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.