Friday, July 8, 2011

Nat King Cole – Jazz Pianist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Billy May is not one of your more maudlin chaps. It's hard to imagine him getting teary-eyed even when he talks about people that meant a great deal to him. His memories of Nat King Cole are about as sentimental as I've ever heard him get. ‘Nat was just a wonderful guy,’ May says. ‘He was also a talented and a very capable musician. He had a very open mind about music ... and everything. Nat was always a good musician and he never caused anybody any harm. He was a wonderful man.’"
- Will Friedwald, insert notes to Nat King Cole: The Billy May Sessions

Who knew?

My earliest impressions of Nat King Cole were based on the fact that he was as huge star – a popular vocalist with a slew of hit records, a highly rated television show and a celebrity status of enormous proportions.

For a while, he appeared to be everywhere: on billboards as you drove up the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA; on magazine covers; in television commercials.

It seems as though each month he had a hit record, was appearing as a guest artist on a television variety show [when not hosting his own], or was involved in some Beverly Hills gathering that made the society pages of the newspaper.

The Jazz pianists with whom I worked mentioned names like Bud Powell or Lennie Tristano or Dodo Marmorsa or Al Haig, among a host of other bebop era pianists when listing their favorites.

Art Tatum’s named was mentioned with lips parted in reverence and eyes lifted toward the heavens, but few brought up Early Jazz or Swing Era pianists among their direct influences. There was no mention of Earl “Fatha” Hines, or Thomas “Fats” Waller or Teddy Wilson, let alone, Nat King Cole.

For as Gene Lees asserts:

“Ironically, Nat Cole is remembered by the general public only as a singer, though he was one of the greatest pianists in jazz history, and one of the most influential.

Horace Silver once told me that when he first played the Newport Jazz Festival, impresario George Wein stood offstage calling out, "Earl Fatha Hines, Earl Fatha Hines!" This baffled Horace, since he had never listened to Hines. But later, he said, he realized that he had listened a lot to Nat Cole, and he had listened to Hines.

And that Cole assuredly did, in Chicago, when he was growing up. He would stand outside the Grand Terrace Ballroom listening to Hines, absorbing all he could.

Hines is a headwater of jazz piano, perhaps one should say the headwater, because of the influence he had on pianists who were themselves immensely influential, no one more so than Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

Who was this Nat Cole?”

Irony upon irony, I first became familiar with Nat King Cole’s history as a Jazz pianist while working a trio gig at the Swanee Inn on North La Brea Boulevard in Hollywood, CA. Sitting at the bar during one of our breaks, I noticed a photograph of Nat seated at the club’s piano and asked the bartender if he knew anything about it.

The bar keep replied that: “Oh, he got his start here playing solo piano.”

By way of background, Nat King Cole had been a minor celebrity on the South Side of Chicago where he began his career in the mid-1930s. In January, 1937, he married Nadine Robinson, a beautiful dancer, and the two of them went on the road with a variety show - Shuffle Along.

Shortly after the show opened in Long Beach, CA in May, 1937, someone made off with the payroll and Nat and Nadine were stranded in Los Angeles.

Gene Lees picks up the story from here:

“For a time Nat was playing solo piano. He was ap­proached by Bob Lewis, who owned a nightclub called the Swanee Inn. Lewis asked him to organize a small group and bring it into his club. Nat engaged Wesley Prince, a bassist he'd heard with Lionel Hampton, and the Texas-born guitarist Oscar Moore. There are conflicting theories of why he didn't also use drums. One is that Lee Young didn't show up on opening night. This is unlikely. Lee Young was as responsible and punctilious as his brother Lester was elusive. One story is that Lee thought the bandstand was too small for a quartet with drums. In any event, Cole went in with a trio, and if it was not unprecedented, piano-guitar-bass had not evolved to the heights of integration and sophistication he, Moore (later Irving Ashby), and Prince (later Johnny Miller) would take that instrumentation. They stayed at the Swanee Inn for six months, honing their material in the luxury of a secure situation.”

Gene goes on to say that:

“The Nat Cole trio in its early days had recorded for Decca, [he was twenty-three]….

The first recording strike by the American Federation of Musicians was about to hit the industry, and Johnny Mercer's newly-formed label Capitol acquired some Cole sides from the small Excelsior label, ….

Other than some of those earlier records and transcriptions, and a few extracur­ricular dates for Norman Granz later, Cole's entire body of recorded work was for Capitol. The chemistry of Cole-and-Capitol would propel him to a stardom that has not ended, though he has been dead thirty-five years.

The body of that work is among the most significant in American musical history. In 1991, Mosaic, the independent reissue label notable for the reverent quality of its product, acquired all the Capitol records on which Cole played piano and put them out in a boxed set. The arrangement covered such performances with orchestra as Nature Boy and The Christmas Song on which he played piano, but not those orchestral performances on which he only sang.

This Mosaic set of 18 CDs constitutes some of the most significant jazz documentation we have. Alas, you can't get it. It came out as a limited edition that has long been sold out. With 19 or 20 takes on each CD, the collection contains 347 tracks, including alternate takes. By my count, 64 of these are instrumentals, mostly by the trio.”

The editorial staff of JazzProfiles was fortunate enough to “be in the right place at the right time” to acquire The Complete Capitol Recordings Of The Nat King Cole Trio [Mosaic MD18-138].

Among the vast insert notes assembled for the Mosaic set is an overview by Dick Katz of what made Nat's style so distinctive and why it was so influential.

Dick, who passed away in 2010, was a pianist, composer and arranger who performed with the J.J. Johnson – Kai Winding Quintet, Oscar Pettiford, Carmen McRae, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Philly Joe Jones, Jim Hall, Helen Merrill, Lee Konitz, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter and Many others.

No one explains the workings of Jazz piano better than Dick Katz, who also authored the retrospective on the history of the instrument in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz.

Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records has graciously consented to allow us to reprint Dick’s writings on “Nat Cole – Jazz Pianist,” at the conclusion of which you will find a video tribute to Nat and the trio featuring their 1946 version of Sweet Georgia Brown.

© -Dick Katz/Mosaic Records; used with the permission of Mosaic Records; copyright protected, all rights reserved.

“When Nat Cole got up from the piano bench in the 1950's and concentrated primarily on his singing career, he inter­rupted one of the most brilliant sagas in jazz piano history. Of course, the transition was relatively gradual, because almost from the start, his vocal output with the King Cole Trio had met with considerable success, including a number of hit singles.

The realities of earning a living as a serious jazz musician obliged artists of an earlier era, including Nat Cole, to conform to the vagaries, and often indignities, of show business. (This writer vividly remembers waiting in line with Nat—sometime in the late 50’s, when he was already an international celebrity—to be fingerprinted for a cabaret card, then an odious requirement of all New York night club employees.) As jazz improvisation became increasingly complex, so did the problem of getting and keeping an audience. Early masters like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller (and later ones like Dizzy Gillespie) met this problem head-on by dividing their performances between instrumental segments and vocals, which made more direct contact with their listeners. Humor was often an all-important factor.

Pacing, dynamics, programming and the element of surprise were all essential ingredients of success. Nat Cole exemplified this approach; he was also a physically imposing figure whose sheer presence on the bandstand made an indelible impression. Above all, he was an extraordinary talent, like few others, because in addition to his obvious gifts, he had that rarity— exquisite taste—both pianistically and vocally.

Although Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama, his father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to Chicago when Nat was a young child. His early exposure to church music and the flourishing Chicago jazz and blues scene was evidently crucial to his development.

"My church work was a constant worry to Dad," Cole has been quoted as saying. "I was inclined to play the accompani­ments too much on the hot side, which resulted in a familiar raising of the eyebrows that meant, Tone it down, son, or take the consequences later.'" (His mother's view—and she was the church's music director—is not recorded.)

Jazz history overflows with statements from major black artists who cite the church's powerful influence on their music. The Baptist, and, particularly the Holiness Church, are famous for being the source of the irresistible rhythmic thrust of a special kind of gospel music. Jazz greats like Milt Jackson are referred to as being "sanctified," although this musical credential does not always guarantee the greatness he achieved.

Chicago's great jazz and blues culture was an even more decisive influence. The New Orleans masters like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong had flocked there a little before Nat's time, but Louis' records with the Hot Five and Seven were surely a part of Cole's musical upbringing. And he undoubt­edly heard other giants, like clarinetist Jimmy Noone at the Apex Club (whose pianist was Karl Mines.) Noone's theme song was Sweet Lorraine, which became one of Cole's most popular numbers. Art Tatum also worked a lot in Chicago in the 1930's, as did Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. Then there were the boogie woogie masters—Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, whose approach and feeling clearly influenced Cole, especially in his remarkable blues playing.

Blues of every kind were an important cultural force in Chicago's African-American community. The migration from the South brought many great rural artists and later resulted in the development of an urban blues tradition and a great body of recorded work by such artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and others. All of this heady music undoubtedly influenced the young Nat Cole's musical perceptions and overall jazz conception.

In retrospect, however, Earl "Fatha" Hines would have to be identified as the primary and original inspiration. Cole grew up near the famous Grand Terrace, where Hines and his band were featured for 12 eventful years from 1928-1940. legend has it that an underage Nat used to listen to the band from the alley next to the club. In Stanley Dance's book. The World of Earl Hines, the songwriter and manager Charlie Carpenter quotes Nat Cole as saying, "Everything I am I owe to that man, because I copied him. Of course, through the years I've gotten away from him, but I'll never forget him, because he was my idol. He was always kind to me, and never too busy to say hello or to show me something."

Even Cole's physical demeanor at the keyboard resembled Hines. He often faced the audience at a right angle from the piano, while his hands seemed to have a life of their own. Cole's ability to accompany his singing in such a creative and independent way was truly remarkable, and was something he perfected independent of the Hines effect.

Cole's distinctive piano style developed fairly rapidly. His first recording date was in 1936 with a band led by his older brother, Eddie Cole, for Decca. Nat was only 19 years old, but had already mastered the essentials of Hines' style. The lightning-fast octave passages and the syncopated left-hand punctuations were fully assimilated. But in the manner of most youngsters, he tried to show all of his "stuff" at once.

In the years that followed, he absorbed gradually some of the harmonic savvy of Tatum, the rhythmic bite of Billy Kyle (also a Hines disciple) and the cool precision and assurance of Teddy Wilson, often expressed by the walking tenths in the left hand. But by 1943, when the Nat King Cole Trio began recording for Capitol Records, the pianist had added many innovative features to his playing, some of which pre-dated or coincided with the advent of bebop.

Harmonically, Cole far outdistanced both Hines and Wilson. Only Tatum surpassed him (and, for that matter, every other pianist) in that department.

This example (Figure A), excerpted from Easy Listenning Blues shows some of Cole's characteristic harmonic touches. Note the B-flat major seventh and C minor seventh suspension in bar 3, and also the descending minor sevenths in bar 8. Chromatic minor sevenths were to become commonplace from 1945 on, particularly in the blues and in "turnarounds" on standard tunes. Note, too, the II-7 to V-7 progression in bar 9.

When Easy Listenin’ Blues was recorded in 1944, these devices were quite rare. So either Cole initiated this himself, or he picked it up from some early "bopper." Ken Kersey was another pianist who was using minor sevenths at the time— but one can only speculate about who did what first.

Nat Cole's playing was so rich and many-faceted that any analysis can only scratch the surface. Understanding the technicalities can never substitute for feeling what he played.

The most striking feature of Cole's mature pianism was its singing quality. His single-note lines were very vocal-like and his actual singing perfectly matched his playing, both rhythmically and melodically. He was blessed with one of the most beautiful touches ever, pearly but firm, and he made everything he played come to life. He was vibrant without shouting. He was cool in the best sense of the word—great power, but always under control. He embellished the com­posed melodies of standards and originals in the manner of the great Jazz horn stylists—Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, to name a few.

I think it was Thelonious Monk who once told me, "If you can't play [improvise] a chorus at least as good as the tune you're playing, you're in trouble." Of course, Nat Cole, like all the masters, constantly did just that. And his statements of the original melody always seemed definitive, as if his was the only right way to play the melody. Sometimes his way of phrasing a song reminds me of Lester Young, whose laid-back conception must have affected Cole; his collaborations with Prez did indeed produce some masterpieces.

Probably the key element in Cole's style was his way with rhythm. One of the reasons he never sounds dated, even today, is his utterly relaxed way with the beat. He had thoroughly absorbed the 12/8 feel (think 4/4 in triplets) of the Southwest­ern blues players and the boogie woogie pianists. Also, he often favored those down-home, just-right, slow-to-medium walking tempos that the original Count Basic band played so well. In this regard he differs markedly from his predecessors, Hines, Waller, and even Wilson, who stated the beat more obviously, and more formally. Hines, of course, was metrically very complex, but he had an on-rushing quality which was quite different from Cole's later work.

To be specific, Cole's use of both quarter-note and eighth-note triplets gave his playing at medium tempos a lope and swing that no other pianist of the time had perfected to the same degree. These features are beautifully illustrated by this example (Figure B) from I Can’t See For Lookin’.

Like the great Southwestern players — Lester Young, Charlie Christian and others—Cole always "'told a story." His solos usually had a well-defined beginning, middle and ending. The ability to do this in just 16 bars, or one chorus, is a skill that has largely disappeared. The limits of 78-rpm records imposed a discipline that only the most creative musicians truly mastered.

Nat Cole was also an exceptional blues player, as was Tatum. although he was seldom thought of as such. Hines, Waller and Wilson, as great as they were, didn't relate to the blues as well as the Kansas City-based pianists like Pete Johnson, or Mary Lou Williams, or even Count Basie, whose own playing, in his New Jersey youth, had been much stiffer and less bluesy than it later became.

A beautiful example of Nat's blues prowess is Blues In My Shower. This piece has no theme or composed melody, but his improvisation is so vocal-like in its melodic contours that it is easy to imagine lyrics being put to it. Like many great blues performers, he gives the chord progressions less importance than the continuity and character of the melody and the projection of the blues feeling.

At faster tempos, Cole's playing was more straight-ahead, and he liked to display his considerable piano "chops," as he does on Jumpin’ At The Capitol. This carefully arranged piece shows his debt to Teddy Wilson in the two-handed passages.

Not to be overlooked is the influence of classical music on his playing. His non-syncopated use of thirds, and occasional quotes from classical composers, were probably commercial gestures (also used successfully by Tatum and his trio). A brilliant example is Cole's carefully worked out solo on Body and Soul, where he makes liberal use of Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King. This solo is truly one of Cole's recorded masterpieces and he used portions of it intact in other performances of the tune. (For an in-depth analysis of this solo, see Gunther Schuller's book. The Swing Era.)

Body and Soul also offers a choice example of Cole's skill with block chords, a device he perfected early in his career. Other pianists, like George Shearing, used them in a more dazzling fashion, but none have surpassed Cole's expressiveness in the idiom. Of course. Milt Buckner is acknowledged as the originator of the technique.

No discussion of Nat King Cole's jazz contribution would be complete without pointing out the significance of the trio as a truly innovative force on the jazz and pop music scene.

The idea of a drummer-less trio was unheard of in 1937. But in Oscar Moore, Cole found a guitarist who was a perfect foil and musical partner. Moore expanded the harmonic and rhythmic language on his instrument as much as Cole did on the piano and, together, they found a way to blend with each other that has never been duplicated or improved upon. As this writer knows first-hand, piano and guitar are often incompatible, especially when both are playing chords. But Cole and Moore never got in each other's way, and the contrapuntal and ensemble passages they came up with are still amazing to behold. It is fair to say that Oscar Moore has never gotten his due, and has been sadly neglected by the critical establishment.

Not to be forgotten, either, is the work of his bassists, first Wesley Prince, then Red Callender, Johnny Miller and Joe Comfort. While not innovators like Moore, their steady and sensitive playing kept things flowing—the right word for the trio's irresistible pulse. And, as Callender recalls in his 1985 autobiography, ‘Nat was a very thorough arranger—that's why everything came off so well.’ This is a slight oversimplifica­tion, but it does emphasize that structure and organization are essential elements of musical communication, ones that many talented ensembles have perhaps unwisely downplayed in more recent times.

A good demonstration of this structure is the trio's recording of Rachmaninoff's Prelude In C Sharp Minor. Although the arrangement is credited (in the Capitol Songs Nat Cole Folio] to Nadine Robinson, Nat's first wife, it obviously has Cole's stamp on it—especially the way it is condensed to fit the three-minute time limit. (This "Third Stream" rendition predated the Modern Jazz Quartet— another structure-conscious group — by at least 10 years.) Most of Cole's trio's recordings benefit from this acute and razor-sharp sense of pacing and contrast. This fact alone had a great deal to do with the trio's ability to reach millions of non-jazz oriented listeners.

Coming on the heels of the big-band era, the trio proved you didn't have to shout to really swing, and it laid the foundation for countless piano-guitar-bass combos. It preceded the Art Tatum Trio by several years, and the Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal trios, too. (The Tatum trio in particular invites comparison because both Cole and Tatum sprinkled their work with "quotes"—everything from nursery rhymes to the classics. This device was a sure-fire way to get attention from noisy, boozing audiences.) However, the Tatum and later, the Peterson trios were often dominated by the pianists' virtuosity.

A final word about Cole's influence as a pianist. His deep "groove," harmonic awareness, supple phrasing, touch, dynamics, taste, and just plain delicious music had a profound effect on the following, to name only a few: Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Al Haig, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Ahmad Jamal, Monty Alexander, and many others, including myself.

Nat "King" Cole was aptly named. Just as surely as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Nat Cole was musical royalty. He was totally unique, and not the least of his accomplishments was his success in reaching millions while not compromising his musical standards, ever.

His music was pleasure-oriented. He wasn't interested in being the subject of the kind of analysis that puts jazz under glass to be dissected like a butterfly. But the end result has been that his piano playing satisfies on every level, including the intellectual.

Long live the King!”