Oliver Edward Nelson was born June 4, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri and was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger and composer. Nelson came from a musical family: his brother played the saxophone with Cootie Williams in the 1940's, and his sister sang and played piano. Nelson began learning to play the piano when he was six, and started on the saxophone at age eleven. From 1947 he played in 'territory' bands around Saint Louis, before joining the Louis Jordan big band from 1950 to 1951, where he played alto saxophone. Nelson's musical career was interrupted when Nelson joined the marines for a while, after military service he returned to Missouri to study music composition and theory at Washington and Lincoln Universities, graduating in 1958.
After graduation Nelson moved to New York, playing with Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davis, and working as the house arranger for the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He also played on the West Coast briefly with the Louie Bellson's big band in 1959, and in the same year began recording as a leader with small groups. From 1960 to 1961 he played tenor saxophone with Quincy Jones, both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe. Six albums later for the Prestige label, Nelson's big breakthrough came with “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” on Impulse Records. This recording cemented Nelson as a household name in the world of composing and arranging. With his new found success and deservedly acclaimed, Nelson’s career as a composer blossomed as he recorded a number of big-band albums, as well as working as an arranger for numerous stars of the time.
In 1967, Nelson moved to Los Angeles, and aside from his solo projects, his big-band appearances, recording music in the studio, he toured West Africa with a small group and began composing music for television shows and films. During this time, Nelson became one of the most strongly identifiable writing voices in jazz. As the demands of writing commercial music increased for Nelson, the accompanying stress may have played a role in his untimely death; Nelson died suddenly of a heart attack on October 28, 1975, aged 43.