a jazz midwife
Last week I ruminated here about the great saxophone divide as embodied by Coleman Hawkins
and Lester Young. After I'd run through all my recordings of those two tenor titans, I
began to see more clearly the point I was trying to make. But, try as I might, I wasn't
sure where to go from there, because it was my intention to follow up those remarks about
style with a little map for listeners about the importance of the generic saxophone to the
history of jazz.
I was trying too hard, and my focus was too narrow, as it turned out.
My deadline for SkyJazz drew ever nearer and late evenings at work intruded on my time of
quiet and thought, so I decided to let the question lie for a few days and write about
something else. As is my habit, I turned to my music library and came up with Oliver
Nelson's "Blues And The Abstract Truth" [MCA, 1961]. About halfway through the
recording, I realized that Nelson, a multi-instrumentalist and very talented composer and
arranger, represented some kind of mediator where the "next big thing" in jazz
And that is no small thing.
Consider the state of jazz when this benchmark album emerged. Broadly speaking, there were
three camps of listeners at the time:
Miles Davis' monumental "Kind Of Blue" already had brought a new way of thinking
about scales, and even the very form of the blues had been challenged and turned into a
vehicle of ever greater possibility. That was one natural movement all its own and it
launched endless experimentations by the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley,
Miles and their legion of musical progeny.
At about the same time, Ornette Coleman had made the New York scene and, along with such
figures as Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, further wrenched form from the seeming chaos of
the "free jazz." This gave pause to the more traditional listeners who, although
they may have come to terms with the freedom of be-bop, found it difficult to assimilate
the keyboard assaults of Cecil Taylor, the random terror from the tenor of Archie Shepp or
the apparent in-joke of Don Cherry's pocket trumpet.
Finally, the hard-core traditionalists depended upon the tight orchestrations of the
Ellington and Basie orchestras or the slipstream abandon of New Orleans jazz.
Enter Oliver Nelson.
Nelson had paid his dues on the road as a saxophonist and flautist with Louis Bellson,
Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis, building a solid reputation as an
arranger. This experience served him well, for he had the hard-won quality of being
comfortable with any of the main camps of listeners in the early 1960s.
Surprisingly, there persists a notion of Nelson as an avant garde musician, to the
exclusion of his tamer instincts, which were tasty and, 98 percent of the time, on the
money, with a morsel for whoever cared to listen. His arranging and composing experience
won him a fruitful career as the composer of myriad television themes and soundtracks,
perhaps the most famous of these being the theme from the CBS-TV series, "Mr.
Before he died in 1975, he kept busy writing commissioned works, classical pieces, studio
and TV work, arranging for a wide variety of respected artists -- including Jimmy Smith
and Wes Montgomery -- and emulating the elegance of Billy Strayhorn, only doing it in his
It was Nelson who served as midwife to the blend of big band arrangements with more
experimental arrangements -- a la Charles Mingus and Gil Evans -- and, because of his
ubiquitous byline on television credits during the '60s, he found a blend of the
traditional with the "shape of jazz to come," in Ornette Coleman's phrase, that,
if it did not always please, did not drive potential listeners away.
With a claim staked in the music of his lifetime (1932-1975) in all its permutations,
Nelson did something very few could have done: he brought to the bandstand a big bite for
And, as I mentioned above, that is no small thing, for "Blues And The Abstract
Truth" is right up there with "Kind Of Blue" among the top 20 most
influential jazz albums of all time. Check it out.