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.)

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