Black Music Month, known today as African American Music Appreciation Month, started on June 1. Former President Jimmy Carter, who is a major jazz fan, kicked off the process in 1979, which didn’t become official until Bill Clinton issued a proclamation in 2000.
Today is also the birthday of Oliver Nelson, one of our greatest musicians who inhabited so many roles: jazz composer, arranger, bandleader, saxophonist, and clarinetist. June is also LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I’d like to introduce you to the compilation album “Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool,” named for Nelson’s jazz standard “Stolen Moments” and its accompanying film, which served to focus attention on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community.
Black Music Sunday is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 150 stories (and counting) covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack, I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
James Nadal wrote Nelson’s bio at All About Jazz:
Born June 4, 1932 in St. Louis, Oliver Nelson came from a musical family: His brother played saxophone with Cootie Williams in the Forties, and his sister was a singer-pianist. Nelson himself began piano studies at age six and saxophone at eleven. In the late ‘40s he played in various territory bands and then spent 1950-51 with Louis Jordan’s big band. After two years in a Marine Corps ensemble, he returned to St. Louis to study composition and theory at both Washington and Lincoln universities.
After graduation in 1958, Nelson moved to New York and played with Erskine Hawkins, Wild Bill Davis, and Louie Bellson. He also became the house arranger for the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Though he began recording as a leader in 1959, Nelson’s breakthrough came in 1961 with “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” (Impulse) featuring an all-star septet of; Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers and Freddie Hubbard. With the success of that deservedly acclaimed album, Nelson’s career as a composer blossomed, and he was subsequently the leader on a number of memorable big-band recordings, including “Afro-American” (Prestige) and “Full Nelson” (Verve). He also became an in-demand studio arranger, collaborating with Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges, Stanley Turrentine, and others. In addition to dates he led under his own name, he wrote, scored and conducted under the names Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz All Stars and the Jazz Impressions Orchestra; did a date for Shirley Scott and another for Ray Brown and Milt Jackson; five sessions with organist Jimmy Smith, including the legendary “Walk on the Wild Side," another headlined by Smith and Wes Montgomery; and the incomparable Pee Wee Russell. During the Sixties, Nelson became one of the most strongly identifiable writing voices in jazz. Since Nelson was schooled in both the American jazz and European music traditions, his arrangements can be intricate, but when it comes time for a solo, it's clear that Nelson (who was himself a brilliant soloist on tenor alto and soprano saxophone) has fashioned everything as the proper set up for the featured player.
Sadly, Nelson died very young, at the age of 43 of a heart attack. Bob Perkins wrote this obit for WRTI:
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.
For Black Music Month I’m opening with one of Nelson’s lesser known compositions, “Afro-American Sketches.”
YouTube channel owner diegodobini2 posted a transcription of the album’s liner notes which I found very interesting. I think there are many people who may assume (incorrectly) that all Black American musicians are somehow familiar with all music from the African continent. Nelson’s notes belie that assumption:
Early in March 1961, Prestige A & R Man, Esmond Edwards and I talked about the possibility of my writing a Folk Album for a large orchestra, with material taken from African and American sources. I wasn't very keen on the idea, maybe because of the lack of honesty in a lot of Afro-Jazz LPs on the market but mostly because I didn't know an awful lot about Africa, African People and Culture and most important, nothing about African Music and Rhythm. I agreed to take the assignment only if I had ample time to do study and research and as much time as necessary to do the actual writing of the music. Esmond provided me with about 50 long play recordings; recorded live, in places with exotic names such as The Uganda Protectorate, Tanganyika, Ruanda, The Congo, etc. In alt, I must have listened to the music of about 200 tribes, but one thing struck me as being oddly curious. These recordings were made in some of the most remote sections on the continent and the tribes were considered (by the Collectors of the material represented on these LPs) to be some of the most savage and primitive. ... However, from repeated listenings, I did realize that the rhythm of the African People had remained intact and that I could absorb some inspiration from that source alone.The function of the Drum in Africa is as variable as the musical styles. Drums are used for accompanying dances and processions, for heralding the movements of great personages, to supplement other instruments and accompany songs, to provide exciting background for sports events, to dramatize court litigation, to dramatize the activities of secret societies and totemic groups, to call people to assembly, for simulating human speech and sending signals and many other functions which are too numerous to mention here.
AFRO-AMERICAN SKETCHES, a jazz suite in seven parts begins with MESSAGE written in A B A B form and is essentially a conversation between drummers Ed Shaughnessy and Ray Barretto. The MESSAGE relates that men in boats are coming up river in great numbers. Solos are by Jerry Dodgion, flute; Art Davis, bass; and Ed Shaughnessy, Ray Barretto, drums. The high string sounds are supplied by Art Davis as he applies his bow to the bass strings below the bridge.
In 1969, Nelson released a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled “Black, Brown and Beautiful.”
Here’s a live performance in Berlin from 1970:
Nelson’s most famous album is “The Blues and the Abstract Truth.” The Music Aficionado writes:
One of the musical projects Oliver Nelson was involved with before the recording of the album was playing tenor sax in Quincy Jones’ big band. The arrangements Jones wrote for that band influenced Nelson, who learned how to write arrangements that made a small big band sound much bigger. The first track on The Blues and the Abstract Truth and the most memorable on the album, Stolen Moments, is a good example. Trumpet player Freddie Hubbard remembers Nelson’s skills as an arranger: “He got some voicings, man, that were out of this world! Like when he did (sings Stolen Moments), he had the baritone up above the tenor. To have a baritone voiced that high is unusual. And he had the alto below the tenor, and he had me playing the lead.” The tune is made out of three melodic ideas weaved together masterfully. Many compared it stylistically to Kind of Blue and there is definitely a resemblance in the overall mood. The participation of Bill Evans on piano and Paul Chambers on bass, both Kind of Blue alumni, may have something to do with it. Great solos here by Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy on flute, Oliver Nelson on tenor and Bill Evans.
The album was a career booster for Oliver Nelson. Stolen Moments became a much loved jazz standard, played by many artists and also by jazz ensembles in music schools all over the world. After the album’s release Nelson went on to work with popular jazz artists like Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. In 1969 Nelson was invited by James Brown to arrange and conduct the Louie Bellson big band to back the singer up for his album Soul On Top. His arrangements for well-known songs like It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World work surprisingly well in this unlikely combination.
Louie Bellson said of the arranger: “Oliver knew how to write for singers as well as instrumentalists. He left a lot of holes open for James. Some arrangers write too many notes and the singer has to strive to hit all those high notes, especially with brass. But Oliver was perfect. We didn’t have to change anything at all, it went down perfectly.” and Brown summarized it as only he can: “Oliver Nelson was one of the greatest arrangers who ever lived. That man was baaaad!”
Here’s the full album:
Nelson’s Stolen Moments from the album:
This is my favorite vocal version of “Stolen Moments,” sung to perfection by Carmen McRae and Betty Carter.
“Stolen Moments” became part of the title and one of the songs on the groundbreaking 1994 album which was put together as part of a musical series raising funds for HIV/AIDS.
Chris M. Slawecki reviewed the album for All About Jazz:
Released in 1994, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, at its high points (and there are several), is a multihued explosion of genres, an oft mind-blowing marriage of nearly thirty of the hardest-blowin’ and sheer funkiest artists from the parallel spheres of jazz and hip-hop. Proceeds from its release go directly to The Red Hot AIDS Charitable Trust. It benefits a worthy cause, it is musically challenging if not outright educational, and it is one damn serious funky good time to boot.
The two discs generally divide into a "hip-hop / pop song" disc and a "jazz" disc, with thirteen songs on the former and three more experimental and expansive pieces on the latter. A contemplation about HIV-test results by Michael Franti and Spearhead ("Positive"), The Pharcyde ("The Rubbers Song") and a thoroughly wicked rendition of "Rent Strike" by Groove Collective with the funkmaster of the electric keys, P-Funk veteran Bernie Worrell, make the loudest "pop" on this disc.
Those seeking more of the jazz sensibility of "stretching out" will enjoy "Nocturnal Sunshine," where bassist and vocalist Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello fingerpops alongside some tasteful piano from Herbie Hancock; "Proceed II," with Roy Ayers bobbing and weaving his hallmark vibes into and out of the earthy sound of The Roots; and "Flyin’ High In The Brooklyn Sky," where legendary guitarist Wah Wah Watson peels off his trademark funk licks as rappers Digable Planets and space-age trumpeter Lester Bowie (no stranger to genre-bashing) sail and glide right on by.
Red Hot, the nonprofit dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture, described the project like this:
Throughout its history Red Hot has focused projects on communities affected by the AIDS crisis as much as raise money and awareness through popular music. Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool was the first of many projects focused on communities of color in the U.S. and around the world, particularly as the trajectory of the disease grew to tragic proportions in urban areas in the industrial world as well as in Africa and the Global South.
The project was a creative collaboration between Earles Sebastian a black South African, whose career had begun among the jazz hip hop culture of London, and John Carlin, co-founder of Red Hot along with Leigh Blake, who was married to Sebastian at the time. The idea was to do an album that combined hip hop tracks dealing directly with AIDS (such as Michael Franti’s “Positive” and The Pharcyde’s “Rubbers Song”) with tracks loosely inspired by John Coltrane and the Impulse! label he led in the 1960s, which also featured work by his wife Alice Coltrane and collaborator Pharoah Sanders. There was also TV program, funded by ITVS and broadcast on PBS, that featured a legendary live performance at the Supper Club in New York along with hard hitting interviews with artists, people affected by AIDS in communities of color and Professor Cornell West.
Here’s the full album:
And here is the full compilation of songs and contributors.
Peter Lucus at Glasstire wrote about the documentary film that was made to accompany the album:
STOLEN MOMENTS: RED HOT + COOL (1994, 57 minutes) View here for free.
The compilation album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool garnered high praise when it was released in late 1994, including being named Album of the Year by Time Magazine. The album was produced as a benefit for HIV/AIDS non-profit the Red Hot Organization, and along with Guru’s first Jazzmatazz album the previous year, it was one of the first recording projects to feature the collaboration of Hip Hop artists and older Jazz and Funk legends who’d been so important to the form via sampling. Despite its acclaim at the time, the album has sort of disappeared (unavailable on Spotify or Apple Music), and few seem to ever have known about the accompanying hour-long film, which aired once on PBS and had a limited VHS release before drifting into obscurity.
The Stolen Moments film includes music performances by Guru with Donald Byrd and Ronny Jordan; The Pharcyde with Groove Collective; MC Solaar with Ron Carter; Meshell Ndegeocello with Joshua Redman; Digable Planets with Lester Bowie, Joe Sample, and “Wah Wah” Watson; The Last Poets with Pharoah Sanders, and bits of the concert’s finale by Pharoah Sanders with everyone. These performances are captured in sharp color, while interspersed sequences shot on grainy black and white 16mm film feature participating rappers and musicians, figures such as Cornell West and Louis Jones, and unnamed folks providing candid social commentary on the state of Black America and struggles related to HIV/AIDS.
I’ve seen the film several times, and understand why PBS quickly shelved it: It was too raw, too real, too Black for their audiences. I hope you’ll take time to watch it.
Since we’re at the start of Black Music Month, I’m curious about your genre preferences, so I have posted a poll below.
Join me in the comments section for more Oliver Nelson and discussion of your polling preferences.