Many talented souls in various walks of life have departed the planet well before their loved ones thought they should have. The abbreviated stays of the gifted makes us ponder what other wonders they might have contributed, had they lived.
Oliver Nelson comes to mind. He was less famous than Clifford Brown or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, all of whom were innovators and pioneers and who died well before their time. But Nelson was not only a gifted multi-instrumentalist but also a top-flight arranger and composer. He advanced the careers of many performers, and not just those in jazz.
I first heard of Nelson in the early 1960s via his composition “Stolen Moments,” which became a jazz classic. A few years later I broke into radio and began hosting a jazz program. He then became an even more familiar name to me, because I played his music on the air.
Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” with Nelson on tenor saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, et al.:
Oliver Nelson was born into a musical family on June 4, 1932 in St. Louis. He played piano at age six, and several years later, the saxophone. He got his first major job with Louis Jordan while still in his teens, playing alto saxophone and arranging. Military service called, and he joined a band in the Marine Corps. While traveling in Tokyo, he heard the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, which he credited with whetting his appetite to become more advanced as an arranger.
After the military, Nelson studied harmony and theory at Washington and Lincoln Universities and privately. He moved to New York City and made music with Erskine Hawkins, organist Wild Bill Davis and a host of other established musicians. He also landed a job as house arranger for the Apollo Theater.
Prestige Records signed Nelson to a contract, and he recorded six albums for them. He later moved to the Impulse label and recorded The Blues and the Abstract Truth, a landmark LP that included “Stolen Moments.” It’s a work of art. With the likes of pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, Eric Dolphy doubling on also sax and flute, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Nelson on tenor sax—how could it not be the monster that it was? It still is.
Doors began to open. Not only was he producing and arranging for Nancy Wilson, James Brown, the Temptations, Diana Ross, organist Jimmy Smith, and other well-known artists, he was also composing for TV shows, including Ironside, Longstreet, and The Six Million Dollar Man (for which he wrote the theme). He also arranged the music for the motion picture Last Tango in Paris.
Those close to him knew he was spreading his gargantuan talents too thin by racing from the East Coast to perform with his jazz group, then to the West Coast for music-arranging jobs. Their concern for his well-being turned out not to be an abstract truth: Nelson suffered a massive heart attack in Los Angeles in 1975, and died at the age of 43. The word was that he had literally worked himself to death. So, Oliver Nelson, like some of his ever-youthful jazz predecessors, left while still having much more to say. But he, like they, kicked up a lot of creative dust prior to departing.
One of his best CDs (besides The Blues and the Abstract Truth) is one he shares with vibraphonist Lem Winchester, Nocturne. Oliver Nelson’s solos on “Azur’te” and “Man with a Horn” please the ear and massage the heart.
In that bygone era when radio was king, the drama known as The Shadow was one of the best. The dulcet voice of the announcer preceded each program with the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” He then finished off the quiz with a sardonic laugh, and the clincher, “The Shadow knows.”
David Newman is a fairly average name. But insert the nickname “Fathead,” and there you have a memorable handle—especially when the person is an entertainer. An odd name is one way to get attention. Musician David Newman must have caught on to this early in his career as a professional musician, and advanced by keeping the derogatory but attention-catching name of David “Fathead” Newman.
Very often with famous entertainers, only the first name is sufficient for identification. This happens particularly in the genres of jazz and standard/popular music. When a hip person wants to say something about a well-known artist, they may refer to that artist as Sarah, Billie, Ella, or Carmen. The latter of course is a reference to Carmen McRae, dubbed by jazz critics, writers and fans, "The Singer’s Singer."
Louis Armstrong was to jazz what Einstein was to physics, King to Civil Rights, Shakespeare to comedy and tragedy, and Oprah to televised entertainment. He taught the trumpet to do things the instrument didn't know it was capable of doing, and he could turn a song upside down with that deep, gravelly voice; Armstrong's contributions to the advancement of jazz as an art form are inestimable. All this, accomplished by a man who was born into abject poverty at Liberty and Perdido streets in New Orleans' Third Ward - better known as "Storyville."
He stood five feet, two inches tall, and his musical colleagues dubbed him “Swee’ Pea,” after the little character in the Popeye cartoons. But Billy Strayhorn ranked with the giants that composed enduring standard popular music. He was also nobody’s cartoon character. The handle was a reverent tease, applied by Strayhorn’s musical associates in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
I don’t recall hearing much about Hank Mobley, until he recorded a certain record album in 1963. But, this was my fault for not listening closely enough to Philly’s all-jazz radio station that prevailed at the time. The station must have played Mobley often, because he was a hot jazz commodity about that time.
Duke Ellington was a fascinating figure—so much so that quite a number of books and shorter profiles of the man came to be during his time, and well after his passing. Writers were always peering over his shoulder, trying to get a fix on how he operated his band and made it so successful; they even attempted to poke into his personal life, which the Duke managed to keep fairly secret.
Mr. Bob Perkins, WRTI jazz host extraordinaire, turns 80 years old today. And for 50 of those years he's been on the radio to the delight of thousands and thousands of listeners. Happy Birthday BP! We love your GM...and you!
Do you have any anecdotes about BP you'd like to share? Any birthday wishes? Please let Bob know in the comments section below. Thanks!
Tommy Potter’s name wouldn’t get much attention in jazz circles these days...unless the gathering were comprised of musicians and jazz fans with high-mileage on their odometers. But there was a time when the mention of his name brought smiles and nods of recognition, along with enthusiastic approval.