Tribute to Oliver Nelson Sept. 12

WUSTL alumnus helped shape 1960s jazz

The Blues and the Abstract Truth, by St. Louis saxophonist Oliver Nelson (1932-1975), is among the most influential jazz albums of the 1960s, a masterpiece of blues structures, modern arrangements and post-bop cool.

On Thursday, Sept. 12, Washington University in St. Louis — Nelson’s alma mater — will host a seven-piece jazz ensemble, led by veteran trumpeter Randy Holmes, in a tribute to Nelson’s music and career.

The free performance, titled “The Music of Oliver Nelson: Blues and The Abstract Truth,” is presented as part of the fall Jazz at Holmes Series and begins at 8 p.m. in Holmes Lounge.

William Lenihan, director of jazz studies in Arts & Sciences, notes that the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth featured one of the finest jazz sextets ever assembled. In addition to Nelson himself, the line-up included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Bill Evans and drummer Roy Haynes.

“My reason for programming these particular works is to bring to our students a music with the depth of expression, the collage of sounds and the language present in modern jazz of the ’60s,” Lenihan says. “Blues, bop and European classical music — all come together under the craft of a composer trained at Washington University.”

Oliver Nelson

Born in St. Louis in 1932, Nelson left home in his late teens to play saxophone with the Louis Jordan big band. In 1952, he joined the U.S. Marines, where his travels helped expose him to the world of 20th-century classical music. He returned to St. Louis in 1958 to study music at Washington University.

“I remember with affection Oliver’s zest for living, which he best expressed through his music,” says Robert Wykes, PhD, professor emeritus of music in Arts & Sciences, who taught Nelson theory and composition.

“As a student, he just didn’t absorb information — he devoured it!” Wykes adds. “And when it re-emerged in new compositions, it was all Oliver. He was a memorable, inspiring man of unique talent.”

From St. Louis, Nelson moved to New York, where he played with big band trumpeter Erskine Hawkins and was a house arranger at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In 1967, he settled on the West Coast, where he composed music for television (Columbo, Ironside) and film (Death of a Gunfighter), and arranged music for Last Tango in Paris.

Nelson returned to the WUSTL campus in 1969 to direct a five-week clinic that included a guest appearance by renowned bassist Ron Carter. In 1971, he was honored by Washington University with a Founders Day Distinguished Alumni Award. He died in 1975, at age 43.

Fall line-up

The Jazz at Holmes fall line-up will continue Sept. 19 with saxophonist Chad Evans and his quartet, followed on Sept. 26 by the Roman pianist Antonio Figura and his trio.

Jazz guitarists Eric Slaughter and Tom Byrne will bring their quartet to campus Oct. 3. Tenor saxophonists Willie Akins, Freddy Washington and Paul Demarinis will join forces Oct. 10, followed on Oct. 24 by a tribute to the legendary drummer Joe Charles.

Saxophonist Jeff Anderson and his quartet play traditional and modern jazz Nov. 7. The Ashley Tate Dance Company will present “Freedom Jazz Dance,” an evening of jazz and dance improvisation, Nov. 14. Pianist Carolbeth True and her trio perform Nov. 21.

On Dec. 5, the regular Thursday-night series will conclude for the fall with a performance by Washington University jazz performance students, under Lenihan’s direction. However, on Dec. 6, renowned jazz artists Gary Peacock (bass), Marc Copland (piano) and Joey Baron (drums) will present a special Friday concert, co-sponsored by the Department of Music, in the 560 Music Center.

Jazz at Holmes

Sponsors of Jazz at Holmes include: College of Arts & Sciences, Student Union, Congress of the South 40, Department of Music in Arts & Sciences, University College and Summer School in Arts & Sciences, Campus Life, Danforth University Center and Event Management, Community Service Office, Office of Student Involvement and Leadership, Greek Life Office and Office of Residential Life.

For more information, contact Sue Taylor at or (314) 862-0874; or follow Jazz at Holmes on Facebook.