Saxophonist Dave Nilson, at 90, Keeps the Music Alive

by Madonna

Age may be just a number, but for Dave Nilson, a 90-year-old saxophonist, it’s a testament to a life well-lived and a passion for music that continues to flourish.

With his trusty tenor saxophone, a cherished companion for over 65 years, Dave Nilson recently led his quartet through the lively opening number, “Twelfth Street Rag.” Joining him on stage were fellow musicians Thad Perry on the baritone saxophone, and David Butler and Ethan McClain, both masters of the alto saxophone. The performance took place at Belvedere Commons, one of the many assisted living facilities in Williamson County where the quartet has been spreading joy for the past few years.


Although these musicians have graced grand stages and larger venues throughout their careers, it’s the smiles on the faces of their elderly audience that still bring them immense satisfaction.


Dave Nilson’s love affair with the saxophone began during his high school years in New Rochelle, New York. Remarkably, at 90, he continues to share his musical talents with others, finding purpose and happiness in performing.


Thad Perry, a member of Dave’s Four, expressed, “This is a big part of his life right now. You can just see how happy having a performing group has made him. Listening to him, you can tell that he was a monster player back in the day. At 90, he’s still playing his butt off.”

Having retired from a career as an engineer, where he worked with NASA and the space program, Nilson remains dedicated to the saxophone he purchased back in 1957. His current mission? To witness audiences of a more mature age get swept up in the melodies he and his fellow musicians create.

Nilson’s extensive musical journey includes playing with a swing band named “Joe Banana and His Bunch,” leading his own five-piece combo, performing with the New Rochelle Symphony, and participating in numerous other musical gigs. However, his niche now lies in captivating older audiences. Dave’s Four plans to visit all retirement communities in Williamson County, with Belvedere Commons marking their seventh stop.

“It’s a big ego trip for me, and I figure these people will get some enjoyment out of it,” Nilson remarked, gesturing to the residents as they made their way to the community center.

Born in 1933 in Nyack, New York, Nilson has called Franklin home, along with his wife Carlene, for approximately 25 years. An interesting twist in his early life was the years spent living on a Chinese junk—a sailing vessel docked near New Rochelle that his father purchased after working on it as a crewman. Growing up on a ship taught Nilson valuable skills and instilled in him the courage to explore new horizons.

After graduating from high school and completing a three-month electronics technician course, Nilson was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War in 1953. Despite his electronics training, he served mainly in support roles in Germany during his two-year enlistment.

Later, Nilson married his wife of 56 years and earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Maryland. Prior to that, he endured a year in the frigid Arctic Circle in Alaska as a radar engineer. This experience was punctuated by a harrowing incident involving a cable car on an icy mountain, which miraculously ended without severe injuries.

Years later, Nilson faced an even greater ordeal—an automobile accident on Lewisburg Pike that resulted in serious injuries and a two-month hospital stay. During his recovery, Nilson had a spiritual awakening and rediscovered his passion for music.

He recounted, “I asked God, what do you want from me? God said, ‘I gave you talent, you should start using it.'”

Nilson heeded this calling, picking up his saxophone and playing more passionately than ever. He joined the Williamson County Community Band, where he met Perry, Butler, and McClain. Inspired by the idea of bringing music to residents who might have difficulty attending live performances, Nilson proposed the concept of Dave’s Four.

As for his age, Nilson regards it as merely a number, emphasizing, “I’m conscious, I’m vertical, I’m mobile, and I’m solid.”

With his unwavering passion for music, Dave Nilson serves as an inspiration to us all, demonstrating that age is no barrier to pursuing one’s passions and sharing the joy of music with others.


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