Reaching back into dim childhood memories, I realize I was programmed to believe in Nat King Cole – the lanky black man who looked so suave, cigarette in hand, hosting his weekly TV show; the pop crooner who hit AM radio with commercial numbers like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Hazy Crazy Lazy Days of Summer.” My parents were fervently devoted to Cole, no doubt a facet of their rabid anti-Sinatraism. I was a kid; I accepted Cole’s genius at face value.
But what baffled me – since I never dared question the Sinatra hatred – was that they considered Cole a jazz artist. The guy who recorded “The Christmas Song”? No way.
Things finally make sense to me now, thanks to Collector’s Choice’s reissue of Cole’s entire Capitol Records output. Going deep into his 30-year catalog – even releasing some albums that have never been available on CD before – they’re filling out the story of an artist whose greatest-hits compilations have never done him justice.
Sure, we’ve all heard his iconic tracks like “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy” and “Unforgettable,” on film soundtracks if nothing else. But this is such a tiny part of who Nat King Cole was. Listening to these albums, I’m finally realizing that Nat King Cole was in fact a jazz artist, and a great one.
Cole was a hugely successful entertainer, but in retrospect he swam against the tide all the way. His sobriquet “King” Cole, though originally lifted from the old nursery rhyme, more or less anointed Nat Cole as the heir to the Duke Ellington-Count Basie legacy, that swinging big-band sound that defined mainstream jazz in the 20s and 30s. But by the time Cole came along (as the 24-year-old leader of the King Cole Trio, he signed to Columbia in 1943), other forces were rumbling in the jazz world. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were raising the cool quotient exponentially. In the late 40s and early 50s, their bebop edginess became more in vogue than the relaxed elegance that came so naturally to Cole.
So he pulled another ace out of his sleeve. Even in his early trio days, Cole was also a singer, with a distinctively plush, supple voice of uncommon warmth and immediacy. As the big-band sound drifted into pop, Cole was positioned perfectly as a singles artist.
Only one hitch: a slew of Italian-American crooners were intent on cornering that same market. So what if Cole’s natural dignity and reserve made Sinatra and Dean Martin and Al Martino look positively sleazy? As the 50s slid into the 60s, sleaziness ruled. The cocktail-lounge sophistication of Cole seemed less and less relevant in an age of tiki bars and cheap motels.
And having long ago crossed-over from being defined as a black artist, in the late 50s the compromises Cole had to make began to cast him as an Uncle Tom. Ray Charles was nipping at his heels with an aggressively sexy R&B sound that the gentlemanly Cole could never match, and Sam Cooke was taking his gospel-tinged sound to soul-music success. How could a “safe” Negro in a tuxedo at a grand piano compete with that? Can anyone blame him for jumping on a catchy novelty hit like “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer”? Really, it's a wonder Cole succeeded at all.
Half a century later, the Collectors’ Choice discs (nine of them have been released so far, with more promised next spring) give us a chance to appreciate Cole’s artistry anew. It’s like a breath of fresh air. His well-known hit albums like For Two in Love and Let’s Face the Music are here in their entirety—even better, packaged in two-for-one formats (an incredible deal). But nagging curiosity drove me straight toward two discs that reveal Cole hanging onto his jazz roots.
Penthouse Serenade/The Piano Style of Nat King Cole pairs on one CD two instrumental albums, released in 1955 and 1956. By then, Cole had had so many hits as a vocalist, he never needed to tickle the ivories again. And yet he felt compelled to do so, not once but twice.
With no vocals at all, we get a rare chance to focus completely on Coles’ fluid, graceful piano style. His debt to his mentor Earl Hines shows clearly, the stride-like right hand pronouncing the through-line of melody, the left hand decorating with flourishes and surging glissandos. The same intelligence that made Cole a superb vocal interpreter translates to these instrumental tracks, ranging from emotive ballads like “Laura” or “If I Should Lose You” to witty up-tempo songs like “Little Girl” or “Down By The Old Mill Stream.” The dramatic pauses, the throwaway grace notes – each song has a scrupulously crafted arc that seems inevitable and perfect.
Spare and tasteful as the Penthouse Serenade songs are, it takes a minute to adjust to the big-band treatments on the Piano Style of Nat King Cole half of the disc. Personally I prefer the stripped-down earlier album. Still, the strings-heavy Nelson Riddle arrangements add a dash of cocktail classiness to standards like “Takin’ A Chance On Love,” “April in Paris,” and a particularly sprightly “I Get A Kick Out Of You.”
It’s astonishing that, as late as 1959 and 1960—on the brink of the Motown and Beatles era—Cole was drawn back to a traditional big-band sound for Welcome To the Club and Tell Me All About Yourself. These are basically a walk through the back catalog of American standards, staying deliberately away from the done-to-death songs, which gives it a welcome freshness.
And what a showcase for Cole’s trademark vocal style—the way he lags just behind the rhythm, caresses phrase endings with a trill, rounds his vowels emphatically (his polished diction always read as pure class). Tracks like “The Blues Don’t Care,” “Mood Indigo,” and the rueful “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” and “My Life” are just plain revelations. Surprisingly, the sound is anything but dated — though no one today could release a song titled (honest) “You’ve Got The Indian Sign On Me.” And yet it too is such a delicious track, it’s my new guilty pleasure.
The first of these LPs, Welcome to the Club, was recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, though for obscure contractual reasons neither Basie nor Cole is on the piano. Tell Me All About Yourself was done with studio musicians, but it’s virtually the same sound. What’s important is the swinging tempos, the tight percussion, the joyful horns—no lush string sections, no Latin or country accents, nothing but traditional jazz behind one of the century’s great vocalists.
Diving into these four albums – these two CDs – makes it possible for me to hear Nat King Cole as if I had never heard him before. I’m falling in love with Cole on my own terms this time, and loving it.
And yes, all right, as Christmas draws nearer I’ll haul out The Christmas Album again. Traditions are traditions, after all. But now I've got some Nat King Cole champagne for New Year's Eve too.