Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Nat King Cole - Jazz Pianist - Part 2

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

“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].”

- Editorial staff at JazzProfiles

NAT AND NORMAN: THE JAM SESSIONS, 1941-1946, continued

“AS WE'VE SEEN, in his primary career, Cole was always the leader, the star, and the focal point of whatever musical situation he was in; he was never a sideman. Even during his decade-long collaboration with the brilliant Oscar Moore, there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. That's the other unique aspect of his non-trio sessions of the mid-1940s: these are the only documents of Cole playing with his peers in the jazz world; the very idea of a dominant leader was inapposite to the setting; everybody gets an equal part of the action. The amazing thing is that Cole was so busy with the Trio, particularly during the peak Capitol years (1943-1947), it's a wonder he had time to do anything else, between constantly touring, recording, and broadcasting. Yet the purely jazz sessions he made in these same years, though not nearly as numerous, are an invaluable part of his legacy.

It would be Carlos Gastel and then Nat's second wife, Maria, who would encourage the so-called commercial side of Cole's music; but even before then, it was Norman Granz who helped Cole to realize this other side of his musical mind, the purely jazz side. In turn, it was Nat who helped Norman realize his ambition to become one of the most successful concert and record producers of all time, that rare impresario who would do much to transform the shape of the music itself. Bassist Red Callender, who worked with Cole on several occasions, remembered that he was playing at the Capri club, at Pico and La Cienega, the first time that he noticed Norman. "A young college student used to come in frequently. He always wore sneakers, dressed casually, was of medium height and build, and had light sandy hair. By day he worked as a film cutter at MGM, by night he was a fixture on the jazz scene, particularly at the 331 Club. This unassuming young man was to have a profound effect on the world of jazz.”

Half a year older than Cole, Granz was born and raised in California, where he was attracted to jazz (and to what later became known as the Great American Songbook) from an early age. He was frequenting clubs around Los Angeles in 1938-39, at the same time the King Cole Trio was working in the same area, but, for whatever reason, they never encountered each other until fall 1941, when both were in New York. Granz was then between two hitches with the armed forces and the Trio was playing Kelly's Stable on Swing Street, sharing a bill with saxophonist Pete Brown's band and the legendary Art Tatum, playing solo.

By June 1941, Nat and Norman were both back in Los Angeles, and over the next four years or so, the two became very close. "In the beginning of my jazz career, the man most responsible for my success was, without question, Nat Cole." As Granz later remembered, "Not only was he inextricably tied in my professional mode, but he became my best friend and mentor into the black musicians' way of life: its vicissitudes, its dangers, and its victories." He added, "When he would hit with his Trio at the 331 Club [beginning in May 1942,], I was there practically every night and between sets, we'd meet outside — there wasn't any dressing room, of course. In short, we hung out."

Their friendship extended well beyond music: Granz also added, "We became, in the parlance of the day, 'asshole buddies'"—by which Norman meant that they were so close that they could "talk trash" to each other about anything or anyone, and let their deepest, least attractive feelings and opinions show, warts and all, without each having to worry what the other one would think. In 1947, Granz would even give Cole the money to cover the legal fees from his divorce from his first wife.

Granz was also very frank about how Cole opened up the world of black musicians for him, and the larger implications of their friendship, as Callender observed, had an overwhelming impact on the subsequent history of jazz, and, to an extent, civil rights. Norman was Nat's first close white friend. Granz, it must be said, was a credit to his race, one of the first white men Nat had ever met who immediately accepted darker-skinned people as equals and who would become a lifelong crusader for the cause of civil rights and social justice.

At the same time Milt Gabler and Harry Lim were organizing jam sessions in New York, Lee Young was doing the same in Los Angeles, most often at the Capri. The drummer was also co-leading a band with his older brother, Lester, who had already become a huge star in the jazz world. The jam sessions became a regularly recurring event, indirectly thanks to a ruling by the musicians' union. When the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) decreed that bands had to take one night a week off, Granz remembered, "obviously the nightclub owner would choose the day that was his worst day and in most cases, it was a Sunday." Granz was also inspired to action by Billie Holiday, who had recently performed in LA, where she was disturbed to learn that most clubs on the West Coast (even more so than those in New York) had a "whites only" policy.

Granz would follow the example set by Barney Josephson, whose Café Society, in Manhattan's West Village had already implemented a policy of welcoming all races, both in the house and on stage. His first "enabler," as it were, was Billy Berg, a nightclub entrepreneur who started with the Capri and then moved on to the Trouville, on the corner of Beverly and Fairfax. The Capri "was a very small club," Granz noted, so "it was practically impossible" for him to do what he wanted there, but the Trouville was a higher class venue that better suited Granz’s ambitions.

Already developing his remarkable skills of persuasion, Granz talked Berg into letting him do his integrated jam sessions on Sunday afternoons, and there was no question who he wanted on piano. "When I started my little jam sessions, Nat was virtually my house pianist." Though not the "leader" per se, Cole was the point man who kept everything running, and Norman's de facto co-producer. "Norman Granz was just a jazz fan who used to listen to me working, and we became good friends," Cole said in a 1954 interview. "So, one day we got together and decided to run Sunday afternoon club sessions with any of the boys who happened to be in town. I was the leader and fixer and contacted any fellows from the big bands. I picked the tunes, fixed the routines, and directed the groups. Norman sat at the door and collected the money."

Nat took this role very seriously, "Once, we were going to one of the Norman Granz Sunday sessions," Callender remembered. "Nat came by our house on 20th Street in a Studebaker with one side of the car completely crushed. There had been a big storm and a tree had fallen over his car. Something like that would never deter Nat Cole. I climbed in the car from the driver's side, hanging on my bass all the way to the gig. That was the Nat Cole I knew, a funny, beautiful guy."

Granz later described a house party at this time in which the guests included no less than four of the all-time great piano players: Jimmy Rowles, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Cole, along with guitarist Dave Barbour. Over the course of the evening, everyone played but the Count, who instead hung out in the kitchen, just listening. "I said to Basie, 'Aren't you going out to play?' and he answered, 'After Nat Cole and Art Tatum? You're asking me to play? I would die first!' "

By July 1942, everything was jumping: the Trio had begun its long residence at the 331 Club, and the Young Brothers band was headlining at the Trouville (along with Leo Watson and the Spirits of Rhythm, blues singer Joe Turner, and singer-dancer Marie Bryant, soon to be Granz s girlfriend). That was for six nights a week. Then, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m on Sunday afternoons, members of both groups, including bassist Callender and Rowles, would get together to jam at the Trouville. The first line-up included both Lester and Lee, the King Cole Trio (including Wesley Prince, then in his last weeks with Cole), as well as trumpeters Red Mack and Taft Jordan, trombonist Joe Ewing, and Eddie Barefield on clarinet and sax. Down Beat made a point to tell its industry readers, "Affairs differ from the many regular and impromptu sessions... in that the musicians are paid a regular union scale ($9 for three hours) and patrons are charged admission.

The California Eagle was enthusiastic when it covered the action both on the regular nights and the Sunday sessions, noting the presence of Ben Webster, Trummy Young, Willie Smith, Joe Thomas, Callender, and "King Cole": "The whole thing is solid kicks, knocking us to our knees." The columnist, Freddie Doyle, happily informed his African American readership, "Nice thing about the Trouville, you and I are welcome there." Norman Granz wouldn't have it any other way, and neither would Cole.

This initial run of Sunday afternoon jam sessions only lasted two or three months, before Granz was re-inducted into military service on August 4. But before then, he made sure that the Young/Cole combination wouldn't be lost to history, and on July 15, they convened at Music City (the emporium Cole had helped christen two years earlier). The idea was to combine two players from the Young band, Lester and Red (who was soon to start working with the Trio as well) with Nat and Oscar. "One Friday afternoon, we all got together at Glen Wallich's little studio on the corner of Sunset and Vine," the bassist remembered. "All of us, that is, but Oscar Moore. We waited for hours, but Oscar never showed. 'Let's go ahead and do it,' I said, since I was the rhythm section. So, we got a balance and played, having no notion it would be for posterity."

Indeed, the results were truly "for posterity." Lester Young was a musician for the ages, in the opinion of many (including myself) the greatest saxophonist of all time, and an innovator whose laid back yet driving style cast a giant shadow over multiple generations of musicians on all instruments, well beyond jazz, going up to the present day. And over the course of roughly fifteen tracks that Young and Cole made together (including two studio dates, the second in 1946, and one live radio appearance), Cole establishes himself as perhaps the all-time greatest piano partner of the man that Billie Holiday dubbed "The President" or simply "Pres." Young had become a jazz legend primarily through his work with Count Basie—surely one of the most vital collaborations in all of American music— and he also made a series of classic sessions with his musical soulmate Billie Holiday, recorded under the loose direction of Teddy Wilson. No pianist ever swung harder than Basie, and none had more of a sophisticated touch than Wilson, but still Cole was Young's most perfect accompanist, a virtual Pres of the piano.

Cole had also grown listening to Basie and Wilson, and, like Young himself, they were key influences on his playing; the musical synergy of the Pres and the King was wondrous to behold. Cole seemed to know long before he had ever met Young exactly what he would play with him should he ever be lucky enough to have that opportunity. More than any of Young's other piano partners, Cole plays with the same remarkable sense of quiet, restrained urgency that was Lester Young's trademark. Where most of Young's other collaborators are swinging lindyhoppers, Cole, like Young himself, is more like a jazz ballet dancer. I don't believe that Cole ever fully fathomed his ownworth as a pianist (even less so as a singer) but he truly appreciated Lester Young, and he considered it a badge of honor that they were able to create these fifteen miraculous tracks together.

For the July 1941 session, they chose four vintage popular songs that were already jazz standards and jam session favorites. (Surprisingly, there wasn't a blues among them, though they would make up for that later on.) "Indiana" opens with remarkable tranquility — from what we know about the Trouville jam sessions, and the recorded evidence of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (that began two years later), we expect something much louder than this. Cole later returned to "Indiana" with the Trio (for MacGregor transcriptions, in 1944), and that version is more like the "flag waver" we expect: fast, even frantic, and exciting-—as if they were trying to race across the entire state of Indiana in the two minutes it takes them to play the song. If the 1944 "Indiana" is a race, the 1942, "Indiana" is less Jesse Owens and more Alvin Ailey; with Cole as more like a male ballerino whose job is not only to dance with the star female prima donnas but support them and lift them into the air. Cole's solo is a full two choruses, something without precedent in his catalog, but even more notable than the piano solo is the equivalent of a "chase" chorus afterward, in which Cole and Young trade phrases, essentially just shooting very brief bursts of notes back and forth at each other: bop-bop, bop; beep-beep, and so on. Something about it reminds me of a little kid playing with sock puppets, one on each hand, and Young's final chorus is an especially vivid example of how to swing at a laconic tempo.

"I Can't Get Started" is superior balladry. Young has less in common with any previous interpreter, like trumpeter Bunny Berigan, who played it with a sense of ironic braggadocio, and more like great later singers—especially Sinatra. Where Young's melody chorus is spare, Cole's piano passage is more fully two-handed. Young had previously played this Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin standard, back when it was new, with Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday (and it marks one of the most radical examples of her ability to bend a melody, and even words, into something almost completely different from what the composer wrote). Even without the actual, literal words, Young captures the multiple meanings of Ira Gershwin's lyric better than any vocalist other than Sinatra, and "sings" trie tune better than it would ever be sung.

"Tea for Two" and "Body and Soul" are the first of many extant versions of these songs by Cole. Even the title of "Tea for Two" is an apt metaphor for the Young-Cole pas-de-deux, wherein Young takes two choruses at the start, the first of melody, the second of pure improvisation. The piano solo is unlike any that Cole would return to later, although surprisingly the twosome that the title might suggest is the exchange between Young and Calendar. In his last chorus, Young breaks down the tune into a series of short, elegant phrases. (As we'll see, Cole had a lifelong fascination with several standards by Vincent Youmans; he would record "Tea for Two" and "I Want to Be Happy" many times.)

Even by 1942, "Body and Soul" was well known as a gauntlet thrown down for aspiring titans of the tenor saxophone, as established by Chu Berry and especially Coleman Hawkins. This performance also introduces what would become one of Cole's signature piano solos; he never played it exactly the same way twice, but he did return to the idea of using the Johnny Green melody as a framework to hang a series of quotes on, the most famous of which was a reference to "In the HalJ of the Mountain King'' (which he had already quoted in "This Side Up"); here he sets up the "Mountain King" quote with a phrase from the 1929 standard "My Kind of Love." Callender gets more to play here, backed by Cole; although all four tracks are about five minutes long, this is the only one where they find time for a bass solo, and it's only about 16 bars. The last chorus is mostly Young, with Cole taking the bridge (and negotiating all those key changes) before Young takes it out.

As mentioned, these four tracks are all five minutes each, meaning that they could only be issued as 12" 78’s, and even that was pushing the limits of the available technology. This was one of Granz s final projects as a civilian before he was officially inducted into the Army Air Corps on August 4,1942. Well before the sides were released, everyone was buzzing about them: "Those who have heard them say they are strictly terrific," enthused Down Beat; "He hopes a commercial firm will take them over for marketing."

Indeed, this happened; Granz sold the masters to the brothers Leo and Edward Mesner owners of the Philharmonic Record Shop in Hollywood who issued them in 1945 on their newly rechristened label, Aladdin Records. This was virtually the only time Granz sold a session outright, and also virtually the only time one of Cole s non-Trio sessions was issued with his actual name on the labels — not "Sam Schmaltz" — since the session took place well over a year before Cole's exclusive contract with Capitol.”

To be continued.

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