Monday, October 10, 2016

Nat "King Cole" - The Gene Lees Essay - Parts 1-3, Complete

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

“You never lose that Jazz feeling.”
- Nat “King” Cole to Don Freeman, October 6, 1950, Downbeat

“The chemistry of Cole-and-Capitol would propel him to a stardom that has not ended, though he has been dead thirty-five years [50 years as of this reprinting].

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 instrumental, mostly by the trio.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, editor of the Jazzletter

“I am not a fan of scat singing, partly because for the most part only skilled instrumentalists — such as Dizzy Gillespie, Richard Boone, Clark Terry, and Frank Rosolino — have really done it well. If ever a musician had the equipment (the knowledge, the harmonic sense, the inward rhythmic chronometer) to do it superbly, Nat Cole did. And he never indulged in it, reminding me of Mark Twain's definition of a gentleman: "One who knows how to play the accordion but refrains from doing so."”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, editor of the Jazzletter

I’ve always been intrigued by the term “silent partner.”

I even was one for awhile, but not in the strictest sense of the term [someone who invests money in an enterprise and profits from it, but doesn’t play an active role in the day-to-day management].

You see I was the drummer in the original Nat King Cole Trio, a trio that consisted of Nat on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass. Or should I say “original Nat King Cole Quartet?”


Here’s where the silent partner part comes in: I practiced my brushwork on my snare drum while listening to many of the original Capitol Records 78 rpm's by Nat’s trio. I discovered these gems wasting away in the cellar and liberated them to the living room record player where I set up my gear.

These were early days in my drumming “career” and my “chops” were minimal so I limited myself to just keeping time and “staying out of the way.” Since my style of playing never drew any criticism from Nat and the other guys in the band, I just assumed they dug my playing!

I practiced to those early Nat “King” Cole Capitol trio recordings so often that I memorized them note-for-note while almost wearing them out.

Somehow, somewhere during the many transitions that life brings, I lost possession of those 78's, so you can imagine my sheer delight when Mosaic Records reissued them in a limited edition run.  It took 18 CDs to digitalize all of the marvelous music that Nat and the trio put out during their long association with Capitol [1942-1961].

The Mosaic set also comes with a booklet that contains excellent annotations by Will Friedwald, an analysis of Nat’s piano style and its significance in the evolution of Jazz piano by the late, Dick Katz, who himself was fine Jazz pianist, and numerous photographs of Nat and the trio.

I’ve also nestled into the box set another of my Nat “King” Cole treasures - a three part essay on Nat that appeared in consecutive editions of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter from January - March, 2000.

Here’s Part One of Gene’s tribute to Nat whose commercial popularity in the last decade of his all-too-short life [1919-1965] overshadowed his magnificent career as a Jazz musician.

I think I’ll put on some of those Nat King Cole Trio CD’s and go practice my brushwork.

Would you be surprised to learn that it’s a bit rusty?

King Cole
Part One

“In April, 1956, Nat Cole came to Louisville.

This was only days after a quintet of white supremacists had tried to abduct him from a stage in Birmingham, Alabama. The head of the White Citizens Council had issued an edict that "Negro music appeals to the base in man, bringing out animalism and vulgarity," and they acted on it, oblivious of course to the animalism, vulgarity and base in themselves.

What the five men planned to do with Cole had their abduction succeeded remains unknown, but a friendly entreaty somewhere on a back-country road that he foreswear singing "Negro" music is hardly among the possibilities.

Cole was touring with the Ted Heath band from Britain. Two performances were planned for the evening of Tuesday, April 10, in the Birmingham Municipal Auditorium. One was for a white audience, the other for a black. That is the way things were in the South. I don't think it was that way in Louisville, though. Louisville had drawn up plans for the integration of its schools even before the Supreme Court ruled that segregated education was illegal. Black friends I made in the Louisville music world told me the town was comparatively enlightened, more liberal than other Southern cities, and by then Cole was able to book a room at the Seelbach, one of the city's two good hotels. I interviewed Cole over lunch in his room at that hotel.

The men clambered up onto that stage in Birmingham. One of them took a punch at Cole, knocking him back against a piano bench, which shattered as he fell over it. The police subdued his assailants, but he had a swollen lip as he limped off-stage. The audience begged him to come back, that they might apologize for what had happened. He did so. Then the mayor came to his dressing room, and added to the apology.

But the performance for the white audience was suspended, and Cole sang only briefly for the black audience that came to the auditorium later that evening. He went home to Chicago, presumably to settle his nerves. The reporters were ready for him; in the case of some of the members of the black press, you might say they were lying in ambush.

He said, "I was a guinea pig for some hoodlums who thought they could hurt me and frighten me and keep other Negro entertainers from performing in the South. But what they did has backfired on them, because thousands of white people in the audience could see how terrible it is for an innocent man to be subjected to such barbaric treatment."

Then, when a reporter asked him if he would again perform for segregated audiences in the South, he said:

"Sure I will. I'm not a political figure or some controversial person. I'm just an entertainer, and it's my job to perform for them. If I stop because of some state law, I'm deserting the people who are important to me. In my way I may be helping to bring harmony between people through music."

He was excoriated for saying it. Tavern operators in Harlem took his records out of their juke boxes. The argument raged on, and Cole was hurt by it. He had refused to play for a segregated audience in Kansas City in 1944, but this was forgotten in the turmoil over the statements he made about the Montgomery incident. After a few days off, he rejoined the tour with the Ted Heath band, which moved on to Louisville, and it was at this time that I met him

Though I could wrestle with these events intellectually, they were as alien to me as any I might find in the doings of the inhabitants of another planet. Nat Cole was one of my heroes, and when he came to Louisville that April day, I was only eleven months out of Canada, still in a lingering cultural shock at seeing, on the day of my arrival to live in this other country, the plaques saying colored and white on the doors of men's rooms in the Louisville and Nashville Railway station.

In love with jazz since a time before I knew what you called this kind of music, I could not conceive of a society in which Negroes were viewed as inferior. To me, they were not only equal, but maybe even superior, maybe even gods! Among my heroes at an early and formative age were Count Basie and J.C. Higginbotham and Edmund Hall and Coleman Hawkins and Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington and Ray Nance and Lionel Hampton and Sy Oliver and Benny Carter. Negro men were, to me, people from whom you shyly solicited autographs, and when I was twelve I did a lot of that. If I had any racial prejudices, they were these: I was certain that Canadians could not play jazz; and I wasn't entirely sure that even white Americans could play it, though I was very big on Jack Teagarden. Such is the power of prejudgment.

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?

There have been four (to the best of my knowledge) biographies on Cole, including Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole, by Leslie Course (1991, St. Martin's Press). The latest is Nat King Cole, by Daniel Mark Epstein (1999, Farrar Strauss and Giroux). The dust jacket publicity says, vaguely, that Epstein is "the author of many books of poetry, stories, and essays," but all I can find in the Santa Barbara library is an anthology of poetry of which he was co-editor and a biography of Aimee Semple MacPherson. That he is unknown in the world (or worlds) of popular music and jazz is not necessarily significant. I had never heard of Professor Philip Furia, either, when Oxford University Press published his The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, one of the best books on lyrics and lyricists I've ever encountered. And indeed, there may be all sorts of "unknown" souls Out There who are more qualified to write on these subjects than some of those who are established practitioners of this dubious art.

But the Epstein book is riddled with errors, and for reasons I have already stated, these things worry me because of their tendency to replicate themselves in future writings. For this reason, not malice, I must draw attention to some of these errors.

The Leslie Course book, product of more careful research and much greater musical knowledge is, fortunately, coming out in December in a new edition, published by Cooper Square Press.

The assault in Alabama must have been only the more bitter to Cole since he was born there, in Montgomery, on March 17,1917 [1919 is the date on NKC’s birth].. He was, however, culturally and emotionally a son of Chicago. Nathaniel Adams Coles was born of Perlina and Edward Coles, a wholesale grocer with a yearning to be a clergyman. Nat's brothers were Eddie, IsaaC, called Ike, and Freddy. There were also two sisters, Eddie Mae, who died when Nat was young, and Evelyn. The youngest in the family, Lionel Frederick, called Freddy, was born in Chicago in 1931.

"Eddie was born in Montgomery," Freddy told me. "Nat and my sister Evelyn were born in Montgomery. My brother Ike and I were born in Chicago."

Edward Coles moved his family to the South Side of Chicago, where he established himself as a Baptist pastor, in 1923. The mother was highly musical, and Nat was playing organ in his father's church by the time he was twelve. Epstein delivers himself of this: "The Coleses' arrival in Chicago was crucial, providential. It coincided with the greatest gathering of musical genius America has ever known." So much for the big-band era and its principals, the rise of bebop in the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, and others of abilities ranging from brilliance to genius. Epstein is fall of that sort of pontifical utterance on a subject he knows little about. He writes of Duke Ellington, "With his looks he might have acted on the stage." In that age? Where? After Artie Shaw quit the music business, Count Basie tried to talk him into coming back into it, and Artie said, "Why don't you quit?" Basie said, "To become what? A janitor?"

Epstein writes: "Though Nat has not begun to discover his singing talent, when he first tries to sing he will sound a lot like Eddie."

Freddy Cole has enunciation similar to Nat's, not only in singing but in speech as well. It is a distinct family resemblance. Leslie Course, in her book, gets it right, saying, "Ike thought with pride that all the brothers sounded as alike in the expressive qualities of their voices as the Kennedy brothers, even though Eddie had a gravelly tone to his singing voice, and Ike's voice was deeper and huskier than Nat's." For sibling vocal similarities, one might also mention Jim and Don Ameche; Bing and Bob Crosby; James Arness and Peter Graves; Bob and Ray Eberly (or Eberle); and Betty and Marion Hutton.

What Course doesn't say, and nobody has dared say, is that Nat Cole had an African voice, as does Freddy, as surely as Tony Bennett, Ben Gazzara, Peter Rodino, Brenda Vaccaro, Aldo Ray, Julius La Rosa, and many others have Italian voices. Not all Italians have that husky, woody sound, any more than all Swedes are blue-eyed and blond, but many do. There are oriental voices, both Chinese and Japanese, and they are slightly different. But both are light and high. We may have superb Japanese violinists, but I doubt that our opera companies are likely to recruit many Oriental bassos. And many Americans have African voices, airy, soft, sometimes fibrous in timbre. You hear the sound as surely in actor Danny Glover's voice as in that of Nat or Freddy Cole. The African and Italian are among the most attractive vocal sounds in my experience, which may in part be why blacks and Italians have so predominated in American popular music in the post-Motion Downy-Buddy Clark period. And while we are on the subject, Nat Cole had African hands, with long, supple, graceful fingers that almost seem to have been designed for the piano. Oscar Peterson has similar hands.

But where did the Cole brothers get their clear enunciation? "I guess we got it from our father," Freddy told me in 1990. "My dad insisted that you enunciate. I remember one time I came in from school, trying to be hip and slurring words. That was a no-no.

"Even my older brother, Eddie, spoke that way. Eddie was a fantastic musician. In fact, Nat was in his band — Eddie Cole and the Solid Swingers."

Where did the music come from in that family?

"From my mother. She was choir director in my dad's church. She had great musical feel. Good piano player. She just had a knack for touching the right gospel song in church. She was an extraordinary musician. If she were judged by today's standards, she'd be right up there among the tops.

"She had an Uncle Fess. I understand he was a musician. His name was Adams. That was my mother's maiden name. So I guess our musical genes came from my mother's side of the family.

"My father's full name was Edward James Coles. He used to be at a church in Chicago called True Light Baptist Church over at Forty-fifth and Federal. We moved from there, when Ike and I were very young, out to Waukegan, and this is where we grew up. I was respectful of my father. We all were."

"Were you a very close family?"

"Relatively close. We didn't get a chance to see each other that much. Living in different parts of the country, and everybody traveling. When Nat was in and out of New York, I used to see him quite often."

"Did you all play in your father's church?"

"Nat and my sister Evelyn did, but Ike and I never played in the church. We all played piano. Eddie also played bass. All of us had piano lessons, but I was the only one who went to university. I went to Roosevelt University for a while. I left there and went to Juilliard and then to the New England Conservatory. I was in music ed. I lack six hours of a master's."

Nat Cole first learned piano from his mother, then studied with Milton Hinton's mother. Milton was not interested in the piano, to his mother's chagrin, and so she sent him to another teacher to learn violin, according to the Leslie Course book. Nat studied music at Wendell Phillips High School, whose name was changed to DuSable High School in 1936. There he came under the influence of Captain Walter Dyett, who had played violin and banjo in Erskine Tate's Vendome Theater Orchestra, conducted the all-black Eighth Regiment Army Band, and then established a jazz program at Wendell Phillips long before the high-school and college jazz education movement was born. His name is legend in the annals of Chicago jazz, his students having included John Young, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Ray Nance, Von Freeman, Julian Priester, Joseph Jarman, Pat Patrick, Clifford Jordan, Eddie Harris, Bo Diddley (on violin), Wilbur Ware, Victor Sproles, Dorothy Donegan, Wilbur Campbell, Walter Perkins, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman, and Richard Davis, who said, "Maybe you weren't afraid of the cops, but you were afraid of Captain Dyett." Walter Dyett staged a Hi-Jinks Show every spring to buy instruments for the band because the school board declined to do so. The measure of the man is the quantity and caliber of the musicians he turned out. Nat Cole thus was shaped by the disciplines of two severe men, his father and Walter Dyett.

Freddy said: "Nat was a very accomplished musician. He could read music like ..." A snap of the fingers.

There is more than ample evidence in his playing that Nat Cole had solid classical discipline.

"I recall that one of Nat's teachers was a man named Professor Fry," Freddy told me. "He and my brother Eddie both studied with him." Course says in her book that Nat studied everything from Bach to Rachmaninoff "with a teacher named Professor Thomas." Her book unfortunately is without footnotes and source attributions.

But Nat certainly studied the "legitimate" repertoire with somebody: his tone and touch were not the least of the evidence. The ease and elegance with which he played lines in thirds is another: he really had that fingering down, as in the polished and scrupulously rehearsed passage he would later use in Embraceable You. He would quote classical pieces in his recordings, such as In the Hall of the Mountain King, which he always played in block chords in Body and Soul, and he recorded a version of MacDowell's To a Wild Rose and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, although such things were simply in the air in the 1930s, heard on "light classical" network radio shows, The Voice of Firestone, The Cities Service Hour, The Bell Telephone Hour, and many others, some of them originating in Chicago. He had a taste, it would seem, for the kind of salon piano pieces popular at the time, and it is highly probable that he listened to Lee Sims, who played "on the radio" in Chicago and whose work inspired, among others, Art Tatum. I strongly suspect Lee Sims had some influence on Nat Cole too.

But the biggest influence, both by the evidence in his playing and his own statements, was Earl Hines, then in his famous sojourn at the Grand Terrace. In 1957, Nat told Jack Tynan, west coast editor of Down Beat, "That was the driving force that appealed to me. I first heard Hines in Chicago when I was a kid. He was regarded as the Louis Armstrong of piano players. His was a new, revolutionary kind of playing, because he broke away from the Eastern style. He broke the barrier of what we called stride piano where the left hand kept up in a steady, striding pattern. I latched onto that new Hines style. Guess I still show that influence to this day."

Epstein has comedian Timmie Rogers quoting Cole as saying that he loved the Hines tune Rosetta but couldn't play it unless he got his hands on the sheet music. I find it hard to believe that Cole, with ears like his, would have to have a lead sheet to work that tune out, even if it isn't I VI II V.

Epstein is susceptible to the most awful cliches: "whose career was taking off like a rocket ... it drove him crazy when . . . burning the candle at both ends ... in the wee hours of the morning ... were not about to set the world on fire . . . grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary." These alternate with perfervid poeticisms: "The gift of Hines's piano to an orchestra was a matter of atmosphere, musical weather. His speed and dynamic control enabled him to surround the ensemble, lay green grass under it, spread a clear sky over it with sunshine or stars, or blow like a hurricane through an out-chorus. The delicate high descants of his piano could make a light spring rainstorm; then he would descend in bass decrescendos to violent thunder." Hold that tiger! I don't know how you decrescendo into thunder, of course. Epstein refers to "an octave trill." There is no such thing; a trill is "a musical ornament consisting of the rapid alternation of a given note with the diatonic second above it." (Harvard Dictionary of Music.) There is such a thing as an octave roll, liberally used in blues piano. But no trill.

Epstein is big on the word "descant," which I have never heard used in jazz. He says of Nat's playing of Rosetta, "Like a burst of sunbeams from a dark sky came the high-octave notes of the first measure, and nobody could keep from smiling. The kid was playing a lovely, happy melody that was not Rosetta, and yet it was, too, a perfect descant... to Hines's famous tune." Thinking I must have missed something along the way, I looked up "descant" in some of my reference books, one of which said it "was used from the 12th century on as a general term for all forms of polyphony. It replaced the still earlier diaphony or organum in which a second or more parts progressed with the principal or subject by similar motion, and by permitting the contrary motion, paved the way for the development of counterpoint." At another point, Epstein refers to "locked-hand countermelodies." That would certainly be an interesting trick.

Epstein's research is no better than his knowledge. He twice refers to Art Tatum as one-eyed; Tatum was blind in one eye, but the eye was there. He has Glen Gray down as an arranger. He refers to "Johnny Mercer, the brilliant songwriter, singer, and pianist." Johnny didn't play piano. Farther down the page, Epstein says, "A black social club in Georgia voted the white Mercer their 'favorite colored singer on the radio.'"

It wasn't a social club in Georgia. It was the Abraham Lincoln Junior Boys' Club of Chicago, whose members sent him a postcard saying, "Dear Johnny Mercer: We have taken a vote and are pleased to inform you that you have been voted the most successful young colored singer on the air. Sincerely yours, T.A.L.J.B.C of C." Johnny showed me that card.

Nat Cole made his recording debut on the Decca label in 1936, in a band led by his brother Eddie. That year the band played engagements in good Chicago locales, including the Congress Hotel.

Eddie and Nat dropped the s from Coles. Neither Course nor Epstein speculates on why. For a strongly subjective reason, I am interested in this, and I think I know why they did it.

Show-business name changes are common, of course, some as radical as Samuel Goldberg to Buddy Clark, others more casual, such as that of Red Norville into Norvo after a critic, giving him his first publicity, misspelled it Norvo. Conrad Kirnon got his name changed for him in Birdland when Pee Wee Marquette, unable to remember and/or pronounce it (possibly because he didn't get a payoff), introduced him repeatedly as Connie Kay. But I think the Coles case is different. A name ending with an s, such as Hines, Walters, Williams, Ames, Reeves, Coles, is an eternal and infernal bloody nuisance to its wearer for these reasons:

English grammatical practice is inconsistent about the possessive form of such names. The possessive form of plural nouns is an apostrophe, as in boys' night out. But is a name with an s on the end singular or plural? Should the possessive be Hines' or Hines's, Coles' or Coles's? The plural, applied to a family, is logically Reeveses and Leeses and Coleses. And if you do use the s in the singular possessive, as in Coles's, then you should (for the sake of grammatical consistency) use it on the plural, which would give you something like "in the Coleses's family life." And that sounds really weird. You are made particularly aware of the problem when your name starts appearing in print. At one time I considered changing my name to Lee but never did, and I think the Coles boys did the right thing, probably after their names started turning up in the Chicago Defender. Eddie was the first to drop the s, Nat followed suit, and eventually Freddy did too.

In October of 1936, Eddie and Nat joined the orchestra in Noble Sissle's Shuffle Along which, Epstein says, "was the first all-black show to conquer Broadway." Will Marion Cook's Clarindy or The Origin of the Cakewalk, which Cook produced with poet Lawrence Dunbar, was presented on Broadway in 1898, when Noble Sissle was nine years old.

Nat Cole at seventeen was already a minor celebrity in South Side Chicago, courting a beautiful dancer named Nadine Robinson, nine years his senior. In January, 1937, while Nat still was in Shuffle Along, he and Nadine were married. In May, the show opened in Los Angeles, then collapsed in Long Beach when, apparently, somebody absconded with its payroll. Nat would live the rest of his life in Los Angeles. The first two or three years would be tough ones.

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.

In September, 1938, the trio began to make records for Standard Transcriptions. "Transcriptions" were recordings made only for radio broadcast, not for public sale. Johnny Mercer, who had come out to Hollywood from New York to write lyrics for movies, heard the group about that time, and, given Mercer's life-long taste for great pianists, it is little wonder that he was enthralled by Cole.

Before I knew his name, I became captivated by Nat Cole. I first heard him on two Lionel Hampton records, Central Avenue Breakdown and Jack the Bellboy, on the RCA Victor label. Those old 78 rpm records bore no personnel lists, and certainly nothing resembling liner notes. Somehow I learned that Hampton was playing that fast piano with two fingers, probably the two index fingers or maybe the index finger crossed with the middle finger for strength, for he certainly banged hard on the keyboard. How did he play like that with only two fingers? He was a drummer and vibes player, and he had fast hands, playing piano the way some of the old-time newspaper reporters played typewriter. I had no idea where Central Avenue was. It was of course in the black neighborhood of Los Angeles. The record was made in Los Angeles. Hampton was born in Louisville, on April 20, 1908 or 1909, but his family, like Nat Cole's, moved to Chicago when he was a boy. He too was an alumnus of Wendell Phillips High.

When Cole was organizing his trio with Oscar Moore, it was Hampton, apparently, who recommended Wesley Prince on bass. Then Hampton tried to hire the whole trio to go on the road with him. Cole declined the offer, but the trio recorded eight sides with Hampton, seven of which are available on a CD, Bluebird 66039-2, if indeed it hasn't been removed from the list by now. Central Avenue Breakdown and Jack the Bellboy, recorded May 10, 1940, were among these. What I felt and certainly did not understand was that the power and drive of Breakdown came from the rich-toned boogie-woogie accompaniment provided by the anonymous Nat Cole. Coming from Chicago, he had no doubt had early exposure to some of the boogie-woogie masters, such as Meade Lux Lewis and Jimmy Yancey, who were born there. Jack the Bellboy was presumably named for the Detroit disc jockey Ed Mackenzie who used that monicker. It was fashionable in jazz to flatter disc jockeys (who, as far as I can remember, were not yet called that) by naming tunes for them. The latter number is a show-piece for Hampton's drums, but it is most notable to me now for the strong sense of identity the Cole trio already had, and how superbly Cole played piano.

Dough-Ray-Me, recorded a couple of months later, is a "silly" song with a unison vocal. Except for the presence of drums, it sounds exactly like the King Cole Trio of not-far-off Capitol Records fame. It was just the kind of frivolous, trivial song on which Cole's early fame was built. And Cole's voice, with its distinctive timbre and enunciation, defines the vocal sound as surely as Johnny Hodges colored the Ellington sax-section.

Also on that session, July 17,1940, was Jivin' with Jarvis, a riff tune (and that title is all the lyric there is) named for the Los Angeles disc jockey Al Jarvis. Cole's piano has all the bounce and rhythmic vitality we came to expect of him. On a ballad called Blue Because of You Cole plays a solo that defines him as clearly as Bill Evans' solo on George Russell's All About Rosie defined him a generation later. Cole's later characteristics are evident in the Hampton sessions, the banged-out low-note punctuations, the insouciant use of triplets, even the right hand melody passages in oriental-sounding parallel fourths, the beautiful touch and technique, and that ultimately indefinable quality: his exquisite taste. It never failed him in his playing, only in his choice of songs.

The 1940 recordings with Hampton are significant for their evidence of how far Cole had evolved, how well he already knew who he was and how he wanted to play. When one hears apologias for some of the less-than-original young lions now in well-publicized prominence, it is instructive to reflect on Nat Cole on those Hampton recordings.

He was twenty-three.

The Nat Cole trio in its early days had recorded for Decca, largely tunes such as I Like to Riff; That Ain't Right', Hit That Jive, Jack, Scotchin' with the Soda, and Early Morning Blues. The group built its reputation as it toured to New York, Chicago, Washington, and elsewhere. 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, including Vim Vom Veedle and All for You. It soon signed him to a contract. 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 [50 years as of this reprinting].

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 instrumental, mostly by the trio.

I would be inclined to include among the instrumental the 12 tracks recorded in September, 1956, and issued in an album called After Midnight. Although Cole sings the heads on all the tunes, that album is about blowing, with guest soloists in the personnel, along with one of the most underrated of drummers, Lee Young. And it contains a lot of quietly fervent Cole piano. That album was made when Cole was at the pinnacle of his stardom as a singer.

Cole came under fire from some of the critics for "abandoning" jazz for his hugely lucrative career as a singer. Jazz critics, for the most part, had a certain condescension (shared by a lot of musicians) toward singers. That Cole was one of the most magnificent singers of songs we have ever had seemed to elude the attention of the purists.

But when Cole was coming up in the 1930s, there was no separation of jazz from American popular music: indeed the main repertoire of jazz was the magnificent body of song that grew up simultaneously and partly in tandem with it. Woody Herman (one of Nat's friends) was wont to say, "Jazz was the popular music of the land." Down Beat was not a jazz magazine; it was a magazine about bands and popular music, the best of which (that of Harold Arlen, for example) was soaked in jazz. Down Beat wrote about Guy Lombardo and Freddy Martin and their bands, as well as Basie and Ellington and Herman and Hines. One of the worst things that ever happened to jazz was the definition of it by intellectuals or would-be intellectuals as an "art form." Much good has come of this, but much bad too, with some musicians disdaining the very public that was paying them, and a lot of pretentious posturing.

Another problem was that Nat Cole was not one of the "improvising" singers, that group of them anxious to show how they could (and can) demolish a melody and with it the meaning of lyrics. I am not a fan of scat singing, partly because for the most part only skilled instrumentalists — such as Dizzy Gillespie, Richard Boone, Clark Terry, and Frank Rosolino — have really done it well. If ever a musician had the equipment (the knowledge, the harmonic sense, the inward rhythmic chronometer) to do it superbly, Nat Cole did. And he never indulged in it, reminding me of Mark Twain's definition of a gentleman: "One who knows how to play the accordion but refrains from doing so."

Cole stuck close to melodies, a proclivity he shared with Perry Como. Only singers seem to know how good Como really is. But Cole shared two other qualities with Como. One is a mastery so complete that the singing comes across as lazy. The other is that probably no other really fine singer recorded so many dubious songs as Cole and Como.

In some cases, this seems to be a failure of taste. But in others, there seems to be a subtle, pervasive, historical-social-psychological reason that Cole chose and performed a certain style — if style is the appropriate word — of song. I think that not even Freddy Cole, even if I asked him, could tell me why he picked the songs he did, and so I am left to venture into what I hope is reasonable speculation.

All racism is sexual. It lies in the territorial imperative, it is found in the tale of the rape (from Latin rapio-rapere, to seize and carry off) of the Sabine women, the symbol of all such forays into enemy territory and the seizure of women as plunder. Racism consists in, and solely in, this: We have a right to your women; you do not have a right to ours. And in positions of dominance, all races, no exceptions, are racist. As Oscar Peterson's sister Daisy said to me once, "Show me a race that is without racism." It is not one of our more glorious attributes.

This is evident throughout the history of Africans in America. A tee-shirt seen at the Tailhook convention [where a sexual assault scandal took place in 1991 at the Las Vegas Hilton] read: Women are property. And, alas, all too many men think that way. In the days of slavery, there wasn't even a question of it. A black man who even looked with what might be construed as lust at a white woman could be, and often was, punished with death. A white man, on the other hand, took black women where and when he pleased. I doubt that even the most ardent sociologist could deduce figures on this matter, but you can count on it that in far the majority of people of "mixed blood” the white "blood" came from the males. Even today, if the white supremacists could have their way, these rules of selective segregation would be reimposed. Nat Cole's family, keep in mind, came from Alabama, and was culturally rooted in southern mores. A black man there knew, without even having to know, that if he ever even thought sexually of a white woman or women, he must never let it be seen.

This is evident in Nat Cole's choice of songs, whether the choice came from subtle conscious perception or ineffable social conditioning. Or both. Thus he sings of Mona Lisa, whose subtext could be either a man contemplating the famous painting or a friend expressing his compassion to a misunderstood woman. Another unreal girl-in-a-picture inhabits Portrait of Jennie. He sings of Nature Boy, a song whose ersatz exoticism conceals an authentic banality, this tale of a mere boy who gives you the oh-wow insight that loving and being loved is where it's at, man. My God that's a dumb song. Cole elicits sweet seasonal memories in The Christmas Song, a song by Mel Torme and Bob Wells whose popularity obscures its excellence. He sings of food in The Frim Fram Sauce, which, according to one of the biographies, Lucille Ball adjudged the dirtiest song she had ever heard.

She should have tried Honeysuckle Rose.”

To be continued in Part 2

Honeysuckle Rose - Fats Waller

Every honey bee fills with jealousy,
When they see you out with me.
Goodness knows
You're my honeysuckle rose
When you're passin' by flowers droop and sigh,
And I know the reason why.
Goodness knows
You're my honeysuckle rose
Don't buy sugar,
You just have to touch my cup.
You're my sugar.
It's sweeter when you stir it up.
When I'm taking sips from your tasty lips
Seems the honey fairly drips.
Goodness knows
You're my honeysuckle rose
Goodness knows
You're my honeysuckle rose
Don't buy sugar,
You just have to touch my cup.
You're my sugar.
It's sweeter when you stir it up.
When I'm taking sips from your tasty lips
Seems the honey fairly drips.
Goodness knows
You're my honeysuckle rose

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

"I know that a lot of you critics think that I've been fluffing off jazz, but I don't think that you've been looking at the problem correctly. I'm even more interested in it now than I ever was. And the trio is going to play plenty of it. Don't you guys think I ever get sick of playing those dog tunes every night? I'll tell you why. You know how long it took the trio to reach a point where we started making a little prize money and found a little success. For years we did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. And while we played that, we .... practically starved to death. When we did click, it wasn't on the strength of the good jazz that we played, either. We clicked with pop songs, pretty ballads and novelty stuff. You know that. Wouldn't we have been crazy if we'd turned right around after getting a break and started playing pure jazz again? We would have lost the crowd right away."
- Nat “King” Cole as told to critic Frank Stacy

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.”

Gene Lees picks up the story from here:

King Cole
Part Two
Gene Lees
February 2000

Nat sings about partying in Bring Another Drink. Or he gives you, in inversion, the same message as Nature Boy in You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You. He gives you advice, again, on your life, in It Only Happens Once and still more friendly third-person counsel in It Is Better to Be by Yourself. Or, with Cole Porter, he asks What Is This Thing Called Love? And, in just case any white man should frown at even the hint of a relationship here says, "You took my heart, and threw it away." Just as she should have, you damned ....

Or he looks at the girl, but won't move on her, in But She's My Buddy's Chick. When he dares to have a moment of uppity vanity, he loses the girl to another in The Best Man. This theme recurs in You 're Looking at Me. After he asks, "Who had the girls turning handsprings? Crazy to love him, claimed he ... Where is the boy who was certain his charms couldn't fail? Who woke to find his dream shattered? You're looking at me." (Good song, by the way; like Route 66, it is one of Bobby Troup's little jewels.) The singer gets his comeuppance, again, for sexual vanity. Translate that to: that's what happens when you forget your place. In these songs, the singer is always defeated; thus he poses no threat.

Don't Hurt the Girl is an interesting alloy of Mona Lisa compassion toward women and rebuke of Best Man male vanity. There are at least three ways to look at this song. It could be the entreaty a decent man (the one in Mona Lisa) to a rounder friend. Or it might be the internal monologue of one who has commanded more than his share of women and is undergoing a sexual epiphany: "If you hurt that girl, you'll be hurting me." And when you realize it was written by a woman, Margaret Johnson, it takes on still another aspect. As far as I know, no woman has ever recorded it.

There is more pop philosophy in Irving Berlin's After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It and in (this one a duet with Johnny Mercer) You Can't Make Money Dreaming, as well as in Those Things Money Can't Buy, If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon, Paint Me a Rainbow. He is outside the story in A Boy from Texas, a Girl from Tennessee, and in (of all the improbable songs for Cole) Mule Train. He paints an American landscape in Moonlight in Vermont, another in 'Tis Autumn, the naturist, once again standing outside the experience. He tells you how to drive across this America in Bobby Troup's Route 66. That song became such a part of the culture that when I moved to California in 1974, and had determined the main highway on the map, I hardly ever had to look at it again after Chicago: I just ran the Nat Cole record in my head and aimed for the cities it specified. I doubt that I'm the only person who ever did that.

In his annotation to the Mosaic boxed set, Will Friedwald tries to explain Cole's predilection for silly songs with this:

"The answer is in Cole's miraculous capacity for melody. His limitless tool kit of methods of playing, singing and arranging songs for his unusually-instrumented triumverate (sic) took him at once into high art and lowbrow comedy. Like Henry VIII goose-quilling his own motets, this king of the realm doubled as his own court jester. At their greatest, the King Cole Trio distilled the avant-garde technique of a Lester Young or a Bud Powell with the restrained, dignified piety of fellow Capitol recording artist Daffy Duck."

Incidentally, these notes, which are not without value, suffer from the terminal cutes. Friedwald refers to the trio at one point as the KC3, begins a sentence with "Said interest," calls a guitarist a "plectarist," and so forth. At least he doesn't call a piano an eighty-eight or have Cole tickling the ivories. Nonetheless, there may even be some point to his thought that Cole provided his own comedy relief.

But I think a more important factor is an instinctive avoidance of direct sexual provocation. Frank Sinatra, with whom Cole had a slightly uncomfortable (I am told privately) friendship, might flaunt an overt male sexuality, but Cole didn't dare. Not if he wanted to be a success, and indeed not if he wanted to stay alive, as his Alabama attackers made clear. It is widely held that Sidney Poitier was the first black matinee idol, and black actors all give him obeisance, as indeed they should. But beyond Poitier, they should look back to Nat Cole, the first great black romantic male icon in American entertainment.

The best key to any culture is its humor.

During my years in Chicago, I lived almost entirely in a black world. Not just some but most of my friends were black. My best friend of all was the great photographer Ted Williams (he is still one of my friends). From the moment I arrived, Ted was my guide to the city, and particularly to South Side Chicago. We used to hang out at the Sutherland Lounge, the Club De Lisa, backstage at the Regal Theater, talking to Moms Mabley, Slappy White, Redd Foxx. Sometimes, when he was in town, Art Farmer would hang with us. I heard jokes the white audience didn't dream of.

Redd Foxx said he wanted to be a lifeguard. He wanted to rescue a drowning white man, haul him unconscious to the beach, and — here he cupped his hands around his mouth to make a sepulchral sound — say, "Byeeee, baby!"

This is one that went around in the black community. If you're not familiar with the city, you need to know that Cottage Grove and 63rd is the heart of black Chicago.

In Alabama, a young black man is accused of looking at a white woman, and is dragged off into the woods by torchlight. As the mob is throwing a rope over a tree limb, he breaks free and runs into the brush. He flees through the night, finally eluding his pursuers. He emerges on a highway and frantically waves his thumb at a motorist. The motorist, who is white, stops. "Help me!" the young man says. "They're gonna lynch me."

"All right, boy, get in here," the man says, opening the trunk.

The car proceeds north. The driver stops and again opens the trunk. He says, "You can get out now, boy."

"Where are we?"


"No no! I ain't safe yet. Let's keep going!"

The same thing happens in Kentucky, and in Indiana. The car reaches Chicago. The man opens the trunk and says, "You can get out now, boy."

"Where we at?"

The man says, "Cottage Grove and 63rd."

The young man gets out, dusts himself off, straightens up, and says, "Who you callin' 'boy'?"

Nat Cole came out of that culture, and when he was of a mind to, according to Julius La Rosa (who said Cole could be hilariously funny) he could tell a story in the thickest southern dialect. You can hear the south in his singing. In that very first Capitol release, All for You, he drops a final r in: "When you rise yo' eyes..." As with many Southerners, black and white alike, the give-away is the tendency to turn t's into d's in certain positions of speech, particularly in the middle of words. Thus "important" comes out "impordant". You'll hear it in the speech of television interviewer Charlie Rose, who is from North Carolina. And Cole does something else, specific to black southerners: he drops terminal consonants (as the French do), in such words as "just", in which the t would be omitted. Thus, in the last eight of Naughty Angeline, he sings "seddle down and jus' be mine." On the other hand, he sings very flat a's in such words as "that". The sound is specific to the midwest, from Michigan on, but most conspicuously Chicago.

Cole was, as we all are, completely conditioned by his background and rearing and the generation he grew up in. And he was a southerner, a product of a society in which the black male learned the survival skill of avoiding direct confrontation. What is amazing is not that he did this well, but that he did it with such enormous, indeed regal, self-containment. And he was a product of the entertainment business, not of the "art" of jazz, just like Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and yes, Guy Lombardo. He was walking through a cultural minefield, passing beyond the age of Tomming. He had the skills of charm that came out of that experience, but he used them with impressive discretion and dignity. A smile was a tool of the trade.

Louis Armstrong made it on the massive smile and what, to me, was an embarrassing public self-humiliation. He did not "make it" as a great artist, he made it as the embodiment of a white racist myth, a grinning clown with a horn. Nor do I mean to criticize him for it; he did what he had to in the age he grew up in. Cab Calloway, who was actually a very good singer, reached his pinnacle in his exaggerated white zoot suit with his hi-de-ho and his (again) toothy grin, a figure the complacent white world could patronize. Even Duke Ellington, one of the major artists in American musical history, wore the white tails and, in his mannered sophistication, still was catering to a white joke. Lionel Hampton grinned and groaned and jumped on the drums and embarrassed the men in his own band, particularly as that personnel grew younger. As late as 1950, when Billy Daniels undertook one of the most erotic of all songs, the Arlen-Mercer Old Black Magic, he did it in cap-and-bells, twisting, gyrating, voice cavernous, exaggerating the song to absurdity. It is little remembered that Alexander's Ragtime Band bore the title it did because when Irving Berlin wrote it — it came out in 1911 — America wasn't even covert about its racism, as witness the World War I song When Tony Goes Over the Top (Keep Your Eye on that Fighting Wop). As Fido was a name for a dog and Rastus for a shuffling black man, Alexander was a name mockingly used for a black man with pretensions. On the original sheet music of Berlin's song, the band in the picture was black; when the song became a hit, they mysteriously turned white. Not that much had changed by the time of the Billy Daniels recording.

And then there is the career of Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five. The very name Tympani Five, with its sly ostentation, is funny. Dizzy Gillespie's vocal on School Days is a close copy of Jordan's, right down to the lyrics and even the phrasing. Woody Herman got Caldonia and Ray Charles got Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying from Louis Jordan. Rock historians consider Jordan the fountainhead of rock-and-roll. I don’t think the scope of his influence has really been evaluated and somebody should do it while his widow Martha is still around to tell us about him. She lives in Las Vegas. Jordan built his success on good-time material such as Let the Good Times Roll, Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens, Knock Me a Kiss, What's the Use of Getting Sober, Beans and Corn Bread, comedy songs that reinforced the stereotype of the black man. But did you ever hear Louis Jordan sing a ballad? He did so extremely well, but he did it very little, and the public didn't embrace him for that dimension of his talent. The point was surely not lost on Cole; the King Cole Trio worked opposite Jordan at the Capitol Lounge in Chicago in 1941. Cole and Jordan were in fact good friends.

Blacks had been confined in American entertainment to clown roles, even the women. In the movies, they were always silly, light-headed, and obsequious. Billie Holiday was cast as a maid. Railway porters could all break into perfect harmony. All black men were shiftless or cowardly or both. A picture I completely detest is Cabin in the Sky for its embodiment of every image of the darky a racist society harbored: all its characters, the gambler, the slut, the slickster, the pious wife, are embodiments of white bias.

The picture came out in 1943, just when Nat Cole's career was really taking off. The social and moral climate of the period should be kept in mind in considering his life and work.

Cole began to emerge (more than a decade before Denzel Washington was born) as the first black male romantic idol in America. I think that's important to note: not just a "sex symbol," Cole was a romantic figure. He too grinned, sitting nonchalantly sideways at the piano (a manner of presentation he got from Earl Hines), doing so with enormous dignified charm, singing Ke-Mo-Ki-Mo and Straighten Up and Fly Right and Nature Boy and other songs designed to keep any ofay bastard from thinking the singer was after his sexual property. A respect for the territorial boundaries of possession is in many of the songs. In That's My Girl, it's "She looks just like an angel / but she's human just the same. / So I'm not taking chances, /I won't tell her address or even her name." Then there's, "But she's my buddy's chick___"I promise, honest, I won't go after your girl, even if I am handsome and more talented than you can dream. There was a sense of discreet sexual territoriality in many of those songs.

Is this a fanciful exegesis? I don't think so. A performer's selection of material is — and this is inevitable — a Rorschach of his or her own personality, just as the judgments of a critic constitute an unwitting and even unwilling self-portrait.
And the general tenor of the show-business times should also be kept in mind. In the years before World War II, the singers clowned (Al Jolson) and the clowns sang (Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Jimmy Durante). The styles of singing (Sophie Tucker) and acting alike (Lionel Barrymore) were largely declamatory. The contained introspection of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and, later, in film, Clift and Brando and Dean, lay in the future. Cole came at the transition point, and the playful clowning deflected the fire of white resentment. Whether he ever gave this one conscious thought, I have no idea. But whether by plan or visceral intuition, this is how he handled his burgeoning stardom.

One other factor, I think, should be considered.. To a large extent black performers accepted as a given that you had to have your white man, running interference, taking care of the business, dealing with the white world, bailing you out when the white society closed in on you. Louis Armstrong had his Joe Glaser, a Chicago quasi-gangster, and he needed him, since gangsters controlled the nightclubs. Duke Ellington had Joe Glaser's Associated Booking as well as Irving Mills, whom he allowed to put his name as co-writer on Ellington tunes that Mills had nothing to do with. Even Oscar Peterson followed the pattern: he acquired Norman Granz who, in Jazz at the Philharmonic, ran what Lester Young (Bobby Scott told me) called a flying plantation.

To be sure, Cole sang romantic ballads in those early trio days, a few of them. But he did so in the context of a certain general tom-foolery. The out-in-front repertoire was playful, even childlike; humourous, ingratiating and unthreatening.

And he acquired Carlos Gastel.

Anyone who read Down Beat in the middle 1940s knew the name Carlos Gastel. Probably no other peripheral figure in jazz and popular music, not even John Hammond, had such high visibility. Gastel's photo was often in the magazine and in The Capitol, the odd little pocket-sized hand-out publicity magazine that Dave Dexter edited for that company, available free in record stores throughout America. Gastel would be seen standing beside such of his clients as Sonny Dunham and Stan Kenton, even back when both were struggling, Dunham to go under, Kenton to become a major success.

According to Peggy Lee, who also became one of his clients, he was called The Honduran. He was born in Honduras of a Honduran father and a German mother, but he had gone to a California military academy and was at ease and at home in the United States and in show business. Six-foot-two and 250 pounds, he was a jolly, joking, partying man with a taste for jazz, liquor, and women. He reminded disc jockey and later producer Gene Norman of Fat Stuff in the Smilin' Jack comic strip, the pudgy figure whose buttons were always popping off his shirt.

Nat pursued Gastel, who was six years his senior (that is a lot when you're in your early twenties) to be his manager, and Gastel eventually acquiesced. Gastel negotiated in 1943 Nat's deal with Capitol, getting him a seven-year contract and the highest (at that time) royalty rate, 5 percent. And if Daniel Mark Epstein, in his biography, is correct, Gastel in three weeks got the King Cole Trio's asking price up from $225 a week to $800.

At one time, the major record companies, Victor, Decca, and Columbia and their subsidiaries, practiced a fairly rigid segregation. Black artists were confined to what were called "race records" aimed primarily at black audiences. White kids who discovered this music often had to go to record stores in black neighborhoods to find what they wanted. From the day of its inception, Capitol would have nothing to do with such a policy, and it pushed Nat Cole's career for all it was worth. Gradually Cole came to do more and more romantic ballads, and by about 1947, was sometimes standing up from the piano to sing. More and more, he was seen as a romantic figure. And more and more he ventured into the ballads, more and more with full orchestra.

In his 1974 book The Great American Popular Singers, the late Henry Pleasants wrote: "To a dedicated jazz musician, jazz critic, or jazz fan, there was more than a suggestion of apostasy about Nat King Cole's career. The more than promising jazz pianist, winner of the Esquire gold medal as pianist in 1946, the heir apparent to the mantle of Earl Fatha Hines ... achieves fame and fortune as a pop singer! That's putting it crassly, to be sure. He was more than that. Even as a pop singer he was an original. No one had ever sung quite like that before. He and Billy Eckstine, three years his senior, were, moreover the first black male singers to hit the top in 'the white time.'”

Henry continued: "-According to just about everyone who knew him or ever worked with him, or was otherwise associated with him, he was a born gentleman, just 'one hell of a nice, decent guy."

Henry quoted William E. Anderson, the editor of Stereo Review.

"A piano, even at its most legato, is a percussion instrument, and my sense of Cole's singing, even at his most legato, is of isolated, crystal tones, linked only in the aural imagination of the listener, and not in breathed slurs by the performer."

Henry wrote:

"It was, as I hear it, a light bass-baritone. I infer as much from the richness and warmth of the tone in the area between the low G and the C a fourth above, an area similarly congenial to the mature voices of both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. A bass-baritone disposition is further suggested by the fact that the 'passage' in his voice, as he moved up the scale and out of his natural range, would appear to have lain around D-flat or D, a semitone or two below the corresponding ticklish area in a true baritone.

"Nat rarely ventured below that low G, and he had little to show for it when he did. Nor did he have any upward extension to speak of. On the records I have checked he never sings above an E. Both the E-flat and the E, while secure enough, were consistently uncharacteristic in timbre, not thin and tenuous as the voices of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith were when they sang beyond the 'passage,' but somehow ill-matched to the rest of the voice and rather conventional in sound, recalling from time to time the sound of the young Bing Crosby in the same area.

"Big, wide-ranging voices are a dime a dozen — better voices than Nat Cole's, or, at least, voices of more lavish endowment. But a lavish vocal endowment does not make a great singer. The trick lies in determining, or sensing, where the gold lies in the vocal ore, and in mining it expertly and appreciatively. Or one can think of the vocal cords as violin strings, of the resonating properties of throat, mouth and head as the violin, and of the breath as a bow. In Nat Cole's case, the strings responded most eloquently to a light bow. The tone coarsened under pressure, or when urged, either upward or downward, beyond the G-D range of an octave and a fifth.

"At his best and most characteristic, Nat Cole was not so much a singer as a whisperer, or, as one might put it, a confider."

One of many peculiar assertions in the Epstein book is this:

"Some say Nat never sang until a drunk demanded it. But this is a whopper, made to strengthen the myth that all of Nat's successes were somebody else's idea."

Like everyone in the business, I heard the story of the importunate drunk. I asked Freddy Cole whether it was true.

"Yeah!" Freddy said, and laughed. "It's true. I talked with him about it. In fact, one time in Los Angeles, he drove me by the place where it happened. We were coming home from the ball game or something. It was a little barbecue joint by that time."

Nat said he'd always sung a little. Indeed, this was nothing rare for musicians. Though they seldom did it in public, Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, and Milt Jackson all sang very nicely, and the older trumpet players almost all sang, partly to rest their chops. And, as Freddy said, "During that time, musicians were taught to learn the words to songs. Because you would know how to play them better, to learn how to improvise better. Jo Jones. Lester Young. They could get up and tell you every lyric."

And Nat told an interviewer, "I was lucky that I could sing a little, so I did, for variety. The vocals caught on." And on another occasion: "To break the monotony, I would sing a few songs here and there between the playing. I noticed thereafter people started requesting more singing and it was just one of those things."

One has a choice of all these versions of how and why Nat Cole came to be known as a singer. Perhaps they are all to some extent true, including the one Epstein calls "a whopper," and that drunk fades in the distance as one of the minor heroes of jazz history. Perhaps he reinforced for Nat Cole what he already knew he would have to do. If he was to get work, he would have to sing, like so many pianists before and after him, including Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Jeri Southern, Shirley Horne, Audrey Morris, Dave McKay, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, and Diana Krall, for the simple reason that a pianist who sings gets more work. And besides, a lot of them like to do it.

I never heard of the "myth" that everything Nat did was somebody else's idea. But once Epstein raises the subject, even though he refutes it, it becomes a bell that cannot be unrung, and he himself strengthens it by his narration of events involving Carlos Gastel and Cole's second wife, Maria, particularly the latter. He even gives her credit for Nat's enunciation. He begins his acknowledgments:

"I am most grateful to Maria Cole for encouraging me to write this book and for her patience and courage in answering countless difficult questions during many hours of interviews. Through Mrs. Cole's kindness I was able to interview Nat Cole's friends and relatives, and his attending physician . . . about the details of his last months. I owe a debt of gratitude to Carole Cole and Natalie Cole, who were so generous with their time and detailed memory of the Cole household; and to Charlotte Sullivan, their dear aunt, who witnessed and understood so much." Notice the fawning tone. An unctuous servility to Maria Cole informs the book, which makes Epstein's portrait of her only the more devastating. In trying to paint it pretty, he lets ugly stuff come through, and some of it is very ugly indeed. What he presents is an unintentionally corrosive picture of a willful, manipulative, ambitious woman with social affectations and a high taste for money. Two more points. That paragraph would leave you to conclude that Epstein interviewed all Nat's relatives. He didn't. He didn't interview one of the most important witnesses of all, Freddy Cole. And he certainly didn't interview Peggy Lee or Jo Stafford. As for the "detailed memory," Carole Cole was (apparently) responsible for the most ludicrous blooper in the book, of which more in a moment.

By the middle-1940s, when Cole was making more money in a week than he had in a year in the early days, his marriage to Nadine was wearing thin. He was approaching thirty, she her fortieth birthday. A ten-year gap of that kind may seem insignificant in earlier years, but not later: a woman at forty is entering middle age and maybe menopause, and she is aware of it; a man hasn't even reached his maturity. She is worrying about age and time when he doesn't even want to think about it. And Cole was always away from home, constantly traveling, with opportunities presented by other women everywhere he went. Leslie Course doesn't make much of this in her book; Epstein makes a great deal of it.

Neither bothers to examine this phenomenon, which has existed since time immemorial: the sexual flocking, without any trace of pride or dignity, of women around men of celebrity. Leaving aside entirely the lives of actors and athletes, we may note that Liszt gathered great garlands of some of the fairest flowers of Europe, Boston ladies unhitched Offenbach's horses and pulled his carriage through the streets, Paganini plowed through more than his fair share of women, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley had herds of girls, they were all around the late Yves Montand, Glenn Miller bought his beautiful belted camels-hair topcoats in triplicate because the girls tore pieces from them when he got caught in crowds, Lady Iris Mountbatten is reputed (reliably) to have balled the whole Count Basie band, a girl who similarly collected the entire Woody Herman band was known as Mattress Annie to its members, and the rock era gave rise to a new term: groupie. No similar lemming-like behavior has ever been observed in the behavior of men toward famous movie stars or singers.

'Twas ever thus, but these divertissements of Nat Cole seem to give Epstein little frissons of amazement, and delight. These activities were well under way by 1946, and Cole's marriage with Nadine seemed by now only a formality.

He met Marie Hawkins Ellington in May, 1946, during an engagement the trio played at the Zanzibar club in New York. She was born in Boston on August 1,1922, the second of three sisters, all of them beautiful. Their father was a mail carrier, a good job for a black American in those days. Their aunt, in Epstein's words, was "one of the more distinguished and successful women in America." She founded the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, a black prep school. Marie and her sister Charlotte spent winters with their aunt, known as Aunt Lottie, in a large house with nurses, two bathrooms, and a telephone. She tells Epstein: "We never plaited our own pigtails until I was thirteen." Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes, among others, visited their home. They lived on a high social scale, but young black girls and boys still were not normally allowed to try on clothes in stores, were forced to sit in a special balcony at the movie theater, and could not go to restaurants. Epstein says: "Reading the movie magazines and dreaming in the theater's darkness, (Marie) longed to be rich, famous, to have a career in show business."

In 1943 she married a fighter pilot of the all-black 332nd Squadron, a young lieutenant named Neal Spurgeon Ellington, who flew against the Germans in Italy. Her sister Charlotte gave a recording of Marie's voice to Freddie Guy, who gave it to Billy Strayhorn, who hired her in 1945 to sing with the Duke Ellington band, which she did for a few months. Her husband had survived the war and come home with medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross, only to be killed in a routine flight in Alabama.

She was finishing up a singing engagement at the Club Zanzibar. Nat Cole had been engaged to play a gig there too. She remembered seeing him in the audience, watching her "through the horn-rimmed glasses," Epstein says. "The college kids started wearing glasses like this after the war, wanting to be hip like Nat King Cole." Gee, I thought we did it to look like Dizzy. And I was not aware until long after that Cole wore glasses. He is rarely seen wearing them in photographs. I just looked through a lot of them, and in only one is he wearing them. And he's reading music at the time.

Cole was quite smitten by Marie. According to Course, he told a friend, "I've never heard a Negro woman speak so well before." Note the sense of acceptance of one's own inferiority implicit in that remark. That is the ultimate rape of the black American.

Soon he was escorting her home to the Dunbar, an exclusive residence in Harlem. Epstein says: "Oscar (Moore) and Johnny (Miller) joked with her that Nat had cut his old friends for her, not realizing how serious the joke was. She would be around when they were long gone."

Nat asked her to go on the road with him; by now she knew he was married.
All through the book, Epstein seems enamored of Carlos Gastel. He describes him as a "large, tender-hearted man who got tears in his eyes." He calls him "a great, warm, walrus-like man." He calls him a man of integrity. He says that Gastel "was flying back and forth from New York to Los Angeles managing the King Cole Trio, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Peggy Lee. Everybody was making money so fast; they scarcely had time to count it." That gives me pause. Peggy Lee told me, "I have some idea of how much Carlos took me for. I wonder how much he took Nat for."

Various friends, including Woody Herman, tried to talk Nat out of divorcing Nadine. Cole's family had grown fond of her. Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller, making light of it as best they could, urged Cole to forget Maria. He told them:

"If you don't like it, you can quit."

Marie had by now changed her name to Maria. Epstein writes, "Maria had refined taste in clothing. She began to steer Nat toward suits and ties with less flash and more substance, more sartorial elegance. He was an eager pupil. Gently she began to influence his speech, mostly by example. He spoke well but not yet with the crystal clarity of diction that would soon make him a musical story-teller who could never be misunderstood. Cole still had the faintest remnant of a lisp and a bit more of the South Side transplanted Alabama hipster drawl than he needed to play the Radio City Music Hall or the Civic Light Opera in Chicago. It was Maria of Boston who would put the final touches on Nathaniel's famous phrasing."

There is the core of the book: the final and finished Nat Cole was Maria Cole's creation. This is flaming nonsense. Let's start with the lisp. Doug Ramsey saw an early film of Cole. He said there is no lisp. I called Freddy Cole. He said Nat had no lisp. I called Jo Stafford, who had him known since the early 1940s. She recalled no lisp.

Epstein's justification for saying that Cole had a lisp is in, of all things, Nat's December, 1943, reading of Sweet Loraine. He quotes the first eight:

I just found joy.
I'm as happy as a baby boy
With another brand-new choo choo choy,
When I met my sweet Loraine.

He writes: "The third line is not a typo. That is the way the young crooner sings it, twice, unable to pronounce the hard letter t. But even the mistake has a boyish charm."

And a mysterious one at that: Cole has no problem in the release with "And to think that I'm the lucky one . . . ." Sweet Loraine was recorded December 15,1943. Cole has no trouble with the word "time" in Vim Vom Veedle, recorded more than a year earlier, on October 11, 1942, nor with any other t between then and Sweet Loraine. All the young fans who rushed to get Sweet Loraine took "choy" for a playful affectation, and I think it was. If Epstein had done his homework, he would have discovered that Cole sings "choy" in his 1956 performance of the song in the After Midnight album.

At one point Epstein refers to "crazy Dave Tough from Chicago." He'd better hope none of Dave's friends see that. I can see Chubby Jackson going through the ceiling. Dave was a pill head, that's all, not only a remarkable musician but a genuine and unaffected intellectual. And that's the kind of thing that some future writer might take at face value and repeat, along with the assertion that Nat had a lisp and that it took Maria to clean up his enunciation.

Epstein tells us that, even before his divorce from Nadine was final, Maria went about restructuring his life and career. The party, he says, as Oscar, Johnny, and Nat had once known it, was over. He writes:

"And of course a number of old friends, particularly women who had been close to Nadine, simply could not abide the young fiancee. They disliked her cleverness, her haughty accent and fine manners. Out of a sense of loyalty to Nadine, if nothing else, these dropped out of Nat's life, some temporarily and some forever.

"Maria let it be known to Nat and Carlos and anyone else who cared to listen to her in 1947 that Nat King Cole was the star of the Trio, the reason for their spectacular success, and that Oscar and Johnny were making too much money."

One of those who disapproved of the relationship with Maria was Nat's father.

"The fact is," Epstein writes, "that Nat King Cole had outgrown Oscar Moore, as brilliant as he was, just as he had outgrown his first wife. And it hurt Oscar almost as bad." Bad? How about badly? Are there any copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux? "No doubt Nat understood the extent of the guitarist's contribution to their achievement and their triumph. But now the scene had changed, and business was business.

"Maria Ellington gave the leader the emotional support needed to do what he was too tenderhearted to do on his own. He informed his sidemen they were welcome to continue to share his good fortune, but with a smaller slice of the pie. Judging from later contracts this amounted to cutting their salaries in half.

"Oscar gave his notice in the late summer of 1947."

And Johnny Miller followed him a few months later. Hey, you know a neat trick you can do when you hit the big time? Cut the salaries of your side men and make an even larger donation to the IRS. And problems with the IRS lay in Nat Cole's future; cutting those salaries can be seen in retrospect as nothing less than stupid, even if Maria Cole wanted it that way. Irving Ashby replaced Moore. How important was Oscar Moore? "I studied Oscar Moore," Mundell Lowe says.

On Easter Sunday, Nat and Maria were married in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. Adam Clayton Powell, then married to pianist Hazel Scott, performed the ceremony. ("Please don't mention Mr. Powell's name," Hazel said to me in Paris in 1958).

In her book, Leslie Course says that Nat's friend Marvin Cane, then a song plugger for the Shapiro Bernstein publishing house, "was aware of the strong color line still in effect in New York. When Nat sang in New York, he still occasionally stayed in the Theresa Hotel in Harlem or at the Capitol Hotel at Fifty-first Street and Eighth Avenue. At one time, he had little choice except for the Harlem YMCA or a Harlem Hotel. The Capitol was in the vanguard of downtown hotels when it came to accepting Negro guests. Cane recognized Nat's position as a black entertainer who was idolized by white audiences .... Women of all races screamed and cheered for Nat's singing .... Nat insisted on emphasizing his role as an entertainer. Meanwhile, black activists saw the civil rights struggle as the preeminent issue in the country and became angry when Cole shied away from an aggressive stance. Nat had the platform but not the predilection. Virulent criticism of his quiet approach arose in the 1950s."

Marvin wanted the reception to be held at the new Belmont Plaza Hotel on Lexington Avenue in the East 50s. He persuaded the manager that all Harlem was not going to over-run the hotel, and the manager relented, agreeing to the reception. The entire cast of Stormy Weather turned up.

And the King Cole Trio was finished. By the dawn of 1948, Nat was doing a stand-up more and more. Henceforth the billing would be Nat King Cole and the Trio. Indeed the trio days were over even before the wedding in New York. The last true trio session came on November 29, 1947, when he made his recording of the lovely Lost April. When he did the song again on December 21, 1948, strings had been added. The next day he recorded Portrait of Jennie with strings but that take was never issued. The final version was recorded January 14, 1949.

Until I set myself to listen to all the tracks of the Mosaic boxed set, in sequence, I had not realized that the cut-off from the trio was so sharp. Cole took on Jack Costanzo on bongos, succumbing to an "Afro-Cuban" fashion of the time. His colleagues in the trio objected to the addition. They thought the bongos thickened the texture of the trio and clogged the swing. And I think they were right. When Dizzy Gillespie used Caribbean or Brazilian percussion, he did so in the idiom from which these instruments were drawn. Cole simply added them to the four-four of the trio, and all you get is a sort of tick-pop tick-pop extraneous beat. It is a different story, of course, when he used Lee Young on drums. Young is playing in the jazz idiom, not trying to graft another vocabulary onto it.

There are few small-group recordings of any kind thenceforth. The dates from then on are all orchestral. On March 29, 1949, comes Lush Life. And Epstein says that from Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life, Cole and arranger Pete Rugolo "forged a masterpiece, an art song fit to be compared with the best of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler." Wow.

He says: "The song's protagonist tells the story of how his frivolous party life was promised meaning — and then nearly rescued — by love, how love failed and disappointed him ultimately. Beginning in carefree cynicism, the song descends into deeper cynicism before ending in pessimistic gloom."

Strayhorn disliked the recording, which Epstein calls "the perfect existential anthem for the jilted lover," missing two important points. Strayhorn was homosexual, a secret kept by his friends until his death, and the song is a poignant evocation of his pain, the saddest homosexual anthem I know other than Noel Coward's Mad about the Boy. And it was a masterpiece before Cole ever got hold of it, written when Strayhorn was only nineteen.

Cole was by now probably the biggest male singer in America. Frank Sinatra's career was at its nadir. He lost his Columbia contract and seemed well on his way to being a forgotten man. Cole continued from one triumph to another. But he still couldn't stay in the major hotels of the big cities, and when he played the Thunderbird bird in Las Vegas, he had to reside somewhere else. Sammy Davis Jr. and many others endured similar indignity. Cole sued the Mayfair hotel in Philadelphia, which had refused him a room, and extracted an apology — but no money — for the effort.

Cole and Maria decided to buy a twelve-room Tudor house in the handsome Hancock Park district of Los Angeles, where there was a restrictive covenant against Jews, Negroes, and anyone else deemed undesirable. They used an agent, who made the down payment in cash. When the true purchaser was revealed, the previous owner of the house and the real estate agent who handled the deal received anonymous threats. Residents of the area formed the Hancock Property Owners Association, whose head told Cole that they would buy back the house from him and give him a profit. In May, 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against restrictive covenants. The Coles took residence in August, 1948. Someone had posted a sign on their lawn. It read Nigger Heaven.

Duke Niles, a publicist who was one of Nat's friends, visited the house when it was being renovated. Course writes: "'At first I didn't think it was me,' Cole said. 'But I’m getting used to it,' he added, pointing to a sweeping staircase, which reflected Maria's flair for living with the best of everything."

Cole's ex-wife, Nadine, sued him for non-payment of alimony. Oscar Moore, who had left the group in 1947, also sued him. Bassist Johnny Miller quit.

Epstein tells us that Cole, who wanted to have a child of his own — he and Maria had adopted her dead sister's four-year-old girl, Carole — took hormone shots. Maria became pregnant. Apparently Cole had never had much body hair. With remarkable lack of taste, Epstein writes: "He made a priceless comment one morning as he emerged from the bathroom grinning. I’m a man now, yessir. I knocked up my wife, and I just shaved for the first time,' he announced, proud as a peacock. It would have made a great ad for Gillette." It would? "Whatever the hormone shots had done for his sperm count and his vocal cords, they sure had affected his body hair." As Pogo used to say, Oog.

On February 6, 1950, their daughter Natalie was born. With adopted children, they ultimately had five.

The Internal Revenue Service assessed him for $146,000 back taxes. If he did owe this money, it doesn't say much for Carlos Gastel's career management. The government seized his house. They could far more easily have filed a lien on his royalties from Capitol Records. Epstein suggests that the neighbors in Hancock Park, many of whom were lawyers, had put the IRS up to this action to get the Coles out of their house. Having examined in detail the extent to which the IRS went in persecuting Woody Herman for a tax bill, even when he was old and very sick and barely able to mount a bandstand, I am inclined to think Epstein is right.

However, there may have been a second motive for the IRS actions. Tax collector Robert A. Riddell personally told the New York Times about the seizure of Cole's house, tending to corroborate something else I found out when researching Woody Herman's life: the IRS likes to prosecute famous figures, particularly in the entertainment world, because of the publicity it garners, which intimidates the average taxpayer into shivering docility. And the Cole tax prosecution got them plenty of publicity.

Cole managed to make a settlement with the help of advance money from Capitol Records. In this, I see the fine hand of Johnny Mercer, who was still president of the label.

Cole by now was being castigated by critics for turning away from jazz. Barry Ulanov, once one of his most ardent supporters, was one of them. Frank Stacy interviewed Nat, who told him:

"I know that a lot of you critics think that I've been fluffing off jazz, but I don't think that you've been looking at the problem correctly. I'm even more interested in it now than I ever was. And the trio is going to play plenty of it. Don't you guys think I ever get sick of playing those dog tunes every night? I'll tell you why. You know how long it took the trio to reach a point where we started making a little prize money and found a little success. For years we did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. And while we played that, we .... practically starved to death. When we did click, it wasn't on the strength of the good jazz that we played, either. We clicked with pop songs, pretty ballads and novelty stuff. You know that. Wouldn't we have been crazy if we'd turned right around after getting a break and started playing pure jazz again? We would have lost the crowd right away."

He told Stacy that he was planning a tour in which he would have a chance to play a lot of jazz. But the tour, when it materialized, featured his usual pop vocals. And Cole was recording a great deal of crap. Along with such pretty things as Portrait of Jennie and Lost April, he recorded The Horse Told Me, A Little Yellow Ribbon (In Her Hair) and All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, Mule Train, Poor Jenny Is A Weepin’ Twisted Stockings, and The Greatest Inventor of Them All, a bad imitation of Gospel music, along with purely mediocre material such as A Little Bit Independent.

In August, 1950, he recorded what I think is one of his most dreadful records: Orange Colored Sky. Accompanying him is the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Woody Herman had an uneasy relationship with Kenton. Bassist Red Kelly once told me: "They didn't trust each other. Woody didn't trust anything that didn't swing. Stan didn't trust anything that did." Veterans of the Kenton band have told me that Stan would stop them from swinging. I happened to like Stan personally, but eventually I found the band ponderous, and never more so than in its overblown, gawky accompaniment for Nat Cole and what is a contrived song in the first place.”

To be continued in Part Three

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

“On July 18, 1952, Cole went into the studio with a group that included John Collins, guitar, Charlie Harris, bass, Jack Costanzo, Latin percussion, and Bunny Shawker, drums. They made an instrumental album of standards, which was issued as a ten-inch LP called Penthouse Serenade.

It is one of the finest albums Cole ever made. I acquired it in Montreal as soon as it was issued. I listened to it so much that it lies deep in my subconscious. I keep a tape of it in my car, even today. I know every note, every chord of it. Donald Byrd said to me many years ago, "After all my years in this business, I have concluded that the hardest thing to do is play straight melody and get some feeling into it." Listen to Bill Evans playing Danny Boy and you will know exactly what he means. And thus it is with Penthouse Serenade. It is a gentle, loving, introspective, beautiful examination of the tunes, and all the glories of Cole's piano-playing are on display. That old question, "What album would you take to a desert island with you if you could choose only one?" elicits from me without hesitation: "Nat Cole's Penthouse Serenade" And I have taken it with me, to desert islands of the mind, and into dark nights of the heart. It is a masterpiece, a crown of jewels in the history of jazz, and because of its directness and deceptive simplicity it is terribly overlooked.”

“I have spent two months or so now studying Nat’s life and his work, sometimes analyzing it at the piano. I have a whole new appreciation of him, and it will never leave me. Devoid of ostentation or pretense, he was truly a genius musician. I idolized him when I was a kid. I guess I still do.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author, essayist and editor/publisher

King Cole
Part Three
Gene Lees
March 2000

It was about this point that Nat advanced the career of a gifted arranger named Nelson Riddle. I have never told this story before, but it is what Nat told me that day in Louisville.

We must have been talking about arrangers. I have always been an admirer of great arranging and orchestration. Somehow Nelson Riddle's name came up, perhaps in conversation about Sinatra.

Nat said, "Frank didn't discover Nelson Riddle. I did." In a corridor at Capitol Records in Hollywood, a young man approached him and said, "Mr. Cole, I'm an arranger, and I'd like to write for you."

Cole, with what I can see in my mind was his manner of unfailing politesse, said, "I'd like to hear your work."

"You've already recorded some of it," the young man said, "but it didn't have my name on it." He had been ghosting for someone else.

"What's your name?" Nat asked.

"Nelson Riddle."

"Let's have a talk," Nat said. Nelson worked directly for him after that, and then Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol and his career blossomed again, never to fade until he died; and Nelson Riddle became known as his arranger.

I could feel that the friendship between Sinatra and Nat Cole was an uncomfortable one, even though Cole named Frank as his favorite singer in a Leonard Feather survey,, and finally (in his soft way) said something a little testy. He said, "Do you want to know the difference between Frank and me? The band swings Frank. I swing the band."

Every musician to whom I have ever told that seems to raise his eyebrows a little and say, "That's right!"

But while Sinatra, from the time he joined Capitol, set about recording the very finest songs in the American "popular" (to my mind, classic) repertoire, Cole continued to do a lot of bad songs. Not that Sinatra didn't do a certain amount of trash - - eventually including My Way and Strangers in the Night - - but the vast body of his work at Capitol and, later, Reprise, comprises the truly great songs. Nat Cole left no such legacy.

He seemed to have a perpetual hunger for hits. Sinatra had comparatively few real hits. His records sold big, but Cole's sales were massive, as he found one commercial hit after another, up to and including such junk as Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer. It was a repertoire much closer to Perry Como's than Sinatra's.

Rumor in the business always had it that Nat's hunger for hits was the consequence of Maria's hunger for money. Epstein says, "Of course, she loved money and luxury and security, but who doesn't?"

There is an astonishing passage on page 294 of Epstein's book:

"Carol Cole remembers the day her father telephoned Capitol and the receptionist answered brightly, 'Capitol Records, Home of Elvis!' And Nat said, trying to hide his astonishment, 'Excuse me?' He had built the tower, but at the moment Elvis was more important than he."

First: Nat and Peggy Lee built that tower.

Second: Anyone with an even rudimentary knowledge of popular music in America knows that, excepting the early sides he made for Sun Records, Elvis Presley's entire body of recorded work was for RCA Victor. What Nat really heard that day — and I got the story from both Johnny Mercer and Paul Weston — was "Capitol Records, home of the Beatles."

There is a comparable mistake on page 86 of the book. Speaking of the store Glen Wallichs owned, Music City, Epstein writes: "This was a record store, where Wallichs soon began making his own records — 78 rpm wax cylinders — with a single microphone."

Where did Epstein get that astonishing bit of misinformation?

Aha. On page 49 of the Leslie Course book, one finds this: "In music city, which (Wallichs) ran with his brother, the records were 78 rpm cylinders." This is a classic example of the replication of errors, a replication that to some extent underlies Voltaire's statement that history is an agreed-upon fiction.

In fact, the cylinder record went out, as they say, with button shoes - - almost at the same time. The first disc records were manufactured in 1894, and by about 1904, cylinder recording had all but ceased. Oliver Read and Walter L. Welch wrote in From Tinfoil to Stereo: Evolution of the Phonograph:

"Although musical cylinders were sold by Thomas A. Edison, Inc., until it retired from the field in 1929, the ultimate doom of the cylinder had been sounded with the announcement of the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph in 1912." Roland Gelatt, in The Fabulous Phonograph, cites the Milan recordings of Caruso in 1902 as the first fully satisfactory disc recordings. By 1902, Columbia was marketing its product in both disc and cylinder format. Roland wrote: "Already (1902) a distinction had been drawn between the disc public and the cylinder public: discs were meant for the Main Street parlor, cylinders for the other side of the tracks."

Thomas A. Edison, who was a stubborn man, continued to make both cylinder and disc recordings, but his company retired entirely from the record business in 1929. (My thanks to James T. Maher, the patron saint of everyone who writes about popular music and jazz in America, for researching the subject for me.)

I called Leslie Course about this odd error in her book, replicated by Epstein. "I wonder where I got that?" she said. Ten years after you write a book, it is hard to remember who told you what. She will try to have the error corrected in the new edition of her Cole biography.

Daniel Mark Epstein is at his most embarrassing when he dissertates, with unshakable aplomb, on technical matters of music. He talks about a flatted third chord. Other than a minor chord, I haven't the slightest idea what he's talking about, and neither apparently has he. He talks about "Hebraic minor chords." Is he trying to tell us the Jews have invented a minor chord that contains something other than a root, flat third, and fifth? And Epstein almost drools over Cole's use of triplets, failing, apparently, to understand, that 12/8 is the essence of jazz melody-making. (He should try McCoy Tyner.) Epstein surrounds commonplace musical terms like "pedal point" and "tenths" with quotation marks as if they are esoteric argot. One gets the feeling that he consulted people with at least a smattering of knowledge, took notes, and passed their commentary off as his own without really understanding it. He sounds like the dialogue in that French "jazz" movie, Round Midnight, which makes you think that director and writer Bertrand Tavernier followed some jazz musicians around, writing down what they said without grasping it and using it in dialogue..

Marvin Cain, who went on to become president of Famous Music and is now retired, was unable to finish reading the book. I called him to check some of its "facts."
"It's bullshit," he said, not being a man given to evasion. "He talked to a lot of people who hardly even knew Nat."

On July 18, 1952, Cole went into the studio with a group that included John Collins, guitar, Charlie Harris, bass, Jack Costanzo, Latin percussion, and Bunny Shawker, drums. They made an instrumental album of standards, which was issued as a ten-inch LP called Penthouse Serenade.

In his notes to the Mosaic boxed set, Will Friedwald, with his usual wall-eyed perception, writes "There's nothing wrong with good cocktail piano, and as the ritzy Rainbow Room-type decor on the original cover implies, this is just about the cocktail-iest, lacking nothing except tinkly glasses and inebriated sophisticates trying to remember the words." It is one of the finest albums Cole ever made. I acquired it in Montreal as soon as it was issued. I listened to it so much that it lies deep in my subconscious. I keep a tape of it in my car, even today. I know every note, every chord of it. Donald Byrd said to me many years ago, "After all my years in this business, I have concluded that the hardest thing to do is play straight melody and get some feeling into it." Listen to Bill Evans playing Danny Boy and you will know exactly what he means. And thus it is with Penthouse Serenade. It is a gentle, loving, introspective, beautiful examination of the tunes, and all the glories of Cole's piano-playing are on display. That old question, "What album would you take to a desert island with you if you could choose only one?" elicits from me without hesitation: "Nat Cole's Penthouse Serenade" And I have taken it with me, to desert islands of the mind, and into dark nights of the heart. It is a masterpiece, a crown of jewels in the history of jazz, and because of its directness and deceptive simplicity it is terribly overlooked.

Steve McQueen said once in an interview that there was nothing hard about movie acting. He was probably right. The movie industry has always taken in men and women who have achieved fame in fields other than drama, including swimmers (Esther Williams, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller), a skater (Sonja Henie), football players, dancers, and above all singers: Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Dick Powell, Tony Martin, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Doris Day among them. That makes a certain amount of sense: a singer's job is to put over the emotional content of words. And some of those singers, particularly Sinatra and Dick Powell, turned into remarkably good actors. Nat Cole aspired to follow their example.

But his position was not unlike that of Billy Eckstine. Eckstine first came to the attention of "the kids" - one of whom was me - - when he recorded with the Earl Hines band. One of the tunes was Jelly Jelly, one of the most notoriously sexual of songs once you knew what "jelly" meant, with the line "jelly stays on my mind." We didn't know, not the white kids anyway. But he made his place in jazz history with an illustrious and seminal bebop band of his own, which had Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Budd Johnson, Lucky Thompson, Frank Wess, Charlie Parker, Leo Parker, Tommy Potter, and Art Blakey in its personnel. It lasted only three years. Eckstine surrendered to the inevitable, and folded it to continue as a solo singer. With his striking good looks and rich baritone, he became a hit on the newly-formed MGM label, with which he signed 1947.

But he said later, not without bitterness, that it was obvious to him that the movies were closed to him because of his color. His appeal to women made many white men uncomfortable. He said that given the attitude of movie-theater owners in the South, no studio would take a chance on putting him in a picture as a romantic lead. In case you haven't noticed, to this day television commercials remain segregated. The one black man in a crowd at a party, what Oscar Peterson calls the TTS, standing for Token Television Spook, always has a black wife. And the movies have treated the very idea of a black man and white woman rarely and cautiously, as witness Love Field. Indeed, the idea of a relationship between a white and an Indian, though such marriages were common in the west, was taboo for years, finally starting to crumble with Broken Arrow in 1950. Eckstine's career was confined to records and night clubs. And Nat Cole would soon find there were limitations to his career too.

In 1953, he appeared on a 1953 Lux Video Theater in a role supporting Dick Haymes. He played, logically enough, a piano player. He played a small role in a film called Small Town Girl, and then appeared in a 1955 short about himself called The Nat King Cole Story. He stirred no critical acclaim. Leslie Course wrote: "He seemed to be too polite and shy to try to emote or plumb the emotional depths of the character he was portraying." That is true of his singing, too. It is dramatic depth that makes Sinatra's singing so compelling; it is not drama but sheer musicality that makes Cole's singing mesmerizing. His daughter is the better dramatic lyric reader.

He appeared as a member of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina in China Gate, which starred Gene Barry and Angie Dickinson. I thought he was rather good in it. Then he was cast as W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues. Marvin Cane visited him on the set. Nat told him he found movie-making frustrating, since he was not in control, as he was in a recording studio. Marvin said, "Well, you're in the movie business."
Nat said, "Yeah, but what the hell am I doing here?"

Marvin said, "You're becoming a movie star."

The film was bad at the root. The script was poor, and far from factual. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Cole simply lumbers through the role of a harassed jazz composer, looking dumb and uncomfortable."

"Cole," Leslie Course wrote, "always provided an exquisite relief and lift for the films the films in which he sang — Blue Gardenia, for one. Sometimes his singing was the only bright moment in a film. Throughout Cat Ballou in 1965, he and Stubby Kay augmented the amusing story ..."

Ultimately, the movies were to prove a deep disappointment, but not so bitter a one as his television experience.

Meanwhile, his stardom as a singer just kept growing: he drew an audience of 60,000 in a football stadium.

Dinah Shore wanted to have Nat as a guest on her television show. Chevrolet, her sponsor, would not allow it: they wouldn't have her standing next to a black man. Similarly, Bell Telephone didn't want Herb Ellis and Ella Fitzgerald on camera together in its television show. Norman Granz, her manager, battled them and they agreed to let them appear together. The technicians put so much gel on the lens that you couldn't recognize Ellis.

But late in 1965, Carlos Gastel negotiated a deal to have Cole star in his own TV series on NBC. The show went on the air in November, 1956, a sustaining fifteen-minute broadcast at 7:30 p.m. The advertising salesmen were unenthusiastic, even though Cole was perfect for television. Like Perry Como, a huge success in the medium, he was effective precisely because his projected personality was quiet, warm, and intimate. By 1957, the show was the most successful in television. But still the advertisers held back. The show was expanded to a half hour. Cole delivered himself of a widely-quoted epigram: "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark." His guest stars included Mel Torme, Tony Martin, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Julius La Rosa, and more, and they appeared for scale — or rather, for him.

I asked La Rosa about that appearance. "Nat couldn't have been nicer," Julie said. "As a thank you, he gave me a lovely white sweater with blue trimming which I treasured until it almost fell apart. He was such a gentle man. Nelson Riddle was the orchestra leader. Peggy Lee was the other guest! I was performing with three giants I'd paid to see just a few years before! And they made me feel like I belonged, which of course I didn't really."

Throughout 1957, NBC kept the show on the air. Though its ratings steadily improved; the sponsors it needed did not materialize. After losing nearly half a million dollars on the show, NBC decided to move it to the deadly slot of 7 p.m. on Saturday. Cole declined to make the move.

Steve Allen tells me that NBC some years ago needed storage space in its New Jersey facility and destroyed the kinescopes of some of its classic shows, including many of his own Tonight shows with precious footage on Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and others of the jazz musicians whose cause he was forever pushing. About a third of his shows survive, and there are thirty segments of The Nat King Cole Show, parts of which are seen on TV from time to time. One of the things you noticed is Cole's remarkable grace of movement. He was a natural for television.
In his statement to the New York Times announcing the end of the show, Cole said, "There won't be shows starring Negroes soon."

Julius La Rosa offered a footnote to this tale: "By the way, I recall that on a Dinah Shore show, Ella Fitzgerald was the other guest. At one point I put my arms over Dinah's and Ella's shoulders. I got mail denouncing me for putting my arm around 'that nigger.' Incredible, no? And that was in the mid-fifties."

The snubs continued. Cole had sung for President Eisenhower, and was invited to sing for the Queen of England during a pending European tour (and he would soon sing at the inauguration of his friend John F. Kennedy) but the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco wouldn't let him perform there, its manager telling the press: "No assumption on the man's color. We just don't want the class of people Cole attracts." Though the Civic Auditorium was available to him, Cole canceled San Francisco entirely.

He made a "concept" album called Wild Is Love, songs about a man's search for love, or more precisely, sex. Some of his associates, including Lee Young, didn't like it. Gradually the album evolved into an idea for a Broadway show. Capitol Records put up $75,000, and Cole put at least $75,000 of his money into it. The show, with an interracial cast that included Barbara McNair, opened in Denver October 17, 1960, to bad reviews. It moved on to San Francisco, where it got even worse reviews. Cole was determined to get it to Broadway, in one form or another, but eventually it went down, taking a great deal of his money with it.

Daniel Mark Epstein takes a wallowing interest in Cole's sex life, indeed in seemingly everyone's sex life. What is his problem! His fascination with the quantity of women that a major male star is able to attract infuses the whole book. He savs, "As the chief spokesman for romantic love in the early 1960, it was inevitable that Cole would sample some of what he was selling." And he quotes a press agent who traveled with Cole: "Nat was very discreet. He was not the sort of guy who would say, arriving in a city, 'Hey, let's get some girls and have a party.'"

That's right. Arriving in Louisville, he spent the day with me.

But the most distasteful material in the book concerns Nat's last love affair. It was with a young Swedish chorus girl he had met doing a review called Sights and Sounds that he did in 1963, hoping still to get to Broadway. Epstein calls her a "dreamy delight." He says she had "the spiritual look of a dream in the twilight between sleep and waking."

Leslie Course mentions this relationship in her book, too. "But," Leslie told me, "she asked that I not use her name, and I didn't."

Epstein has no such discretion: he names her. And he says, "Anyway, there were plenty of opportunities for (her) to get Cole alone in a room as the show toured the country late in 1963. And by early spring of 1964, what started as a diversion for Cole, the reliable balm of erotic adventure, had begun to spin out of control and become an obsession. He really loved this girl, who was so different from his wife in every way, so gentle, so simple, so undemanding. (She) was funny and she had quiet courage; she had made the great crossover from culture to culture, language to language. And who knows what other changes and challenges she might have the strength of character to endure? In the unreal erotic world of their hours alone together Cole was able to imagine a future free of all that weighted him down—the expectations of his children, parents, the press, his public, his people, who looked to him for leadership, wanted him to be a saint; above all he imagined freedom from his wife, who seemed to him, in his befuddlement, to be the warden of this prison, his life."

Where did Epstein get that "information"? From a ouija board?

Cole by then had lung cancer, and it was progressing rapidly. He played the Copacabana in New York. Epstein says Maria did what "any proud, furious wife with five children and some cash does when her husband is thinking of leaving her for another woman," she put a private detective on the case, and they came away from the girl's apartment "with enough billets-doux and mementos to fry King Cole in the divorce courts, if Maria took a fancy to do it. In California, she and the kids would get everything he had."

Cole at last was hospitalized for cobalt treatments in Los Angeles. Of Maria, Epstein writes: "As magnificent as she had been in love, in devotion, in fighting for her husband's career and their rights to happiness, now she was no less magnificent."

In other words, despite all his gratuitous flattery of her through the book, he paints her as an absolute barracuda. She blocked his calls at the hospital's telephone switchboard, he says, to make sure the girl could not call the dying man. She compiled a list of everyone she thought might have abetted Nat's love affair, and made sure they were never able to speak to their dying friend, no matter what consolation that might have given him. And then she pulled a master stroke.

Do you remember the harrowing passage at the end of Orwell's 1984, wherein the authorities, to destroy the imprisoned Winston Smith's love for the girl, resort to the thing that is his greatest phobic fear: a rat? They bring one in a cage, prepared to loose the rat on his eye. He realizes that must not only say he no longer loved the girl, he must stop loving her. And he does.

Maria Cole got a call from the girl, telling her that she loved Nat and Nat loved her, and asking Maria to give him a divorce. Pathetic.

Cole was by now spending his days in a hospital rocking chair. The mail from well-wishers poured in. So did the flowers. "Maria," Epstein writes, "came marching down the corridor of the North Wing on the sixth floor of St. John's Hospital, burst into her husband's room, and lit into him as if the two of them were in their twenties.".

She demanded the girl's phone number. She dialed it, and handed Nat the phone, and made him tell the girl, in his feeble voice, that it was over between them.

Nat Cole's left lung was removed on January 25. He died on the morning of February 15, 1965.

Freddy Cole told me that Nat's death was devastating to him. He said, "Prior to that, two weeks before, my dad died with complications of a heart ailment. So we were all in state of shock for a long while.

"I haven't smoked now in many years, and I don't think about cigarettes. I quit before Nat died. I was at the hospital in Santa Monica. I'd been coughing and had a bronchial condition, and Nat said, 'Man, you ought to quit smoking.' And I said I would.

"Later on, I picked Natalie up from the airport. She was coming home from school. She was twelve or thirteen years old. I lit a cigarette, and she said, 'I thought you told Daddy you were going to stop smoking.' So I said, 'Okay,' and threw the cigarette out the window. I haven't smoked since."

Eighteen years later, in 1993, Roger Kellaway was sitting at the piano in Studio One at Western in Los Angeles, prior to a record date with that same Natalie Cole, charts by Marty Parch. She was now forty-three years old.

"I was sitting at the piano, just fiddling around," Roger said. "These hands touched my shoulders and a warmth filled my entire body. I couldn't believe it. I turned around, and it was her. And that's how we first met. She didn't know me at all. But now that I think about it, wasn't that the logical thing for her to do? Because I was the pianist.

"It was her Take a Look album. We did the verses to three songs on that one session, just she and I. It was so wonderful to work with a singer who knew those kinds of songs, that concept. I was able to breathe with her, without even knowing her. She invited me lunch. I congratulated her on being a singer who understood verses, and she said, 'Well of course I do. My dad took me everywhere.' That's as close as I'm going to get to Nat Cole."

I said, "I think she's one of the best singers we have."

"Well I think so too."

Listening to the entire Mosaic collection of Nat Cole was a revelatory experience. Now I wanted Roger to listen to some of it with me. There are few musical experiences that either of us has that we do not in some way share. So I invited him to do some listening with me. I also invited Debbie Denke, a fine pianist and teacher who lives in Santa Barbara. She is the author of a very good book titled The Aspiring Jazz Pianist, published by Hal Leonard, accompanied by an illustrative CD, and available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She and Roger and I listened to Cole for two or three hours.

We all marveled at Cole's effortless, unceasing swing. He has the most magnificent time of any musician I've ever heard, and Roger Kellaway's own time is a pretty formidable phenomenon.

Roger said. "You are told in the arts that you have to strive to get out of your own way. He doesn't even have to try."

"And there's the gentleness. The tenderness. He has a way of caressing the piano."
I said, "Nat Cole never shouts. Not in his singing, not in his playing, not even in his life."

"That's a good way to put it," Roger said, and, after a few more minutes of listening, "The musicality is just there. It's understood. It's an assumption. His playing sparkles. And it seems effortless. It's not filled with ego and the kinds of thing you've heard for the last thirty-five years, especially the more modern angular players, whether it be anger or wherever they think they're coming from emotionally. The push, and the stress in society that's produced that kind of playing. It's not there."

Debbie said, "His singing had a timeless charm — the way he presented his tunes, the way he got the emotion across. There is something so lovable about his voice. And his piano playing really swung. His block chord voicings had a unique sound, a distinct tone. The way he backed himself up as a singer at the piano was so tasteful. The way he would sing and just at the right time, place the right figure to complement his singing. It sounded effortless. I don't see how it could be done better.

"Another thing I've noticed. I've been researching tunes with Rhythm changes for some of my students. Nat Cole did a lot of tunes based on I Got Rhythm. He seemed to really do a large tribute to Gershwin. I'm an Errand Boy for Rhythm, Hit that Jive Jack, the list goes on and on."

I read them some of the 1991 notes, by pianist Dick Katz, for the Mosaic reissue of the Cole Capitol piano records. He wrote: "His deep groove, harmonic awareness, supple phrasing, touch, dynamics, taste, and just plain delicious music had a profound effect on ... Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Al Haig, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Ahmad Jamal, Monty Alexander, and many others, including myself."

"And you," I told Roger.

"But I never heard as much of Nat Cole as I might have wanted. I got his influence through Oscar Peterson, and of course Oscar added all that power." He listened to Nat Cole some more and then said, "When you hear something like this, don't you think to yourself, 'Boy, would I like to hang out with that person!'"

"And I once did," I said. "A long time ago."

I can almost see that room in the Seelbach. I assumed that Nat had sent for room service, rather than going to the restaurant, in order to assure privacy for my interview. And perhaps that had something to do with it.

But long afterwards, it occurred to me that he probably did it because he knew that if he could now get into a Louisville hotel, where no one could see him, he and I would still not be allowed into its restaurant, or any other decent restaurant in town. The voters march in Montgomery, Alabama, had not even happened yet.

The privacy was to my advantage, in the end: I had that precious time alone with him, and I stayed the day with him until concert time. I remember being amazed that he would give so much time to me, a no one.

Why would he do that?

"He was that way," Freddy Cole told me. "He'd talk to a lamp-post."

I have spent two months or so now studying his life and his work, sometimes analyzing it at the piano. I have a whole new appreciation of him, and it will never leave me. Devoid of ostentation or pretense, he was truly a genius musician. I idolized him when I was a kid. I guess I still do.

The Epstein book is not only bad and inaccurate history, it amounts to desecration. How could Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with its distinguished literary history, have published this book? The company also published Lush Life, David Hajdu's imperfect but quite good biography of Billy Strayhorn. Nat Cole and his work deserved at least its equal.

I was not one of those who questioned Cole's turning to singing. I loved his singing. I doubt that I had the courage to tell him I was secretly writing songs. One of my regrets is that I never got to hear him do one of mine. (Freddy did one, though.) I do remember asking him why, in his concert and nightclub performances, he rarely accompanied himself now.

"Because when you sing and play at the same time," he said, "you're dividing your attention. You sing better if you don't play, and you play better if you don't sing."
Maybe. But he was magnificent at self-accompaniment.

I remember saying that I hoped he would not stop recording jazz albums entirely. And he said, "As a matter of fact, I'm thinking about doing one soon."

One of the good things I got out of Epstein's book was the knowledge that after that tour, and that grim experience in Birmingham, he went home to Los Angeles and began to practice. He practiced all through June, and then in July called a session.

"Nat loved to be in the studio," Freddy told me. "He just couldn't sit still. He'd be off for a couple of weeks, and he'd call the guys. That's how that After Midnight album came to be made. They were just foolin' around. My favorite in that album is Blame It on My Youth. That one and You 're Looking at Me. Sometimes I'm Happy is good too. Stuff Smith and Nat were friends from back in Chicago. I play that album all the time."

So do I. That and Penthouse Serenade. I carry them on tape in the car.

The personnel of After Midnight comprises Nat, John Collins on guitar, Charlie Harris on bass, and Lee Young on drums. On some tracks, the guest soloist is Stuff Smith on violin, Juan Tizol on trombone, or Willie Smith on alto saxophone.

The King Cole Trio recordings are set pieces. He did the tunes pretty much the same way each time, even to the vocal phrasing. In one trio session, I Surrender Dear, he makes exactly the same allusion at the start of the second eight to Lover Come Back to Me as he does in a second take that was unissued. But to hear him blowing, one can turn to the Jazz at the Philharmonic recording he did for Norman Granz, an album he made with Lester Young, and After Midnight.

After that album, he recorded one more jazz session, in New York, on March 22, 1961. Then his piano falls silent.

His life strikes me, taken in sum, as sad, for all its great moments. He was thwarted at so many turns. Certainly his life was not the field of flowers I would have wished for so magnificent a musician, so humane a man. After the Birmingham incident, his deportment prompted the Chicago Defender to thunder: "We wonder if Nat Cole shared the humiliation of the hundreds of his Negro fans who had to stand outdoors and wait while whites inside yelled 'Go home, nigger!' and attacked him as he performed. We hope Cole has learned his lesson."

Cole told a reporter, "I'm not mad at a soul." He caught hell for that one.

Thurgood Marshall, who was then chief counsel for the NAACP, said, "All Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo."

It is a detestable, execrable remark. It is beyond our powers to estimate how much Nat Cole did for "racial relations" in the United States by the graciousness of his comportment, the softness of his manner, and the decency of his example. It still shines.

I cannot remember who told me this story:

He was playing the Fontainbleu. A little white girl got away from her parents and toddled onto the stage while he was singing. A kind of hush seized the audience. This was Miami, and Miami was one of the most racist cities in America.

She drew closer to him. Nat had someone bring him a chair. He sat down, took the little girl on his lap, and sang her to sleep.”

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