Friday, April 9, 2021

Nat King Cole - Jazz Pianist - Part 4

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

“IN TERMS OF QUANTITY, Cole probably recorded less in pure jazz settings (apart from the Trio) than any other pianist of his stature; his jam session recordings are especially valuable, not only because of their scarcity but also because he seemed to be making history with every session.”

- Will Friedwald, Straighten Up and Fly Right [2020]

THE LAST MAJOR PROJECT that Cole and Granz would work on together was the pioneering album, The Jazz Scene, in 1946, but before then, in 1945 and early 1946, Cole would also participate in three major recording dates outside of the King Cole Trio—all of which can be safely described as all-star jam sessions: the Capitol International Jazzmen (March 30,1945), the Sunset All-Stars, also called the Herbie Haymer Quintet (June 9, 1945), and the Keynoters (February 16,1946). (The first two were done while the Trio was in the middle of an extended run, from March to June 1945, at the Trocadero in Hollywood.) Just as with the Granz sessions, he made all these dates purely for his own enjoyment, the fun and the thrills of working with his peers in the jazz world.

For all the hundreds of masters and songs that Nat King Cole recorded for Capitol from 1943 to the end of his career in 1964, it seems rather improbable that, in retrospect, he only participated in one out-and-out purely jazz jam session for the label. This was the brainchild of Dave Dexter, early in his long tenure at Capitol Records, when he conceived of a highly ambitious project that would eventually be released in 1945 as The History of Jazz, Promoted by Capitol as the most comprehensive word on the subject yet, the project took the form of four 78 albums of five discs each, for a total of twenty discs and forty sides.

Whereas any of the other major labels could have used vintage, historical recordings to compile a history of jazz, Capitol faced the challenge of recording everything anew. There would be some spillover between sessions specifically recorded for the project and Capitol's regular releases, but Dexter would travel to Chicago, Kansas City, San Francisco, and New York to get everything done as well as the many sessions in Los Angeles.


Metronome reported, "Despite Capitol's inability to record certain giants as Armstrong and Ellington," who were under contract to other labels, "as well as sundry pioneers who have long since passed on, Dexter and Capitol succeeded in recording more than 100 great and near-great jazzmen. The list of participants is easily the most impressive ever assembled for a single album series." All forty tracks were being released for the first time, even though some had been recorded back in 1941 and 1943. Metronome added, "Capitol's investment is said to be well over $100,000."

The project covered not only the history but also all of the various permutations of the music, from the African American "roots'' musician Lead Belly, up to, well, Nat King Cole, who at twenty-five, was probably the youngest bandleader in the package. Cole was heard on two volumes. Volume Four, which was "concerned only with 1945 jazz," included the first release of a now-classic King Cole Trio instrumental, "Jumpin" at Capitol," recorded their very first Capitol date in November 1943. And on Volume Three, which covered "the "zany Swing Era," Cole played with the Capitol International Jazzmen.

Seventy-five years later, the group's name (apparently they were billed as "Dave Dexter s International Jazzmen" in the original album) seems somewhat curious—these were all black Americans, but Dexter came up with "International Jazzmen" because three of the four horn men in the front line, the legendary saxophonists Benny Carter (alto) and Coleman Hawkins (tenor), and trumpeter Bill Coleman, had spent much of the immediate prewar years living and playing in Europe. (Carter's orchestra had also toured extensively with the King Cole Trio in 1944-45.) Everybody present was a veteran player with a considerable reputation among jazz fans: clarinetist Buster Bailey from Fletcher Henderson and John Kirby's bands; bassist John Kirby himself, one of the standout small bandleaders of the 52nd Street era; and none other than Oscar Moore (at long last) on guitar. The least-known musician at the time was drummer Max Roach, currently part of Carter's rhythm section and soon to become the best-known drummer-bandleader of the Modern Jazz era.

There was also a vocalist. Dexter later wrote, "I didn't tell the musicians, but I had also invited a young, busty, big-throated girl singer to participate in two of the four planned masters. She was Kay Starr, a confident, ebullient, part-Cherokee brunette who I had met when she worked for a time with Joe Venuti. She sang great." Although this was her Capitol debut, the twenty-two-year-old from Dougherty, Oklahoma, was already somewhat known for her exceptional jazz chops, having already toured with Glenn Miller, Wingy Manone, and Charlie Barnet, in addition to Venuti.

As Starr, who sings on "If I Could Be with You" and "Stormy Weather," told me in 1990,

“Originally, I started recording for Capitol just as sort of a guest star on Dave Dexter s jazz albums. When I went down to the studio to do the first one, Dave hadn't told me who was going to be there. He just said that he did all-star jazz sessions and he kind of told me some of the musicians, but it never occurred to me that I'd actually be singing with them. And when I went into that studio, they had these two big sets of doors there, and you go through one door and then you just gently pushed open the second door which actually went into the studio, because it was blinking but not red, I knew that I needed to be in there because it was the time Dave had said. But I just looked in and I saw Nat Cole on piano and John Kirby on bass and Coleman Hawkins, I opened up the door a little more just to be sure of what I was seeing, and in the same breath I thought "This can't be the right studio!" I wanted to dissolve; I didn't want to make any noise so that anybody would know I was there. I must have made a mistake. I started to do what I call a crawdaddy out that door, to walk backwards like the crawdads do when they're afraid, but I heard Dave's voice saying, "Get in here, Okie, you're in the right place!"

Carter’s biographer, Ed Berger, felt that "considering the magnitude of

talent, the results are less than spectacular." That is possibly true, but the

results are certainly wonderful, even if they don't quite reach the level of

"spectacular"—and, from Cole's perspective, this is a gem of a session that

serves to considerably enrich his discography. As Dexter put it, "Because Nat

was being castigated by the eastern critics in Down Beat, Metronome and

lesser publications for deserting jazz to become a pop singer"—this as early as 1945—"I asked Nat if he would join us. 'Say when and where,' he answered."

The date consists of three standards, "You Can Depend on Me," "If I Could

Be with You" and "Stormy Weather," plus a blues, Carter's "Riffmarole." The

late Ed Berger was particularly critical of this date because he feels Carter's

solos aren't up to his best work. However, Hawkins is the alpha horn soloist

here; he's the one that you remember on the two instrumentals, "You Can

Depend on Me" and "Riffmarole" (even though the Hawk was never a blues

specialist), and Starr makes the most of her opportunity: she steps up to the

plate on both "If I Could Be with You" and "Stormy Weather," and fairly

knocks both of them out of the park.

"Stormy Weather" was the song that Starr later remembered for a special, personal reason. Somehow, she had the idea that Cole had made a record for Capitol in which he sang that Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler classic. This was wrong; as far we know, Cole never sang it, and that makes what happened even funnier. "I was supposed to do 'Stormy Weather,' and I [thought that] Nat Cole had done a vocal record of that for Capitol. I was so nervous I thought I had to ask permission, I asked him if it was okay and he laughed and said, 'Of course!' And Nat later used to kid me about that when we go to be friends. He said, 'You know, she can't sing 'Stormy Weather' without my permission.”

However, even with Hawkins and Starr at their best, no one is operating at a more consistently brilliant level here than Cole, whose every solo is an unabashed gem. It seems likely he helped Dexter pick the tunes, since the first two are by piano giants that he admired, Fatha Hines’ "You Can Depend on Me," and James P. Johnson's "If I Could Be with You." These are songs that every aspiring jazz pianist coming up in the 1930s would have known backward and forward. He also sets the mood and the tempo, especially on the first two. Cole sets up "You Can Depend on Me," working with Moore to create a Trio-like interlude (Kirby is cooperative, and Roach is barely noticeable) for 16 bars, until Bailey comes in at the bridge. "If I Could Be with You" opens with even more of a Cole-Moore Trio "lope," even though he seems delighted to hand the melody over to Starr after playing his intro.

Coleman opens "Stormy Weather" with a plaintive moan on his muted trumpet, and Starr and Cole catch that dark, rainy mood perfectly, the pianos notes splattering like so many raindrops all around her. "Riffmarole," which survives in two takes, is another fast and snappy jam session blues, from the period just when swing was morphing into bop; Cole solos eloquently but shines even more brightly when he plays a back-and-forth call-and-response pattern with the three horns. On every track—even though he doesn't take a full-on solo on "Stormy Weather"—Cole sounds like he's delighted to be there. After the session was finished, Cole supposedly said to Dexter (again, this seems a tad premature for 1945), "Now I'm going back and be a singer again, but today was one I'll never forget." It's as if he knew then that this would be his only out-and-out, non-Trio jam session for Capitol, the rare occasion when he could be credited under himself, without the ruse of a phony name, and be recognized, fully out in the open, as the great jazz keyboardist that he was.

ON MAY 8, 1945, the Allies declared "Victory in Europe Day," abbreviated ever since as "VE Day"; this was actually a day before the final unconditional surrender of the German forces on May 9. There were celebrations and parades everywhere, but military leaders advised caution: there still was the matter of Japan to be dealt with. Shortly thereafter, Capitol Records, in their house organ, the Capitol News, took an informal poll of their recording artists, sort of the equivalent of an office pool, as to when they thought the war would actually be over. Nat King Cole was one of the more pessimistic: "Put me down for September 24, 1946, and let's pray it will come sooner." The most optimistic—and thankfully, the most accurate prediction—was that international jazzman Benny Carter, who picked August 8,1945 (which fell precisely in between the two atomic bombings of Japan, on August 6 and 9).

But in June and July, caution was still the watchword; on Sunday, June 9, in Los Angeles, two American commanders, General George S. Patton and Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle, were honored in a huge parade, leading to a celebration at City Hall. An ecstatic crowd (estimated at somewhere between 750,000 and a million) gathered to hear the two war heroes speak, but Patton, in particular, was in no mood for a party. "In the midst of all this joy, there is a very serious note. This war is only half over. It could damn well be lost." Yet it was in the midst of "all this joy," rather than the "serious note," on that very Sunday, that Nat King Cole and four colleagues created one of the most remarkable jam sessions in the history of jazz.

Dexter, then the editor of the Capitol News, later observed, "Jazz was selling briskly in the rnid-1940s, so much that more than a hundred labels specializing in that idiom sprang up. Few survived." Cole did some of his best pure-jazz work for two such labels that never made it beyond the immediate postwar era, Sunset Records and Keynote, both run by jazz-loving entrepreneurs. Sunset Records was owned by a gentleman with the improbable name of Eddie Laguna, a name surely more distinguished than "Sunset," especially since there already had been several other record labels so-titled.

The other focal point for the Sunset date was the talented tenor saxophonist, Herbie Haymer (1916-1949), who had already played with a half dozen major white bands. Haymer had first distinguished himself with Red Norvo’s remarkable group of the late 1930s, and he also had achieved the commendable task of helping to transform Kay Kyser's orchestra, at one point thought of as a novelty or Mickey Mouse band, into a full-blown swing outfit with his booting tenor solo on "Bell Bottom Trousers." Haymer would soon become a favorite player in Sinatra’s general circle, and obviously Cole admired him as well. In the opinion of the legendary drummer Buddy Rich, who played on the date, Haymer was a "great tenor saxophone player."  It's telling that Rich recorded alongside Cole with both Lester Young and Charlie Parker, but Haymer was the saxophonist he remembered.

For the second half of the frontline, Laguna's first choice was trumpeter Harry Edison, but Sweets was back on the East Coast with Basie. Fortunately, two other major bands were then in Los Angeles, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra and pianist Eddie Heywood's Sextet. From Heywood, Laguna got bassist John Simmons, born in Oklahoma but mostly based in New York. His second choice for a trumpeter paid off doubly: the remarkable Charlie Shavers, who brought along Rich, then Dorsey's drummer. We don't know how, in particular, Laguna was lucky enough to land Nat Cole, but the pianist, then still ensconced with the Trio at the Trocadero, was in a real playing mood. The only caveat was that Nat wanted the date to end in time to catch some of the big to-do at City Hall.

Like the International Jazzmen date, these four titles straddle the cutting edge between swing and bebop, but repertory-wise, the equation is reversed. Instead of three standards and a blues, we get mostly blues originals and one standard melody. Shavers is wonderful throughout; you can see why the trumpeter's reputation has grown steadily since his untimely death at the age of fifty in 1971 (not much older than Cole); Wynton Marsalis is one of many contemporary brassmen who sings Shavers' praises. Buddy Rich plays with taste and subtlety, and, as always, incredible power and technique. Last, the main man, Haymer, is a tenor player worthy of Cole's company — remember this is the pianist who in the last three years alone had made memorable music with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, and Dexter Gordon.

Catching the euphoric mood that came with the end of the war in sight, all five master musicians are absolutely exploding with excitement. The main order of business is four tunes, a pair of fast-as-a-bastard, boppish originals, "Laguna Leap" and "Swingin' on Central," alternating with the slightly slower "Black Market Stuff" and the 1931 ballad "I'll Never Be the Same." We are extremely fortunate with two by-products of the date: first, that virtually the whole recording session was preserved and later issued, a total of twelve takes, forty-one minutes of music and some studio chatter (making it perhaps the most thoroughly documented session of Cole's jazz career); and second, that there was time left over at the end for a "bonus track."

"Black Market Stuff" (the title refers to wartime rationing) is an elegantly loping medium-tempo dance number, with a memorable bridge, and overall mood reminiscent of an Ellington-Johnny Hodges small group; three takes survive, each with Cole playing a notably different piano solo. Shavers plays muted in the opening and closing head, but solos with an open bell. They charge into "Laguna Leap" (in E flat, a voice tells us, probably that of Laguna himself), at a horse race tempo, a blues so fast that all stumble in a false start. Cole plays a breathtakingly decorative run, all the more remarkable for its speed, with some Fats Waller-style embellishments—a thoroughly satisfying solo (with a brief allusion to Jesse Stone's "Iowa" in the first take).

Next up is the only standard, "I'll Never Be the Same" another tune in the King Cole repertoire composed by one of his piano predecessors, the jazz age keyboard master Frank Signorelli (he probably learned it from the classic 1937 recording by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young). Shavers plays the tune in his unsentimental ballad style, then Haymer also gets mellow for 16 bars, lagging behind the beat in a Lestorian mode. Cole takes the bridge and says all that needs to be said in eight glorious bars, before Shavers and the ensemble return for the final eight. "Swingin' on Central" is another fast, basic 12-bar blues that borrows Count Basie's opening "head" from "Swingin’ the Blues" (earlier heard as Don Redman's "Hot and Anxious"). Here, Simmons finally gets a 12-bar chorus that he can call his own. Cole's piano literally sparkles on both takes; once again, the variations that he spins on the basic blues are apparently endless—ending in a few brief notes that sound like he's heard Dizzy Gillespie s "Salt Peanuts."

The main work is now finished, there are excellent, highly issuable takes on all four tunes. Some time is still left on the clock. What to do next ? Shavers makes a suggestion by playing the opening lines of "All the Things You Are." We also hear the familiar voice of Nat declaring, more than once, "I want to see the parade." He underscores his point with a few bars of a jaunty parade march, a lick most of us know as "The Campbells Are Coming." But then, quite spontaneously, they start into a very loose but amazing jam on "Honeysuckle Rose," still another familiar tune by a great jazz pianist, with Waller's melody undisguised. The quintet leaves us with but one six-minute take, and, as they used to say, it is ragged but right. The pianist, as the kids say today, is all over this thing: he starts with the "Honeysuckle" melody, leading into a vigorous jam with Shavers taking the tune and Haymer playing sustained notes behind him. Then Haymer takes the first improvised solo, an exceptional chorus that shows why Laguna, Sinatra, and Cole, all held him in such high regard.

Nat solos next, and his playing is absolutely quintessential King Cole: he detours through Dvorak's "Humoresque" (which he had already recorded as "Mabel, Mabel" with lyrics by Ervin Drake), that brings him to the very top of the keyboard approaching high A; he then dances back down to earth with one of his signature cascading runs. Near the end, Shavers engages Cole in what Les Paul would call "cat-and-mousing": the trumpeter plays one figure then another, and Cole responds to them all. Cole sets up a solo by Simmons, but he can't hold back, and he starts playing all around the bass, with Basie-esque economy. By the end of the chorus, he's dancing all around the bass, and Shavers, also unable to resist joining back in, starts challenging him with another back-and-forth exchange; they both quote Tony Jackson s "Pretty Baby" and reference "The Campbells."

Haymer then introduces Buddy Rich's most glorious moment of the whole date. Best remembered for his bombastic playing and strident personality, Rich was also a remarkably subtle player when the occasion demanded. Haymer takes the last chorus, with even more energy and enthusiasm. They could have possibly done even better with a second take, as the playing is comparatively unfocused in the first minute or so, but they could have never topped this one as a glorious example of spontaneous, intimate creation. It's one of the great moments of Cole's jazz career.

Within a few moments, he was off to see the parade.

This was the infamous date in which the pianist was credited by the most undignified pseudonym of them all—"Sam Schmaltz." The four main titles were only briefly available on Sunset Records, but they had a remarkable afterlife in Europe. In England, the tracks were issued on Parlophone, where everyone was aware of the real identity of the pianist (credited as "E. Laguna") and "Honeysuckle Rose" was even issued on the Swing label in France, as a two-sided 78, as "Nat's Kicks, parts one & two," with the band credited as "King Cole Quintet."

Reviewing the records in 1948, the British critic Denis Preston was full of backhanded compliments: he describes Shavers’ trumpeting as "tasteless as ever, but such is his technical accomplishment that at the hectic tempo of 'Laguna Leap,' he carries all before him" and Cole as "scatting to right and left the inhibitions of ten years' work with a slick novelty trio" (ouch!)—yet he loved the records: "Uninhibited, exciting," he called them. Alun Morgan, writing roughly twenty years later, had fewer reservations, "I have, over the years, literally worn the surface away from a Parlophone 78 coupling of 'Laguna Leap and 'Black Market Stuff.' "

Cole, Shavers, and Haymer all died tragically young—the saxophonist was killed in an auto accident following a Sinatra session at Columbia's Hollywood studios, on April 11, 1949. Simmons was hit by a different kind of disaster: roughly a month after the Sunset date, he was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for possession of marijuana. But the Herbie Haymer Quintet session would become perhaps the most celebrated of all of Cole's pure jazz recordings, especially in the United Kingdom, where the entire forty-one-minute date was issued on LP (and later, CD) on multiple occasions.

Nearly a lifetime later, Buddy Rich himself recalled the date in an interview: "Nat Cole—nobody remembers that I recorded with Nat Cole, when he was one of the best jazz piano players. And hardly anybody ever realised how great a piano player he was. Not only his technique - also his time thing; he was a real percussive player. I loved him."”

To be continued.

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