The Transformative Power of Nat ‘King’ Cole

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Nat “King” Cole sat at the crossroads of jazz and pop.

(Photo: Capitol Photo Archives)

It’s amazing how much Nat “King” Cole material we have to forgive in order to find the man we revere in this, the 100th year since his birth. It’s my guess that you won’t find anyone within the gilded and gated community of America’s supreme singers who recorded as many silly songs as Cole.

I wrote something very different in these pages in 2005, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of his death and marveling at how such a brief life (1919–’65) could enjoy such a long afterlife. The reason lay in the quality songs he chose—songs future singers would value because good songs always challenge serious talent. I remembered mostly the Capitol albums of the 1950s and the signature singles: “Lush Life,” “Mona Lisa,” “A Christmas Song,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” Baby boomers will find their childhoods sealed in these songs deep into their dementia. More important, younger musicians and singers will discover and reinvent them in Cole’s name.

But music journalists are not bound by the stare decisis of their past opinions. Since 2005, I’ve learned how many musical skeletons there are in Cole’s king-size closet. When I caught up with Mosaic Records’ 18-CD set of his Capitol trios and the many transcription sides he did, I understood that Cole had no strategy at all about material. It would seem that he’d perform just about anything he was handed: “Jumpy Jitters,” “Fla-Ga-La-Pa,” “Call The Police,” “Hit That Jive, Jack,” “I’m An Errand Boy For Rhythm.”

“He had all these little rhythm tunes that were just built around a punch line at the end,” explains John Pizzarelli, whose recent trio album, For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute To Nat King Cole (Ghostlight Deluxe), captures the pure fun in some of these jive tunes without ever patronizing them. “I felt like a lot of them were just an excuse to get to the blowing, like ‘Errand Boy.’ They pulled the audience in so he could do the ‘Rhythm’ changes. You can’t try to make too much of a song out of it.”

Singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett looked for a dramatic narrative in their songs. But Cole was a great jazz pianist who could toss the script after the first chorus, and that instinct carried into his early singing, which often implied a certain tongue-in-cheek consciousness of their insignificance; not as self-mocking as Fats Waller, but a self-awareness just the same. Fundamentally, they are the work of an intuitive entertainer whose purpose is to amuse, not elevate.

Today, Cole is still connecting at 100, as a long procession of tributes and reissues roll out, much of it with the cooperation of the Cole Estate. Capitol Records, which has nurtured and refreshed its vast Cole catalog regularly and with care for decades, began the parade modestly this spring with Ultimate Nat King Cole, a compact summary of 21 signature Cole landmarks spanning the mid-1940s through the ’60s; and International Nat King Cole, which focuses on his multilingual work, including five versions of “L-O-V-E,” each in a different tongue.

Cole’s pre-Capitol years are thoroughly documented in Resonance Records’ Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years (1936–1943), which compiles on seven CDs (or 10 LPs) the private transcription dates from Standard, Keystone and MacGregor, plus a CD of unissued material, alternate takes and even some early live work.

For Cole’s younger brother, Freddie Cole, now 87, this is a busy year. The singer-pianist performs very much within his own style and never has been a stand-in for his brother. But it will be hard to escape that aura, especially on Sept. 1 when he plays the Nat Cole Jazz Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, the city of Nat’s birth; and two days earlier, the 40th annual jazz festival in Chicago, where he grew up.

Cole endures like an indelible watermark in American music through the work of those who have been influenced by him—most famously his daughter, Natalie, who won a 1991 Grammy for Unforgettable, a tribute to her father. Contemporary audiences get it through the work of part-time proxies like Pizzarelli, Diana Krall, Marlena Shaw and Gregory Porter, who released the tribute album Nat “King” Cole & Me (Blue Note) in 2017, and revisited the material on a 2019 concert album, One Night Only: Live At The Royal Albert Hall (Blue Note). Even the late Marvin Gaye has a place on the current Cole train, as Motown released an expanded version of his 1965 memorial, A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole.

“I have tried to learn as much as possible about Nat Cole by collecting every record that could be found and by seeking out people who knew Nat and made music with him,” Pizzarelli wrote in the forward to Nat King Cole: Straighten Up and Fly Right, a book by Will Friedwald due out by early 2020. “The joy that man and that group brought me ... has never faded, and the musicality of his trio sides remain[s] fresh and as vibrant as the day they were recorded.”

For those who view the world through jazz-colored glasses, the great schism in Cole’s career came in the early 1940s, when he emerged from being just a great pianist and moved toward becoming a great singer as well. Most music lives on a playing field of perception and, by extension, self-perception. Cole came of age in Chicago as an Earl Hines disciple in the mid-’30s, precisely as jazz was becoming the most popular music in America. It’s not surprising that it was perceived as neither serious nor as art. It was just show business. So, when Cole made his first records at age 17 in 1936 and put together his first trio two years later, like Fats Waller, he found nothing demeaning in being embraced by a broad audience. From the beginning, he accepted that entertaining was an honorable art in itself and needed no greater ambitions.

By the mid-’40s, as Cole was hitting his stride, jazz was beginning to separate itself from pop music, and the word “commercial” had become a snide put-down among critics and would-be artists.

“In those days,” Cole told DownBeat’s John Tynan in a 1957 profile, “I really didn’t think about singing ... . My main interest was playing piano.” That was a dodge more artful then accurate. He might not have thought much about singing, but he certainly did a lot of it. By 1942, of the 18 records he had made under his name, 15 of them had vocals. Tynan was less evasive. “From the very outset,” he wrote in the same story, “Nat Cole had his eye trained on commercial success ... . He well knew that the jazz road is seldom paved with gold.”

Born in Alabama, Cole had grown up amid racist Jim Crow laws. Like Armstrong, Ellington, Waller, Lionel Hampton and other African American musicians who had beaten the odds to become stars, Cole understood how each had wrapped his music in a unique personality that immediately connected to a wide audience. He also recognized the risks of black stardom and the expectations that went with it.

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December 2019
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