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 Forites 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 that included Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, and Freddie Hubbard. With the success of that deservedly acclaimed LP, 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, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, and others.
During the Sixties, Nelson became one of the most strongly identifiable writing voices in jazz. In 1967, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became involved extensively in scoring for television and films. Though Nelson continued to write for jazz record dates and play (he focused on alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones at different times during the Sixties and Seventies), the demands of writing commercial music increased. The accompanying stress ultimately may have been his undoing; on October 28, 1975, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
Excerpted from Oliver Nelson Verve Jazz Masters 48