Nat King Cole – Jazz & Pop Supremo

November 30, 2013

A brilliant jazz pianist. A masterful singer of classic pop. Two things that might at first glance seem to be incompatible in one man, yet these are terms that can be safely applied to Nat King Cole. He achieved what was a remarkable transformation – moving from being a key figure in jazz piano lineage to being one of the very best classic pop singers of his era – with seemingly effortless ease. Yet this ease was, in a sense, superficial because his life and career were strewn with obstacles, not least of which is racial discrimination.

He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 March 1919 (it could have been a year or two earlier), into an important family in the local black community. His father was pastor of the First Baptist Church, his mother choir director in her husband’s church. While he was still a very small child the Coles family migrated to Chicago. This was in 1921 and from age four he learned to play piano by ear, although at age twelve he took some lessons in classical piano. But jazz was all around him, the music being all-pervasive in Chicago in these years. Students at the school he attended included future jazz musicians Ray Nance, Eddie South and Milt Hinton. Nat’s first professional break came when he joined his bass-playing brother, Eddie, in a touring show version of the all-black Broadway hit, Shuffle Along. Somewhere along the way he dropped the last letter of his surname but that was incidental. Much more seriously, he was stranded in Los Angeles when the show folded. Searching for musical work, he luckily found a job playing piano at the Century Club on Santa Monica Boulevard. Even more fortuitously, this was place favored by jazz musicians and the newcomer made quite an impression.

By the late 1930s he was sufficiently successful to decide to form a trio and the men he chose were Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. The choice of Moore was especially notable and over their long association the pianist and guitarist created much that was inspired, their interplay sometimes bordering on being telepathic. Although the core, and indeed the majority, of the music played by the trio was jazz, they found work in clubs where the audience was mixed; jazz fans rubbed shoulders with those who liked contemporary pop. Nat Cole accommodated this, consequently picking up a fan base that would serve him well in the future (and also acquiring the nickname by which he would ever afterward be known). Like Fats Waller in the previous generation, he managed to combine pleasing and humorous ditties with piano styling that was state-of-the-art. Perhaps not surprisingly, despite the excellence of his jazz piano playing and the approval it brought from fellow musicians, it was his singing that found favor with the wider audience and soon the fun songs were superseded by ballads. Times had moved on, and Cole had a suave sophistication that overtly expressed new ideals of the black community.nkc-5ankc-5

As his audience widened it was inevitable that he would attract the attention of a recording company and although he had made some sides for Decca at the start of the 1940s, it was in 1943 that he recorded Straighten Up And Fly Right and Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You for Capitol Records. During the 1940s he made several memorable sides with his trio (Prince was replaced by Johnny Miller), including Sweet Lorraine, It’s Only A Paper Moon,(Get Your Kicks) On Route 66 and (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons. All of these were hits and with them Nat King Cole’s future as a pop success was assured. There was also 1946’s The Christmas Song, for which strings were added, thus starting a process that would lead to his emergence as a middle-of-the road singer. In 1948, Nat recorded the strange yet telling Nature Boy (a US number 1), on which he was accompanied by Frank DeVol’s Orchestra. By now, the move away from small-group jazz, towards his eventual position as one of the most popular vocalists of the day, was well underway. Fortunately, this move was made with commendably astute selection of the arrangers and conductors who would accompany him; they included Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Ralph Carmichael, Pete Rugolo and Billy May. Proof that the move was right, and sustainable, came in 1950. This was when, with Les Baxter conducting Nelson Riddle’s lush arrangement of Mona Lisa, Nat had a huge international hit that spent eight weeks at the top of the US chart and eventually was recognized as one of his most celebrated recordings.

Throughout the following decade came more hits, mostly ballads, among them Too Young, Unforgettable, Smile, When I Fall In Love and Star Dust. There were also some lightly up-tempo hits, but still pleasing to the ballad-loving audience, including Walkin’ My Baby Back Home and Ballerina. This decade, the 1950s, did of course see the start of the vinyl era and Cole and Capitol took the opportunity to present what proved to be bestselling albums that included After Midnight (with the trio), nkc-3nkc-4aLove Is The Thing, topping the US chart for eight weeks, Just One Of Those Things, Cole Español and The Very Thought Of You. Less successfully, he agreed to suggestions that he capitalize on his popularity by making films, taking character roles in Blue Gardenia, China Gate and Night Of The Quarter Moon, and the leading role in 1958’s St. Louis Blues, in which he portrayed W.C. Handy.nkc-2

Clearly though, Nat King Cole’s strength lay in live concerts and especially on records. Not that this was always predictable. Many fans were critical of his early 1960s choice of Ramblin’ Rose and Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer, but they were huge hits. Few, though, could criticize another early 1960s hit that came with a track from the album Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays. This was Let There Be Love, a perfectly realized blending of voice and piano, of pop and jazz, that became an international hit and has not suffered even with the passing of a half-century.nkc-1

By the 1960s, those fans who favored Nat Cole’s jazzier work had to be content with the few numbers during a concert when he would sit at the piano to accompany himself. From a jazz point-of-view, this was a little sad, because his piano playing was glorious. Attempting to define a jazz piano lineage is fraught with problems; in Cole’s case it might be suggested that he came somewhere between Art Tatum and Bud Powell by way of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. More specifically, if perhaps riskily, it could be suggested that his piano style was an extension of the styles of Hines and in particular Wilson but incorporating many features of the new sounds of bebop. Indeed, if Cole had not had such a success as a singer he might well have been one of bebop’s leaders. A case for a radically corrected revision of the accepted view of jazz piano lineage is proposed by Richard Palmer in a multi-part article appearing in Jazz Journal. In Part 7 in the March 2013 issue, Richard addresses Nat Cole’s place. (In passing, my view of Cole’s piano playing is in concordance with Richard’s; conversely, it is clear that I think rather more highly than does he of Cole’s singing.)

For all the musical success, life was not easy on Nat Cole. His first marriage did not overcome the strains of showbiz life, but following his and Nadine’s divorce in 1948 he married singer Maria Ellington. Although this marriage had its problems, due largely to his occasional affairs, the couple had several children (including Natalie, who became a successful pop singer), and Nat and Maria were still together at his death. On a sociological note, it might be said that, like bebop, Nat Cole’s career was an effective exemplar of black pride, creating as it did opportunities for so-called (and unfortunately named) ‘sepia Sinatras’, such as Charles Brown and Sammy Davis Jr., who demonstrated to the wider and hitherto willfully ignorant world that whites had no monopoly on sophistication. Again speaking of the wider world beyond jazz and pop, Nat and Maria faced open racism when he bought a house in fashionable Beverly Hills. Racism also affected his professional life. In 1957, when he became the first black presenter of his own-name television show, there was resistance among advertisers concerned that his color meant that the show would not be shown in many parts of the country. The resulting failure to find a national sponsor led to the show being dropped. A year earlier, he was on stage in Birmingham, Alabama, when members of a racist group tried to kidnap him. Although police intervened, Cole was injured and refused thereafter to appear in the South. Nevertheless, Cole sometimes chose to make compromises and this drew some hostility from civil rights activists in the early 1960s. On balance, this would seem to have been unfair (Louis Armstrong was similarly castigated for similarly flimsy reasons). Clearly, Nat King Cole was a brave and decent figure in a period when racial prejudice was at its most demeaning and dangerous. That this hostility was unjustified is evident from the fact that at the time of his death he was working towards a production of James Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner, an example of radical black art and literature. It can only be speculated how this would have worked out, but it certainly shows where his heart lay. (This play was revived in London in October 2013.)

When Nat King Cole died, from lung cancer, on 15 February 1965, he left behind an exceptional recorded legacy, both as jazz pianist and classic pop singer. Nothing that he did in either sphere was ever less than very good, usually his standards were those of five-star excellence. These recordings, almost all of which are readily available, never fail to entertain; and on YouTube there are numerous film clips from concerts and club appearances. Although his films add little to a newcomer’s view of this remarkable artist, there is much insight to be gained from seeing The Unforgettable Nat ‘King’ Cole, a 1989 documentary film from the BBC that traces his life and career, or 2008’s The Legendary Nat King Cole, by Snag Films. (The BBC film was reissued on DVD in 2006 as The World Of Nat King Cole, a Double Jab production.)

The Singer-Pianists – Take 2

November 20, 2013

Important in the jazz world since its earliest days, the singer-pianist comes in all styles. As mentioned in Take 1, although mining this rich lode I am not seeking to be definitive. My choices are self-indulgent, they are artists whose work I admire and enjoy, but they are also artists who stand high if rated only as a singer, and who are similarly excellent when only playing the piano. And when doing both simultaneously succeed in retaining very high standards despite the very different qualities needed in the art of piano playing and the art of singing.

In Take 1, only one artist was featured; this time there are three. Necessarily, I will have to be brief, but this is not in any way disparaging – it is nothing more than acceptance that writing at length, as I did in the case of Fats Waller, it would take until the end of time to deal with all possible artists. Come to think of it, that schedule applies if there are three at a time, or thirty, but . . .

The three artists featured here are Nellie Lutcher, Dardanelle, and Daryl Sherman.

Nellie Lutcher

Master Classics Records

Master Classics Records

For me, and I expect for many others, Nellie Lutcher arrived with a bang. This was a result of a succession of hit records played regularly on BBC radio programs in the UK. They were similarly aired in the USA, helping her to hit parade success there; this followed her signing to Capitol Records in 1947. The first of Nellie’s hits was Hurry On Down, a song in the currently popular R&B style; on this she displayed her distinctive vocal sound, earthy, knowing, and slyly suggestive, as well as her driving piano playing. Nellie was then in her early thirties and was already a rounded and experienced musician. She was born into a musical family on 15 October 1915, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father played bass in a jazz band and as Nellie swiftly developed her instrumental skills she joined him. As she gained in confidence, she moved on to the Southern Rhythm Boys band, where in addition to playing piano she also arranged, and from the late 1930s into the mid-1940s attracted considerable attention, particularly on the west coast. Nellie’s younger brother, Joe Lutcher, was also a professional musician, playing alto saxophone, and like his sister moved to California where he worked with several notable artists. Nellie played mainly club dates in California but she also appeared on the March of Dimes and this was when Capitol recognized her potential and brought her into their special, and at the time notably musician-oriented, fold.

ASV Living Era Records

ASV Living Era Records

 

Nellie’s first hit was followed by two other raunchy songs that suited her vocal delivery and percussive piano playing, He’s A Real Gone Guy,and Fine Brown Frame, both similarly successful. Nellie also sang moody songs with flair, among them another hit, The Song Is Ended. Capitalizing on her popularity in the UK, she toured there in 1950. Unfortunately, although her Capitol singles were hits, and her album, Real Gone, was a success, times were changing, as were musical tastes and the growing popularity of the softly sophisticated song stylists edged singers like Nellie aside. Soft and sophisticated are not words that leap to mind when describing her. She moved to Liberty Records where she recorded Our New Nellie to considerable acclaim, but the front-rank period of her career was over and from the late 1960s into the early 1970s she took an office job, working at the Hollywood Local of the AF of M. Her brother Joe also bowed out in the mid-1950s; in his case to become an evangelical preacher. Meanwhile, Nellie continued to make occasional club appearances, on both the west and the east coast, but it was not until the mid- to late 1980s, when her early records were re-released on the Stateside and particularly the Jukebox Lil labels, that she returned to the spotlight’s flicker. Through these reissues it became apparent to a new generation of fans, and fellow musicians, that she was special; a singer who followed her own ideas on what she should sing and how she should sing it, and a piano player who compounded enthusiasm with great skill. And, in all that she did, Nellie was always musicianly. In her late years, Nellie continued to play gigs and also appeared on her own PBS television show and on Marian McPartland’s radio show, Piano Jazz, on NPR. Nellie Lutcher died 8 June 2007.

 

Dardanelle

Audiophile Records

Audiophile Records

If asked to find just one word with which to describe Dardanelle, it would not be inappropriate, I think, to select ‘storyteller’. A highly-accomplished musician, she was born Marcia Marie Mullen, in Avalon, Mississippi, on 27 December 1917, and played piano and sang from her earliest years. She studied through school and university and by the early 1940s had established herself on the eastern seaboard through working with a number of bands. She did, though, have her own ideas on the direction she wanted to take and formed a trio with bassist Paul Edenfield and guitarist Tal Farlow. Swiftly gaining popularity, the trio enjoyed a year-long residency at New York’s Copacabana and followed this with gigs at other New York nightspots. At the end of the 1940s, Dardanelle put her career on hold and following marriage to Walter Hadley spent most of her time raising a family. From the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s, she played church organ in Chicago and also appeared on radio and television. In the mid-1960s, now living in New Jersey, she formed a new trio, this one including her son, Skip Hadley, on drums. Ten years on and Dardanelle returned fully to the jazz fold, working with musicians such as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Grady Tate. In the early 1980s Dardanelle was active on the club circuit and also appeared at jazz festivals and concert halls, and made records, an immersion in work that helped her through a divorce and the death of Skip Hadley. She worked in the USA, Japan and on cruise liners, survived a particularly vicious mugging, and continued to make records that displayed her gentle vocal style and her fluid piano playing.

Stash Records

Stash Records

 

In the mid-1980s, Dardanelle moved back to her home state where she had a spell as artist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and continued to make public appearances, sometimes joined by her second son, bassist Brian Hadley. She also appeared regularly on radio, reading excerpts from her autobiography, then a work-in-progress. Some of these radio snippets were released on audiotape, a copy of which she sent to me and which, I regret to say, has long-since vanished. I recall that the stories she told matched the repertoire from which she drew the songs she sang. In these, her favorites were always those that reflected her interest in and love for the people and places of the Deep South. She continued to make records, mainly for Stash and Audiophile, and it is clear from some of these, for example Dardanelle Echoes Singing Ladies, that she held in very high regard singers of the past. A consummate musician, Dardanelle’s singing was always elegant, charming, and filled with love. Dardanelle died on 8 August 1997.

 

Daryl Sherman

Nagoya photo pink Feb 2013

During her formative years, there was no shortage of good jazz musicians for Daryl Sherman to hear. Her family background was intensely musical and in her early years she was encouraged by her father, trombonist Sammy Sherman. It in her piano playing that Daryl reveals her love for jazz in all its forms and this is especially apparent when she plays with echoes of bop. And this love is also there when she sings the sophisticated songs of Cole Porter or delves into the witty lyrics of Johnny Mercer. Importantly, she does all of this with sparkling skill, enormous enthusiasm, and always an irrepressible swing. For several years, Daryl had a regular spot at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she not only entertained the public, but also had the great pleasure and privilege of playing the Steinway piano that was used by Cole Porter during his long stay at the hotel. Later in life, Daryl recorded with a musician she had known for many years, stride piano player Dave McKenna; this is on her CD, Jubilee, where she displays her vocal skill when accompanied by another pianist. Contrastingly, her piano playing was spotlighted on an Audiophile album with Mr Tram Associates (Daryl, Barbara Lea, Dick Sudhalter, Loren Schoenberg) Getting Some Fun Out Of Life, and on a recording made late in his life by her father; this was Arbors Records’ Sammy Sherman, A Jazz Original – Live At Chan’s.

Audiophile Records

Audiophile Records

Daryl had mainly sung on her first album, I’m A Dreamer, and her willingness to sing in collaboration with other pianists is demonstrated on Johnny Mercer A Centennial Tribute where on a couple of songs her singing is accompanied by Barbara Carroll and Marian McPartland. On New O’leans, her paean to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Daryl is primarily accompanied by a regular collaborator, guitarist James Chirillo. Also recorded in the Crescent City is Mississippi Belle – Cole Porter in The Quarter, a further delightful tribute to place and time and music.

 

Daryl’s repertoire is extensive and has at its core songs by the great masters of American popular music; in addition to Cole Porter she has recorded the music of Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by both witty Lorenz Hart and romantic Oscar Hammerstein (A Hundred Million Miracles), and the music of Johnny Mercer, whose songs combine rich melodies with lyrics that can be acerbically witty or unsentimentally romantic (A Centennial Tribute). Many of the songs composed by leading figures from Tin Pan Alley’s heydays were originally used in Broadway shows and Hollywood’s musicals and Daryl shows a special fondness for these nostalgic memory-tugging moments.

Arbors Records

Arbors Records

The ballads that feature strongly in Daryl’s shows often require a soft and subtle approach and it is not surprising that from choice she prefers to work with bass and guitar accompaniment, making up for the absence of a drummer with her own hard-swinging undercurrent at the piano. An exceptional singer, a strikingly good pianist; as a singing-pianist Daryl Sherman is one of a small handful of the very best of this important art.

 

As always, these CDs can be found at Amazon.

 

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