Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Oliver Nelson - 1932-1975

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Oliver Nelson was a brilliant saxophonist, composer, arranger and orchestrator – a gift of Jazz – who was taken away from us much too soon.

Thanks to the Mosaic Records reissue of Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Sessions [MD6-233], we have the opportunity to once again sample Oliver in all his magnificence along with the marvelous studio musicians who made his brilliance shine with even more luster.

Saxophonist Kenny Berger assembled a wealth of information in preparation for an M.A. Thesis on Oliver at Rutgers University. He used a great deal of this accumulated information to write the wonderfully perceptive insert notes for the Mosaic release and the editorial staff at Jazzprofiles is delighted to be able to share the introductory portion of his essay as its homage to Oliver. 

[C] Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with permission.
In his notes, Kenny provides insights into [1] what made Oliver’s Jazz writing so powerfully unique, [2] the technical skills required of a studio musician to be able to play and interpret Oliver’s work, [3] why it was especially important to have an improvising background in dealing with Oliver’s “charts” [arrangements], and [4] what the now “lost world” of a musician’s life was like in the Hollywood and New York studios during their heyday in the 1960s.

“Oliver Nelson was one of the most complete and multifaceted musicians in Jazz. In today's jazz world, the term ..multifaceted" more often than not tends to describe someone who dabbles in several different musical styles, stirring a little "world music" (ugh, what a horrible term), a little hip-hop, a little new age, etc., into a bland, boring stew. Oliver Nelson was a world-class jazz saxophonist and composer-arranger, as well as a distinguished composer of orchestral and chamber music in non-jazz idioms, and a prolific composer of scores for television and feature films. He operated at the top of the profession in all these fields and his work always bore his personal stamp. His personal and artistic integrity was reflected in everything he did and, as will be explained later, was a contributing factor in his tragic, premature death.

These notes are written from the perspective of a saxophonist and composer-arranger who was a teenaged aspiring musician during the time of the earliest recordings in this set, and a professional with one foot in the door to the jazz and studio recording scenes during the time of the later ones. I was also a student of Danny Bank, who played baritone saxophone and woodwinds on most of these sessions and since then, I have had the privilege of playing alongside roughly 80 percent of the musicians on these dates. During the late 1990s, as a middle-aged candidate for a Masters degree in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University, I chose Oliver Nelson as my thesis subject, accumulating a wealth of musical and personal information on him that I am pleased to finally share with the world.

Oliver Edward Nelson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 4, 1932, the youngest of four siblings in a musical family. His Portuguese maternal grandfather was an amateur musician who was adept on a variety of instruments; his older brother Eugene Nelson Jr. played alto saxophone with Cootie Williams' big band during the 1940s; and his sister Leontine was a professional pianist-vocalist in the St. Louis area. He entered the music profession as a teenager during the late 1940s, at a time when several of the best-known territory bands in the Midwest were on their last legs. The Jeter-Pillars, George Hudson and Nat Towles bands, all with sterling reputations dating back to the Swing Era, were based in or around St. Louis at the time and Nelson played with all three bands while still in his teens. He originally set out to be a lead alto saxophonist and his early idols were Willie Smith, Otto Hardwicke and Johnny Hodges. He made his recording debut at age 19 as lead altoist with Louis Jordan's short-lived big band in 1951. As a teenager he also played with Eddie Randall, a St. Louis trumpeter and bandleader who was instrumental in the development of many young local musicians including Miles Davis. Randall's family was also in the funeral home business, a fact that sheds some light on a mysterious bit of longstanding Nelson arcana. A brief article in Down Beat magazine early in Nelson's career made a passing reference to the fact that, in addition to his musical training. he had also studied taxidermy and embalming. No further explanation was given, and this bit of trivia, with its aspects Of BLUES AND THE ABSTRACT TRUTH meets Six Feet Under, seemed to take on a life of its own.

It turns out that Nelson was unsure about pursuing music as a career while a member of Randall's band, wound up learning mortuary science from him, and later worked at one of the Randall family's funeral homes, as well as for the Ellis funeral homes, a large local chain.

From March 1952 to March 1954 Nelson served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and Korea as a member of the Third Division Band. His formal study of composition began later in 1954 at Washington University in St. Louis and continued at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Altoist Phil Woods, who was one of his closest friends and favorite sidemen, recalled that when he studied at Washington, Nelson chose to eat lunch in his car rather than deal with the school's segregated dining halls, and years later, in a stroke of supreme irony, returned to the campus as a guest lecturer.
Nelson moved to New York in 1959. Some of his first gigs there were with big bands led by Erskine Hawkins and Louie Bellson and with a commercial Jazz group called Quartet Tres Bien. In the summer of that year, he played in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with organist Wild Bill Davis' trio, the third member of which was Grady Tate, who became Nelson's drummer of choice when both their recording careers took off. During 1959 and '60, he subbed for brief periods in both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, playing alto with Ellington, and tenor with Basle. The first recording to feature his big band writing was an Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis UP, TRANE WHISTLE, done for Prestige in 1960. This album also included the first recording of STOLEN MOMENTS, which a couple of years later would become Nelson's best-known composition. At this time he also served as staff arranger for the house band at the Apollo Theater. The band was lead by Reuben Phillips, a saxophonist who had been his section mate in the Louis Jordan band.

He continued to record for Prestige, doing several small group dates and in 1961, his first album of original big band music, AFRO-AMERICAN SKETCHES, a suite inspired by the black experience beginning in Africa and continuing through slavery and emancipation. Earlier in 1961 Nelson recorded the album that put him on the map, both as a player and a composer, BLUES AND THE ABSTRACT TRUTH for Impulse! It was an all-star date by a septet featuring Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes, with Nelson on tenor and alto, and George Barrow on baritone. This album featured the classic version of STOLEN MOMENTS and the cluster harmonies used in the arrangement became identified with Nelson from then on. It was also his first collaboration with producer Creed Taylor, who soon began employing him as a virtual house arranger for the Verve label.
The point in time when the recordings in this set were made represent roughly the mid to late period of the last golden age of studio recording in New York. The top players would customarily do, on average, three record dates each day and could be called upon to play in almost any style at any time. Dates were booked in three-hour increments with, in many cases, a fourth "possible hour" in case some overtime was needed. Of course, due to the demands of the marketplace, a good deal of the music one would encounter during an average week of studio work would vary in quality and a good deal of it was pure commercial garbage. This tended to make opportunities to play quality music that much more of a relief, and the ratio of good music to bad got exponentially smaller as time went on. By the 1970s it seemed as though the main ingredients for success as a studio arranger or producer had become sartorial, rather than musical. As saxophonist-arranger-author Bill Kirchner has written, recordings like those heard here were products of a studio system that has largely disappeared, and if they were done today, they would had to have been paid for out of the artist's own pocket.

Despite the consistently high level of musicianship and the difficulty of much of the music, the bands on these sessions were not working bands in the sense of being on the road, or even playing a live gig once a week. Separate rehearsals were usually out of the question. Nelson's writing often made extraordinary demands on the players, so it was essential for him to have players he could rely on to meet those demands. His writing for the reed section in particular demanded wide-ranging versatility. He made more frequent and imaginative use of the clarinet section than most other jazz arrangers, which stemmed from his classical training, his love of Duke Ellington, and the fact that he was a good clarinetist himself. Albums such as FULL NELSON and PETER AND THE WOLF required a good deal of doubling on various flutes, and oboe and English horn, as well as clarinet and bass clarinet, while requiring the same players to comprise a first-rate sax section, often in the course of the same arrangement.
The consistency of the personnel on Nelson's dates allowed him to utilize the Ellingtonian concept of conceiving both solos and ensemble parts with individual players in mind. The lynchpins of Oliver's reed sections were lead altoist Phil Woods and baritonist Danny Bank. Bill Kirchner has perceptively pointed out that Nelson employed Woods and Bank in the same way that Ellington employed Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney: both as section lead and anchor respectively, and as distinctive individual voices. Nelson was aware of the fact that even when no improvisation is required, a player who can improvise, even if not a world-class soloist, can always interpret a written part in the jazz idiom better than one who can't. Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque and Stan Webb were former big band saxophonists. all of whom played flute, oboe and clarinet on a level equal to that of top-drawer classical players, and Bodner was a first-rate jazz soloist as well. In the brass section, bass trombonist Tony Studd and tuba player Don Butterfield were, at the time, virtually the only players in the studio freelance pool on their respective horns who were jazz improvisers, which made them far superior to their peers at playing written parts with true jazz feeling, an advantage also enjoyed by lead trumpeters Ernie Royal and Snooky Young.

In addition to his status as an arranger and player of the first rank, Nelson became important in jazz education with the publication of several of his big band works and his influence on saxophonists became widespread due to popularity of his self-published book of saxophone exercises, Patterns for Saxophone. He wrote the book originally for his own use and the story of its origin falls under the heading of "You can't make this stuff up." During his stint with Wild Bill Davis in 1959, the group played a gig on a cruise ship. At one point in the voyage, rough seas and foul weather caused the ship's generators to go haywire, causing the electrical power levels onboard to fluctuate wildly. This in turn caused Davis' Hammond organ to change pitch uncontrollably and unpredictably, forcing Nelson to have to constantly transpose in order to stay in the right key. This experience made him aware that needed to improve his facility in all 12 keys, hence the book.

As his writing commitments usually left him virtually no practice time, he would practice out of his own book whenever he needed to get his chops into shape quickly. Most of the book's exercises take a particular melodic pattern and run it through all the keys. One example consists of a series of 12 tone rows in various transpositions and several others contain the melodies of tunes that appear on different recordings. Several passages and complete tunes in this set are derived from examples in this book and many of the patterns were, and still are, part of the vocabulary of many important players.
Nelson's experience and status as a first-rate player who was often featured on other arrangers' projects as well as his own, made him an ideal choice to provide backing for jazz soloists of all stylistic persuasions. No one has a better idea of what works and what doesn't behind a jazz soloist than a writer who is a Jazz soloist.

The list of soloists for whom Nelson provided stimulating frameworks includes Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges, Cal Tjader, Sonny Rollins, Kai Winding, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine and vocalists such as Louis Armstrong (including the ubiquitous IT”S A WONDERFUL WORLD, Louis' last recording, with stowaway Ornette Coleman singing in the vocal choir), Carmen McRae, Etta Jones, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson.

Nelson moved to Los Angeles in 1965 in order to break into TV and film scoring, maintaining a bicoastal lifestyle for awhile as he combined recording work in New York scoring work in L.A. His first steady scoring work was for the NBC-TV series Ironside in 1967. The show was produced by Universal Television, whose music supervisor, Stanley Wilson, was supportive of jazz musicians and had helped jumpstart the scoring careers of J.J. Johnson and Benny Golson. Nelson went on to score several other TV and soon fell into a dangerous and eventually fatal trap. He maintained a lavish home while sending his two sons through college and paying to support his older brother, who had developed physical and mental problems that required institutional care. This led him to take on a backbreaking workload, which was, ironically made worse by his own professional integrity. In those pre-digital days, TV and film scores were still performed by groups of human beings, requiring the creation of fully written scores from which individual parts were then extracted. It was standard practice for the composer, after having written the for an episode, to then direct the recording sessions.

The field was notorious for imposing insanely tight deadlines. Virtually every composer involved in this work wrote his scores in the form of a sketch and employed orchestrators who were familiar with the composer's style, to flesh them out into full scores. It was considered physically impossible to do otherwise, due to the dangerously long periods of sleep deprivation it would require, but Nelson insisted on writing every note himself and was unique in never employing the services of an orchestrator. In addition, Nelson's younger son, jazz flutist Oliver Nelson Jr., believes that his father contracted malaria on a tour of Africa in 1969, and that it may have permanently weakened his immune system. On October 27, 1975, Nelson was conducting a recording session for an episode of the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, after working out the timing of the musical cues, composing and orchestrating every note and delivering the score to a copyist all within a span of 36 hours. At the end of the date, as pianist-composer Mike Melvoin, the keyboardist on the date, described it, "He went to the date, looked really bad ... needless to say, and I think it was Vince DeRosa, the French horn player, [who] said 'You don't look good, man. You should go home, or even go to the hospital, go to the emergency room, check in or whatever.” He said, No, No, I’m going home right now’ and I think he had his heart attack on the way home.”

Though all the press reports listed the cause of death as a heart attack, Oliver Nelson Jr. confirms the actual cause of death as pancreatitis, a breakdown of fatty acids in the liver, resulting in instantaneous shock and rapid death. According to Melvoin, Nelson’s tragic death served as a cautionary tale, causing more than a few overworked Hollywood composers to alter their work habits.”

Kenny Berger
November 2005
Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Sessions [MD6-233]

1 comment:

  1. I discovered Oliver Nelson in 1977 and could not believe my ears. At the time it was obviously a vinyl record and belonged to somebody else. However, thanks to the technology of today I can listen to my cd of Blues and the Abstract Truth to my heart's content. You have told me so much more about this wonderful man's unique style. If I want to feel good, I just listen to Stolen Moments. Thank you.


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