Thursday, March 8, 2018


© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I have long thought that had he not died so tragically young at the age of 43, Jazz saxophonist, arranger and composer Oliver Nelson may have produced a body or work to warrant consideration as “the Duke Ellington” of the second half of the 20th century.

Given his brief life, Oliver’s arranging and composition talents were prolific, by any standard of judgment.  More importantly, his music is exciting and interesting and always fun to listen to, especially in a big band context.

The editorial staff was particularly pleased to be granted copyright permission by Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records to use Kenny Berger’s insert notes to their reissue of Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Session [MD6-233] as a feature on JazzProfiles.

And subsequently, when John Cobley contacted us and offered his permission to post the following interview with Oliver that he conducted three years before Nelson’s death in 1975, needless to say, we now had reason to become doubly pleased.

John lives in British Columbia. We’ve never met in person, only coming together via the Internet as a result of our common interest in Jazz.

He has had a successful career as a professional writer. In addition to Jazz, another of John’s interests is running. He used to work as a track and field writer. Not surprisingly, then, he is currently “…  working on a ‘book’ on running, great runners, coaches and famous races.”

Here’s what John had to say as by way of background to his interview with Oliver:

“Going over it after all these years, I was surprised how well it went and how much Oliver Nelson [ON] opened up to me (a humble student). His frustrations with the "scene" come over quite strongly. I was quite moved by his comment about his black brothers. The first part is rather long (about jazz education),….   Still I think that overall the interview will give those interested in Nelson some useful insights.”

© -John Cobley. Reprinted with the permission of the author; copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In the spring of 1972, Oliver Nelson visited Salt Lake City to work with the University of Utah jazz program. I attended one of his sessions with the university big band. At one point he got out his alto and began a solo; however, after a minute he stopped abruptly, apologizing that the thin air at 5,000 feet was too much for him. (In retrospect, this might well have been an indication of the heart condition that was to end his life three years later.)

After the session I approached Oliver Nelson for an interview. I introduced myself as a third-year student from BYU who had a weekly jazz program on KBYU-FM. He agreed to meet me later at his hotel.  Arriving on time, he commented on some “weird looks” he got on the streets of Salt Lake City because of his color. After the interview, he talked to me personally and, giving me his home address, said he would welcome any ideas that I might have for projects he could work on.

Q: First of all, I’d like to ask you about jazz education. I believe you’ve been greatly involved in it for the last few years.

ON: The University of Utah jazz program is only three years old. In that three-year period, enrolment has gone up constantly, to the point that the jazz curriculum is one third in terms of student numbers. And the school felt that they should find some way to merge jazz and the regular music department.  However, the regular music dept has nothing to do with the jazz department, and they are worlds apart in concept. Of course, jazz theory and harmony are quite different from European classical theory and harmony.  North Texas State’s program is 25 years old and it has been successful for 25 years. But even there they are finding resistance to the jazz program.

Q: Could you define what you mean by successful?

ON:  When I went to Washington University in St Louis, we could not even mention the word jazz. So I got a very good classical background—in 16th century harmony. Then in 1966 they invited me back to start a jazz program. It’s as if they are finally seeing that jazz is an important art form. If you are going to teach it, you can’t just pull out an educator and say “Teach jazz.” You have to get people who have been professional musicians, who have traveled. I’ve played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Quincey Jones, Louis Bellson, so they said that the logical person is a former student who has gone out and been very successful in the world. It was an honor for me.
Q: Do you think that this gulf between classical and jazz education is getting any narrower?

ON: Jazz programs are bringing a great deal of pressure upon music schools.  For instance, emphasis is now on improvisation. As a student, I had a professor at Washington University who said that any music that is improvised is not art. I raised my hand and said, “What about the troubadour songs with mandolins and lutes? Troubadours would go all around Europe singing and improvising. It’s codified in one large book. How do you account for this?”  He just told me to see him after class. I got a D in that course. So communication is a big problem because all the heads of music departments have no real knowledge of jazz. Their only option is to bring in professional people to teach it. But professionals like Dizzy Gillespie have the experience   but no degrees after their name. So the heads say, “Why should we pay someone like Dizzy Gillespie $25,000 a year to teach when he doesn’t have a Ph. D.?”  Well, he doesn’t need one.  So lines have to be clearly drawn.

Q: Would you say then that jazz programs have become embarrassingly popular?

ON: That’s right. And that makes it very difficult for the classical part music departments. In one of the reports concerning Dr. Fowler’s resignation here at the University of Utah, the words “domination by the Jazz Department” appeared.  Well, that’s a strange word, domination. The University of Utah stage bands have been consistent winners in the festivals; that’s great publicity for the school. You’d think the school would be very happy about it, but somehow they feel very nervous and threatened.

Q: There has been some cross-fertilization between jazz and classical music—Stravinsky for example. Do you think that this cross-fertilization will develop into one musical form?

ON: I think so. Recently there was a review of a piece of mine that was premiered by the Eastman Orchestra at Rochester. It’s a 15-minute piece. And the reviewers didn’t know where it belongs. You can’t tell where the jazz stops and where the classical music begins. So that’s what I’ve been working for in my own career—to try to cross-fertilize. I find it’s happening more and more because of the exposure the jazz musicians are getting and the exposure to rock. They also have to take classical courses, and somehow it rubs off. It goes back and forth. I think it will be a natural thing. And it’s going to take years before we can really see the truth of it.  But I hate this resistance that you get in a music department where the classical people don’t speak to the jazz people.  It’s wrong, you know.

Q: There is an aloofness to any kind of exuberance in classical music.

ON:  Oh, yea.  One good example is this. Zubin Mehta of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They did a piece of mine maybe two years ago for full orchestra. Zubin was very concerned. He said, “Why is it that you don’t see any black faces at these concerts at the Music Center?” I said that I’d thought about it. So he said, “Why don’t we have the whole symphony orchestra play the high school in the so-called ghetto area of Watts?” And we did this piece of mine there. They also played the first part of The Rite of Spring. And the black kids loved it. So he said, if they won’t go to the Music Center, let’s take the music to them. He’s also changing his program, doing less say of Mozart and Bach. And he will have one concert featuring the music of Lalo Schifrin and Frank Zappa. He’s trying to reach a new audience.

Q: We had him here at Provo. In our interview he seemed concerned with the image of classical music. But most of those involved in classical music don’t seem concerned. They feel people have to rise up to their level.  We feel that Mehta has almost been ostracized for his attitude.
ON: He  comes down to the grass roots level and tries to reach the people. He says the programming of a normal symphony orchestra is usually bad. People aren’t coming out to hear things that they’ve heard before. So he’s putting on a great deal of new music, and they are giving him a hard time for that. He’s bringing jazz composers into the Music Center to do things with the orchestra; he’s getting problems with that. What’s happening in the universities is almost a parallel with what’s happening with symphony orchestras. Q: So what advice would you give to the heads of university music departments?

ON: To recognize that they will have to deal with it sooner or later.  My son, Oliver Junior, who will be 17 soon, is asking where he should go to school and what he should take. I tell him, “You really do need a good classical background, beside what you are going to find out about jazz and everything else. You still need a good basis.  I recommended he study classical harmony and theory. But he should also be free to elect to take jazz harmony courses and not have the feeling that the two are separate things. He’s content now to get a good education, one that will give him the best of both worlds.
At the Eastman School of Music, the students decided: they wanted jazz to be taught. And they started the program there two years ago. The students got the head of the music department to resign. The students will have a lot to do with the future.  They know what they want. They’ve looked at the world their fathers have given them and said, “The world doesn’t work.” The students will decide that jazz will be taught in the music departments; they may even decide who will teach it. And I think this is a good thing—as long as they don’t burn the place down!

Q: I recently did a talk on the problem of soloing with a big band as opposed to soloing in a small group. Do you have any opinions on this?

ON: I personally prefer small groups. I’m using a synthesizer now and an electric piano. And maybe an electric bass, though I always feel the need for the upright bass. I find that with three good players I can make more music than with a 20-piece orchestra that’s hard to handle because you have to conduct and play at the same time. A large orchestra sort of hems you in. So when I work with a large group I always write places inside the piece where I can play with the rhythm section. And then at some point I’ll scream, “Let’er in” or something, and the orchestra will join me at that point. But I do prefer small groups.

Q: With college bands the ensemble sounds fine, but there is often a letdown when the solos start.

ON: They aren’t developing soloists like they should. They’re developing ensemble groups. This problem has been on my mind. I was at a festival where I heard 80 bands in three days, and I don’t think we heard one outstanding solo. It bothers me because this means that improvisation is not being taught the way it should be in the colleges.

Q: I’m wondering whether it might be better for big-band soloists to have some sort of solo worked out beforehand.
ON: No. Just let it come right off the top of your head.

Q: Even at the college level?

ON? Yeh. I think the blame falls mainly on the educators. The 80 bands were all white bands—very little integration. They had some Orientals and Spanish-speaking kids. But they were playing mostly rock not jazz. Since this was a jazz festival, this was very puzzling to me. When I talked with the band directors, their attitude was that they were trying to play the music of the kids’ generation. Improvisation is not part of their teaching process. So you hear ensemble after ensemble--but no outstanding soloists.

Q: Can you give any comments on the problems students have when they first start composing for jazz orchestra?

ON: First they need to know theory, instrumentation/orchestration. You need to know how to handle all the instruments because not all of them are transposing instruments. It puts a burden on the young composer just to copy the parts because the orchestra is so large. I would personally select smaller ensembles first and then work up to the larger groups.

Q: How did your own career develop?

ON: I started out with piano when I was four and with saxophone when I was 11. I was working professionally when I was 12, touring with a territory band when school was out. After that I went with Louis Jordan’s big band, and then I had to go in the Marine Corps for two years.  Public Law 550 provided me the means to get an education so I went to Washington University from 1954 to 1958 and then Jefferson University in Lincoln City, Missouri. Then I got married and went to New York. My first success, I would say, was an album I did for ABC Paramount, Blues and the Abstract Truth. On the basis of that one record, I had created my own sound. It only worked for me. If other people used it, guys would say, “You sound just like Oliver Nelson!” And then I went on to do an album with Jimmy Smith, Walk on the Wild Side. That was a start. After that I was writing more than I was playing. I stayed in New York almost ten years, bought a house on Long Island and had to fight that traffic every day. Then I said, “I think I want more out of life than this. I think I’d like to write for films.” So we moved to California, where I’ve been writing for feature films: Death of a Gunfighter, Zigzag, Skullgduggery.
Q:  How did you find satisfaction doing that? I hear that Quincy Jones is giving it up.

ON: He needs money. Well, he’s starting to go very commercial now. That’s what Hollywood can do. So now I’m involved in film writing I do music on a regular basis for Longstreet, for which I created the theme, and do underscores for Ironside and a show called Night Gallery.  But I find that’s not enough. I get the feeling that this year is going to be critical because I’ve decided to make my own music available to schools and colleges. I think I am going to do less and less of the other and do more and more in education.

Q: On this album (Leon Thomas in Berlin) I noticed a change in your playing. It seemed to be cathartic, terribly powerful emotionally.

ON: (Laughs) I was having a wonderful time in Berlin, and I guess it shows up on that record. And I don’t  play that often. When I do play I just take my saxophone right out of the bag and put it together and play it. I don’t live with it every day. The reason that I can pick up my saxophone and play it is that I am always thinking about it.

Q: We had Don Ellis here recently, and he was talking about Gary Burton, how he practices…

ON: In his head. Right. Same thing.  But that album—you’re saying my playing is different. There was a period when my playing was one way and then my playing changed almost over night. I have a Japanese Yamaha saxophone that they gave me in Tokyo three years ago. And then I have a German mouthpiece which has an adjustable chamber inside. The Japanese instrument is so good that it enables me to go outside the well-tempered whatever. I can play as high as I want. My French Selmer saxophone wouldn’t allow me to do that because it was too good. It’s like owning a Rolls Royce, but you wouldn’t enter it in a race.

Q: But there’s a purity in your playing in that recording. I don’t know whether it’s a change in your style….

ON: I think it’s happened inside me.

Q: …as though you felt content within yourself and confident that you had no need to prove yourself. Could you make any comments on this album?
ON: Leon Thomas is also from St. Louis. He’s always talking about “Back to Africa.” And I’ve been to Africa, and I’m saying Africa is not where it is. He has never been there, and he’s talking about the Mother Country! The one thing that I found out about Africa is that it was not alien in the true sense. But there’s such a difference in the cultures that I said that the place to start thinking about making a living is in this country, America, although Africa was very nice to visit. Maybe that has something to do with my playing on this album too. It gave me a chance to focus on things I hadn’t thought about. As you can see I had on a dashiki for the occasion. But that’s not the normal way I play.  It used to be suits and ties, but I can’t do that anymore.

Q: What do you think about this African movement in Jazz—Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane—although their music is perhaps more North African and Indian?

ON: Well, it’s the same thing I’ve mentioned earlier. They’ve never been there. I thought that in going to Africa we would find some black faces and we would be able to exchange things musically. But in the major portion of my tour there, in the capital cities, we didn’t find one person who could play any jazz. And then I started to think about it: was American slavery the catalyst that was needed in order to make this music? Why did it only happen her and nowhere else? It didn’t happen in the Virgin Islands. It didn’t happen with the Africans who went to South America. Why did jazz only happen here?  Maybe slavery was the answer. The records of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane are very commercial. And when I say commercial, it’s that people are now trying to identify with something. So Pharoah Sanders sells quite a few records. But I don’t know if that’s how he really feels about it.

Q: I have a theory which I’d like to put to you. I’ve read that rather hysterical book by Frank Kofsky (Nelson laughs, “Oh, Frank”) and the rather better one by Ben Sidran, Black Talk….

ON: I don’t know that one.

Q: …and it seems to me that through the history of jazz the black musician has created a style and the white man has come along and copied it.

ON: That’s true.

Q: And each time that has happened, the black musician, to keep his individuality, has to jump to something different.
ON: This is very true because one of the things I ask young players when I meet them is, “Have you ever heard of Charlie Parker?” They say no. Then I look at the band instructor and wonder how the hell he can teach jazz. Another man, who will remain nameless, if I would say Charlie Parker, he would say Lee Konitz. If I would say Duke Ellington, he would say Stan Kenton. If I would say John Coltrane, he would say Stan Getz. He didn’t realize that he was trying to have a complete division, saying this was white jazz, cool jazz. Of course, what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing, that was black jazz. And I hate to think of jazz being that kind of music. As long as politics can stay out of it, I think music in this country will be very, very healthy. If I were white composer, I would have been totally famous and a millionaire by now. But it takes me longer. I have to prove myself every time I write a film score. Every time I stand in front of an integrated orchestra, I’ve got to know what I’m doing. Whereas you can get other people—Chuck Mangione, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him--he’s a big success because of some album he did with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra.  There’s no music there. But you hear Chuck’s name on the radio constantly, that he’s gonna be the man of the future.  Someone said that everyone is still looking for the great white hope. I hate to think of music in those terms.

Q: In Europe we respect you for what you are.

ON: In Europe it’s different. Why do you think I go to Berlin and have such a wonderful time? Because of the music, first of all. I can write anything for a German audience. I know I can extend my thoughts and do this and that, and I don’t have to be commercial.

Q: Why is there a difference then?

ON: I don’t know. It’s a complete reverse in Europe. Phil Woods, he goes to Europe and he feels he is being discriminated against because they think of him as a good white saxophone player. He says all the black musicians over there get drunk and they can’t play, but everybody leaves them alone because of their contribution to music. Over here Phil Woods was sought after, but in Europe….especially in France…they said before he died Sidney Bechet would play so badly some nights because he was sick, but people loved him just the same. He didn’t have to prove himself; he’d done that years ago. But Europe is lovely. I haven’t been to London yet. I always stop there to change planes. I can’t work there because British musicians would have to go to the States. In a country like Finland they play very, very good and play jazz as close as they can play it. I’m going to Norway this summer. Music can speak in an international way to all people. But over here we have Shaft. Everybody’s saying that’s the way all movie scores should be written. I don’t agree. You have to write for the  picture. Now the Shaft fad has taken Hollywood by storm. This country is very faddish. I somehow come through it all. I just go through the whole period, and I don’t change my style and I don’t change my ideals of what music should be. As a result I hear people say I’m one of the few who have not sold out yet. And they’re waiting for me, waiting for me to sell out.

Q: Do you feel bitter?

ON: No, I just feel that the music business in this country is geared to the lowest common denominator.  Do you know what they call me, my black brothers?  They call me a white musician. They call me a white composer. It’s because I’m always trying to do something. I couldn’t stay with Shaft just to prove how black I am. So I write all kinds of twelve-tone music. I write from my experiences through my education, and now I’m putting together my own thing. And if it goes outside their spectrum, they say, “You’re thinking white.”  You should see my last score; I showed it to Gerald Wilson this morning. It’s Berlin Dialogue. He said it looks like a road map! I said exactly what it is. I just give players places to start and stop. Driving from here, you have to take directions and know what turn-off to take. This is the way I think about improvisation. I don’t want to tell a player what to play, but I give him certain road maps and signs, and he can do whatever he wants as long as he is does it during this period. And he says you’re giving him too much freedom, but I say that every time we play this piece it sounds pretty much the same. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want everybody just playing anything they wanted to play; I wanted to control it just a little—enough to have the same performance time and time again.

Q: At a certain point jazz suddenly became serious. I wondered if you knew why.

ON:  They were trying to make it respectable. It started with John Lewis and the Third Stream. It was because most of the musicians were going back to school, and they were studying with people who were saying, “In order to make a good piece you have to go about it in this manner.” And it came out sounding serious. When jazz musicians write for a jazz orchestra—saxophones  and trumpets-- they write one way, and when they have a chance to write for a symphony orchestra--strings--they write in a completely different style. And then you wonder why.  Is it because respect for the symphony orchestra makes you write that kind of piece? My piece for Zubin was very rhythmic and I left a place inside the piece for me to improvise. The only thing I did was use the larger orchestra. When I write for a symphony orchestra, I think about the piece and what I want to do. But I only go about it in a bigger way. I don’t get serious about it. My music comes right off the top, you know.
Q: There is another kind of seriousness, which is almost a religious seriousness.  Coltrane for example.

ON: John Coltrane approached his music from that standpoint. He was very serious about it, but serious in that sense doesn’t mean pretentious. Maybe he knew he was going to die. Towards the end he was getting more and more involved in thinking about life. And then he dies, and that was the end of it. Pharoah Sanders has this quality also—music as a religion. Eric Dolphy was like that too—always serious about his work. I understand what you mean by seriousness that takes on a spiritual quality.

Q: I wonder if it started earlier.  Lester Young had his religious conscience nagging him.

ON: Listen. I have a religious conscience nagging me.

Q: But why didn’t it happen in the twenties?

ON: Well, everybody was having such a good time. It’s almost like if you go out and get drunk, the next day you feel like you’ve committed a sin—especially when your head hurts and you feel rotten. And you probably did commit a sin because you hurt your body. But John Coltrane was a very nice person, and he had a great deal of respect for other people’s work. Pharoah Sanders called me a couple of months ago to do an album for him. That’s one of the  projects I hope to be working on soon. I don’t know what kind of project it will be.  With him, his music is not ordered in a sense but is ordered, and with me working with a large a group over which I have to have some control, how do we put Pharoah Sanders in the middle and have it come out meaning something? It’ll be a project to work on.