Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Nat King Cole - Jazz Pianist - Part 1

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Perhaps the first great crossover musician, Cole's evolution from dazzling pianist to luxuriant crooner has often caused the wringing of hands in the jazz audience. Yet one also wonders if, by the time he had become a singing star, he had already said everything he had to on the keyboard, during the enormous series of records he made for Capitol in the 1940s”

- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia

“As a pianist, Nat fully embodied what might be the greatest moment in all of jazz: that transitional period when the swing era evolved into bebop and modern jazz. Cole's playing inhabits both worlds at once — the melodic pleasure of the first combined with the harmonic profundity of the second, and the joys common to both, an outstanding sense of rhythm, well beyond the call of duty, and a propensity for the blues.”

- Will Friedwald

Lost in the fog of his well-deserved popularity as a singer whose stature rivaled that of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan is the fact that Nat Cole was an original piano stylist comparable to that of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.

“Lost,” perhaps to the general public who knew him as the former, but not as the latter to modern Jazz pianists including Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans who often mention him as an influence.

This lack of awareness is understandable, since Nat basically stopped playing piano after he became a commercial success as a solo vocalist by the early 1950s.

Of course, during the years from 1937-1949 when he was active with his piano, guitar and bass trio, Nat incorporated Jazz stylings into its music, but apart from that setting, Nat also had a relatively short lived career as a Jazz pianist as described in the following excerpts from Will Friedwald, Straighten Up and Fly Right [2020].


“Nat was primarily a pianist, you know, first. He never got away from that, really. Inside of him, he was a pianist.”


“WHO KNEW GARRY MOORE was such a knowledgeable jazz buff? Unlike, say, JackBenny or Sid Caesar (who both played host to Nat Cole on their long-running variety shows), Moore is not one of the more celebrated comedians from the golden age of television. Today, Moore (1915-1993) is best remembered for the company he kept, including such undisputed comedy legends as Jimmy Durante and Carol Burnett. Yet in his time, the various series that he hosted, almost continually from 1950 to 1967, were some of the highest-rated shows of the era.

On April 4,1961, the primary guest on The Garry Moore Show (CBS) was Nat King Cole. In addition to singing "Wild Is Love" and "Illusion," Cole chats with the comedian-host in a manner that's meant to be at least semi-extemporaneous and uncomfortable. Garry starts quizzing Nat about a series of recordings he made many years earlier, released under what Moore calls "fake names." Nat expresses surprise that Garry knows about this part of his career at all, and he also acts as though he'd just as soon not talk about it — especially on national television. ("I don't remember anything — I wasn't supposed to do it!")

But Garry persists, and together they reveal to the world that Nat made "instrumental" recordings (as a non-singing jazz piano player) for a variety of different labels because he was under an exclusive contract to one unmentioned record company as a singer—an oversimplification, but essentially true. Moore extracts maximum comic mileage out of the silliness of just two of these fake names: "Sam Schmaltz'' and "Lord Calvert." ("I know that label well," says Moore, referring to the famous brand of whiskey.) For a punchline, Nat tells Garry he's still ill at ease discussing any of this, so he asks the host to announce him under a pseudonym: "Harry Belafonte." 

Big laugh.

Viewed today, it's a very funny two minutes of patter, perhaps the most real and authentic moment in all of Cole's variety show appearances. But to audiences in 1961, it must have opened up a major mystery without coming close to solving it. Why was the most popular singer of his generation, the man with the most easily identifiable voice, making records under the name "Sam Schmaltz?" "That's a real true story," says Moore. "'Sam Schmaltz!' You know what 'schmaltz' means in Jewish? Chicken fat! "The romantic voice of Sam Chicken Fat.'"'

TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION, we have to go back to a photograph published almost twenty years earlier in New York's major Negro newspaper, the Amsterdam News. In May 1941, the paper informed readers about a series of informal, Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Village Vanguard on New York's Lower West Side. The dates were produced by the aspiring impresario Harry Lim, described as "a diminutive Javanese swing pundit," and the musicians include drummer J. C. Heard, tenor saxophonist Joe Thomas, clarinetist Albert Nicholas, bassist Billy Taylor, guitarist Al Casey, saxophonist Gene Sedric, not to mention a pianist identified in the caption only as "King Cole." In looking at this picture, it's easy to see that the two men who seem happiest to be part of it are the youngest, namely, Lim and Cole.

The photo — alas, no recordings of these sessions are known to exist — tells us two things. First, it shows the degree to which Cole was accepted by his peers as a leading jazz musician: these are all hardcore players with years of experience in major bands, and both Cole and Lim look delighted to be in their company. For these venerated veterans to accept Cole, who had never done what they had done, or paid those particular kinds of dues, as one of their own, was remarkable.

Second, we also know that the Trio was working like crazy at this point, at various clubs both in the Village (Jimmy Kelly's) and Swing Street in Midtown (the Onyx Club). He was easily playing six nights a week, and, as we know, practicing for several hours every day. For him to participate in jam sessions, to work for nothing or next to it, shows us, yet again, that he just couldn't get enough of the piano. In addition to which, the jam sessions gave him something that he couldn't get from the King Cole Trio, the chance to blow off a different kind of steam. For the most part, the Trio’s music was about pleasing the audience, but the extra-curricular sessions he played in, partially documented on a series of recordings made from 1942 to 1946, gave him the chance to play when he only had to worry about pleasing himself.

As a pianist, Nat fully embodied what might be the greatest moment in all of jazz: that transitional period when the swing era evolved into bebop and modern jazz. Cole's playing inhabits both worlds at once — the melodic pleasure of the first combined with the harmonic profundity of the second, and the joys common to both, an outstanding sense of rhythm, well beyond the call of duty, and a propensity for the blues.

Cole's use of advanced harmonies places him firmly in the pantheon of the beboppers; in fact, some of his recordings contain the earliest examples of musical devices that later became standard tropes of modern jazz piano. For example, the 1944 "Easy Listening Blues," as Dick Katz pointed out, utilizes the "B-flat major seventh and C minor seventh suspension" (bar 3) as well as the "descending minor seventh" (bar 8). This is harmonic sophistication on a level with say, Bud Powell, who was probably the archetypical modern jazz pianist (the one most widely imitated at the time). Yet Cole never plays with the same degree of abstraction as Powell; the beboppers were very melodic players, but it was almost always their own original melodies that they were improvising on familiar chord changes. Cole, conversely, was always driven by the idea of exalting the written melody — "selling the tune" — sometimes refurbishing the original chord changes in the process.

Cole's biggest piano influences were Earl Hines and then Art Tatum, and like all jazz musicians, he was deeply moved by Louis Armstrong; gradually, as a vocalist, he absorbed a lot from Frank Sinatra, an influence that went both ways. But as an overall musician, one of his key role models was obviously the saxophone colossus Lester Young; Cole would have been familiar with Young's work even before he began working with the saxophonist's younger brother, drummer Lee Young. It wasn't only Lester's subtle, understated, and yet sublimely swinging approach to a tune that so inspired Cole; it was the saxophonist's overwhelming, abundant lyricism. Young famously said that he couldn't play a song without knowing the lyrics to it, and so, in effect, he was playing the words as well as the music; this could have also been Cole's mantra, and in much of the best of his music, with and without the Trio, he is constantly doing both at the same time; he is singing even when his mouth is closed, and he is playing even when he's not so much as touching the keyboard. 

As historian Loren Schoenberg has said, if you want to know all about Nat Cole as a pure jazz piano player, you don't have to go any further that the two studio sessions that he and Young did together, in i942 and 1946, Their sympatico styles were fully in evidence as early as the summer of 1942., a date that opens with the 1917 jazz standard, "(Back Home Again in) Indiana." Other musicians would ransack the tune for its chord changes (Miles Davis transformed it into the bebop standard "Donna Lee"), but when Young plays it, he's not focusing on the harmonic progressions; he's dreaming about the moonlight on the Wabash. And so is Cole. They're longing for their Indiana home, and, moreover, they're doing so in a way that causes us to long for it too.

Just as Cole created two distinct overall identities, pianist-leader and singer-star, his piano work also falls into two categories: Cole the master arranger-composer, represented in the classic Trio set pieces, which had been carefully honed to perfection in live performance by the time they were recorded, and Cole the freewheeling improviser, as heard in the jam sessions and most especially the live recording of the first Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert in July 1944.

Cole's piano playing with the Trio is intrinsically different from his playing in the jam sessions, yet there's never any doubt that the artist in both of these settings is the same musician. In all cases, Cole plays with a crystalline touch that makes the melodies never less than exquisitely clear. It was also the extremely vocalized line; you can always hear the songwriter's original tune, yet Cole completely makes it his own, in both the Trio and the jam session contexts. His singing and his piano work were direct counterparts of each other; in fact, when he sings one of his great mature ballads like "The Very Thought of You" and "But Beautiful," it's a use of space that only a great artist has—the notes never seem crowded or distorted, and the meaning of the text is never ambiguous, except when it's supposed to be as a dramatic device. Cole shows us that melody and meaning are the key components, forever enhancing each other.

Whether playing or singing, Cole is a musical Albert Einstein, who proved again and again that time and space are the same thing.”

To be continued.

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