musical family---brother played sax with Cootie Williams,; his, sister was a singer and he began piano at six and took up sax at 11 years old, and after a stint with the Marines he attended Washington U. and Lincoln majoring in music composition and theory and graduated in 1958 then moved to NY and played played with Erskine Hawkins, Louis Bellson, and Wild Bill Davidson. Later played with Quincy Jones, Louis Jordan, and was the House Arranger for the Apollo Theater.

He recorded 6 albums for Prestige Records with some prominent sidemen as King Curtis, Jimmy Forrest, Richard Wyands, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Lem Winchester. His first Big Band Album was called ”Afro-American Sketches.---Meet Oliver Nelson “; “Screamin’ the Blues”; “Nocturne” w/Lem Winchester-Vibes(1959); “Soul Meetin’; ”Soul Battle”’; “Train Whistle”.

In 1960, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis headlined a small big band and for the first time “Stolen Moments” was recorded but it was called ‘A Stolen Moment’ with Bobby Bryant on trumpet. Then again in 1961, Oliver, now on the Impulse Label assembled what is now known as the greatest small big band,. He recorded the greatest small band album with the most astounding array of musicians put together at this time---Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Eric Dolphy, and the album was Blues and the Abstract Truth with the eternal standard ‘A Stolen Moment’. Freddie was 19 years old and said, “Oliver was a bluesy kinda guy from St. Louis; he was sorta like a teacher; I never really thought of him as a great soloist like Sonny or Trane. He had a unique way of arranging that made you think of what he meant to play; that record (‘Stolen Moments’) they still play it today. It had such a weird combination of players---like Bill Evans playing piano so soft you can’t even hear him; you had to go into the booth to hear him---he looked like he was pantomiming. Roy Haynes was using brushes---it all jelled; and Eric came in with his funny stuff. It all jelled--the people liked it.”.

Later on he collaborated with singer Leon Thomas “In Berlin” and wrote a whole suite called “The John F. Kennedy Memorial “ containing ‘The Rights of Man’.--His musical tribute.

He went on to arrange for Satchmo, “What A Wonderful World”; Stanley Turrentine, ”Joyride”; Jimmy Smith, “Walk On the Wildside”; Jimmy and Wes (Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery); Shirley Scott; Great Scott”; Sonny Rollins “Alfie's Theme”; Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, 'Trainwhistle'; Cannonball’s “Domination”, Gene Ammons “My Way” with ‘Sack Full Of Dreams’; He also arranged for Nancy Wilson, Temptations, and James Brown’s “A Man’s World.”

Oliver moved to L.A. and wrote TV themes, following in the footsteps of J.J. Johnson, Benny Golson,and Count Basie; with “Ironside”, “Longstreet”, “6 Million Dollar Man,” “Columbo,” and “Night Gallery.” Feature films were Gato Barbieri’s “Last Tango In Paris” and “Death of a Gunfighter.“

At his alma mater Washington University, he conducted seminars with guests Phil Woods, Ron Carter, Mel Lewis, Thad Jones, and Sir Roland Hanna.

Oliver Nelson’s last performance was in L.A., in 1975, at the ‘Now Grove’. It was just before he had returned home from a TV scoring, collapsed and died in the Baldwin Hills area of L.A.. Trombonist Garnett Brown who recorded with Oliver on several albums said, “Oliver was always passionate in all he did---his playing, his arranging, and his composing.” It’s all true. Take another listen to “Stolen Moments.” Passion was the fire and desire which fueled within ---the music of Oliver Nelson.

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Ed Hamilton