Music Thursdays: Happy Birthday, Nat King Cole

March 15, 2012

Listen to Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele talk Nat King Cole on Eight Forty-Eight

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Nat King Cole would have been 93 this Saturday, and to what better way is there to celebrate his life than through the work he left behind? The Chicago-raised jazz pianist, who managed to rise to immense popularity despite the racial prejudice of his time, had a profound effect on both Eight Forty-Eight host Tony Sarabia and contributor Richard Steele. Here, they share their favorite Cole picks.

Tony Sarabia:

Happy Birthday Nat! How can anyone deny the beauty of Nat King Cole’s voice? Or his prowess on the piano? That smooth and smoky sound was what initially brought me to the music of one of Bronzeville’s most famous residents.

I remember as a kid hearing Nat sing "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer" and even then being drawn to that voice, despite the goofy pop melody carrying the lyrics.

It wasn’t until some years later going through my dad’s record collection that I discovered the other side of Nat King Cole; his piano playing. So the majority of my picks focus on that part of Nat’s genius. Before we all knew Nat King Cole as a singer, he was cutting his teeth in the jazz arena playing a mix of jazz, jump and blues with his Nat King Cole Trio. 

Those late 1930’s and early '40s sides come mostly from the Decca label. Take a listen to the trio on "Scotchin’ with the Soda"; the piano playing jumps into the action after guitarist Oscar Moore has his fun. Nat’s playing style is more Teddy Wilson with its subtle swing than the hard boogie of another Chicagoan; pianist Albert Ammons. His singing is a relaxed swing much like the Mills Bothers

Cole would sign on to Capitol records in 1943 and his singing was taking a front seat to his piano playing; much to the dismay of the jazz community. In 1957 Nat King Cole would release his last all jazz album; and what an outing it is. On the album After Midnight, the trio is joined by guests that include trumpeter Harry Sweets Edison, jazz violin player Stuff Smith and Duke Ellington trombonist and composer Juan Tizol.

Juan and Nat team up for Juan’s most famous composition: "Caravan." The walking bass and the bongo playing set the mood before Nat enters with the vocal as Juan’s trombone glides under him. It’s a fast but not rushed tempo. Nat’s piano playing is a reminder to folks  that in 1957 as he was becoming more of a pop singer, that he could still navigate a keyboard with the best jazz players.

My final pick is a mix of jazz and pop. This is a big band outing for Nat with his version of "Just One of Those Things". Nat’s singing style on this song is a long way from his early days when his delivery was even more relaxed and with less articulation, but no less exciting.  Whether Nat King Cole was singing in German, Spanish, Portuguese or in his native tongue he dripped cool.

Richard Steele:

The best way to celebrate Nat King Cole’s birthday Saturday is to explore the depth and breadth of his music. His musical journey began in church, ,where his dad was a Baptist minister, and his mother was the choir director. She recognized his gift early on when she helped him start learning how to play the piano at age 4. 

Cole attended DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side but dropped out to become a professional jazz piano player, becoming one of the most respected jazz pianists in the business. The singing came later. For 13 months in 1956 and 57, he had the first network TV show hosted by an African-American. It didn’t last because it was so difficult to get sponsors, who were afraid that white Southerners would boycott any product that supported a TV show hosted by a black man.     

The year was 1947. Nat Cole was playing some of his best jazz piano, but he also was doing more and more vocal work. On this recording, he not only does some fine piano work-- in conjunction with his guitar player, Johnny Moore-- but he’s also doing a “fun” duet with that great lyricist and songwriter, Johnny Mercer, who co-founded Capitol Records. The song is called “My Baby Loves to Be-Bop,” which caught my attention because the newest style of jazz called be-bop was not something Cole was known for. He was more attached to the Swing Era of his musical hero, Earl “Fatha” Hines. The combined vocals of Nat Cole and Johnny Mercer sound like they’re having quite a party.    

Nat onlyappeared in a handful of feature films where he wasn’t playing himself. One was the title track of this recording. China Gate was the 1957 film where Cole played a French Foreign Legion soldier and carried a submachine gun; Cole sang the song in the last scene of the movie. That same year, Nat was performing at the Chez Paree here in Chicago and did his TV show from the Windy City during that performance. That’s when he showed his TV audience the June 1957 copy of Ebony magazine, which featured a story about Nat Cole appearing in the movie China Gate.       

This track is from the album of the same name. This was an unusual project because it was the only time that Nat Cole ever recorded with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, which meant that it was heavy on jazz arrangements instead of the pop styling’s of Cole’s work during this period. The other unusual thing about this album is that the Count was not on it. There were some contractual complications with his record company, so a pianist named Gerald Wiggins filled in for Basie. Imagine the anxiety he must have felt…sitting in Basie’s chair and then also playing piano for one of the best jazz piano players on the planet. But Nat still sings…and the band still swings!   

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