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Nat King Cole Was an Unforgettable Pianist Too

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Nat King Cole’s music is back on top of the nation’s record charts, thanks to daughter Natalie’s interpretations of many of her father’s hits from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

But only one side of her father’s music is saluted on “Unforgettable,” her current album: the singer of such smooth, mostly pop-flavored ballads, including “Mona Lisa,” “Smile,” “Nature Boy,” “Lush Life” and “Too Young.”

There is another, equally significant side to Nat King Cole. Decades ago, he was one of the seminal jazz pianists of his day.

Far from subsiding, the debate over the heart of Cole’s talent and appeal has resurfaced--not only on the strength of his daughter’s album but also in the pages of Leslie Gourse’s book “Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole.” The book, just published by St. Martin’s Press, sets the pianist-singer’s career in a much-needed perspective.

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It’s not unusual for great instrumentalists to be overshadowed by their later vocal success. Jazz artists from Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Cole in the ‘40s and George Benson in the ‘70s achieved vast followings by playing down their original roles as instrumentalists.

Born Nathaniel Adams Coles on St. Patrick’s Day, 1917, in Montgomery, Ala., Cole (he dropped the s from his name when he was 19) was the son of the Rev. Edward James Coles Sr., deacon of the Beulah Baptist Church. His three brothers were all musical. One, Ike, plays piano briefly on Natalie’s current album. Another, Eddie, was the bassist and leader of a band in which Nat made his recording debut, playing piano, in 1936. Freddie is also a pianist and singer and has appeared in the Los Angeles area.

The family moved to Chicago when Nat was 4. By age 12, he was playing organ and singing in a church where his father was the pastor. After studying music in high school, he played with local groups before leaving on tour at 19 to lead the band in a revived version of Eubie Blake’s musical show “Shuffle Along.”

Whereas he studied the piano zealously, his singing was almost incidental. The very first trio records for a small label in 1938 (reissued on Savoy) reveal a casual, jazz-inflected voice that improved over the years in relaxation and phrasing. He could swing through a few choruses of “Route 66,” then bring a gentle beauty to “For Sentimental Reasons.”

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As a pianist, Cole displayed a rhythmic buoyancy recalling the incisive Earl (Fatha) Hines, whom he had idolized during his teen years. Cole won the coveted Gold Award in the Esquire magazine 1946 jazz poll and the Silver Award in 1947. His piano-guitar-bass trio also claimed Down Beat magazine’s award for best small combo from 1944 to 1947.

Both of Cole’s talents are featured in a recently released five-CD set, “The Jazz Collectors’ Edition: Nat King Cole--the Trio Recordings,” on LaserLight Records. Of the 78 cuts--most recorded in the early to mid-'40s--27 are instrumental, while the 51 vocal numbers all include piano solos. On “After You’ve Gone,” “Swinging the Blues” and even a non-vocal version of “Sweet Lorraine,” Cole is revealed as a soloist of indomitable vitality.

The oft-repeated story that Cole began singing when a drunk in a bar requested “Sweet Lorraine” is probably apocryphal. True, after he was stranded in Los Angeles when a show with which he had been touring folded, Cole worked mainly as a pianist in clubs in Southern California. “I played every beer joint from San Diego to Bakersfield,” he once said.

But he eventually discovered that his vocal talent was the fastest and easiest route to success. Cole’s tender, soothing vocal quality transcended all racial considerations. He helped prove, along with Billy Eckstine, that a black could sing love songs that had mass appeal.

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After the popularity of such tunes as “Nature Boy” (1948) and “Mona Lisa” (1950), Cole began to be featured in orchestral settings, and the trio slowly faded into the background. Still, he continued to play piano. As late as 1956 he recorded--with his trio, a drummer, and four jazz soloists--an album reissued by Capitol on CD as “The Complete After Midnight Sessions.”

As a singer, Cole had a magical power, but as a pianist, he was near genius. It’s important that we don’t forget this less-heralded aspect of his artistry.


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