The Unforgettable Mr Cole

I’m presenting the music of Nat King Cole at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, from the 9-13 and the 18th August 2016. 

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I must have been 4 or 5 years old when I first became aware of Nat King Cole. My dad, who had a smashing voice, would sing along with his records, which never seemed to be off the radio. I liked his name, I knew that I loved the voice; I loved the sounds of the orchestras and the big bands that accompanied him. But I remember the day when I first saw him on TV, and I discovered that he played the piano. I had seen entertainers sing and play piano on TV a lot – Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Neil Sedaca… but I had never heard ANYONE play like Nat. He was a revelation. I knew it was jazz, I knew liked it, and I liked him. I was instantly won over by him as a person; his handsome, deep-hued face and a smile that light up the screen was one that I became familiar with very quickly. In retrospect it was the best introduction to Jazz anyone could have asked for, because everything he did was accessible and appealing.

 

The Nat King Cole Show, 1956, with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra

The story of his life is a lesson in triumph in the face of adversity and success of talent over prejudice. Nathanial Coles, started playing piano at the age of four – by age of fifteen, he was a jazz professional and after playing in touring shows he took the unusual step of forming a trio, with no drums; just piano, guitar and double bass.

Nat essentially invented the piano trio, and his playing demonstrated a harmonic and rhythmic style that set him above almost all the other pianists of the day, with a direct lineage to another great pianist (and singer), Oscar Peterson.

Nat’s command of the piano soon began to be overshadowed by his warm, smooth singing voice, capturing the public’s imagination. In 1942, Nat became one of the first artists to join a new record company; Capitol. In the 23 years that he recorded with Capitol Records, he turned out hit after hit – nearly 700 songs.

Now Nat wasn’t an improvising singer in the same way that Ella or Mel Torme were, and was more often than not featured on syrupy middle of the road ballads, but when the opportunity arose – Nat Cole could, and did, swing a band into bad health.

Nat King Cole at the BBC in 1963, with his quartet and the Ted Heath Orchestra

By 1956, he had his own network television show, and his records sold so well that journalists remarked that Nat’s recordings were “practically legal tender.” But a year into his show, the network could not find him a national advertising sponsor. Bitterly disappointed, he said “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

When Nat King Cole died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965, he was only 45. The same age I am right now. He was a brave figure in a period when racial prejudice was at its most demeaning. Above all else Nat was a superb vocalist and pianist whose singing and playing helped jazz gain wider popularity, without sacrificing its integrity. And that’s the word that sums him up. A man of integrity. An Unforgettable man who played good music the way that everyone liked it.

I’m presenting the music of Nat King Cole at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, from the 9-13 and the 18th August 2016, at the A Club at Merchant Hall in Hanover Street.

 

 

Carmen McRae: Whisky Sour

Taste in Jazz Singers is often, I think, like taste in fine Scottish Single Malt. Some people love it, others hate it. Some understand that it’s a fine product and understand its appeal, but yet care not to indulge. Some want to enjoy it and gradually get around to appreciating it in later life. Some love it, but show preference for a lighter, sweeter malt, over a darkier, peatier dram.

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Carmen McRae is very like a fine single malt, in as much as she is either a taste you thrill to from the very first drop, or find yourself gradually appreciating over the years. Let’s just say I’ve always loved fine malts, and I took to drinking them a LONG time ago.

I first heard her on Humphrey Littleton’s radio programme when I was aged around 17, and I stood and stared at the radio as this voice that seemed to be the very definition of swing oozed out of it. I was beginning to really understand what “swing” as a feeling is, and here was a living, singing definition of it.

Here was a singer who was simultaneously cool and cutting-edge, relaxed and swinging. Unlike Sarah and Ella, who could often loose sense of a lyric, Carmen immersed herself in a song so much, that her improvisations made the lyrics all the more poignant, especially in her singing of ballads. And no singer has ever used sarcasm and cynicism the way that Carmen did.

Born in Harlem in 1920, jazz called to Carmen from the off, and as a teenager she came to the attention of a giant of jazz piano, Teddy Wilson. He was so impressed with her ability as a pianist and as a songwriter, that he made sure one of her early songs, “Dream of Life“, was recorded by her idol, Billie Holiday.

By the late Forties Carmen was house singer and pianist at one of New York’s most famous jazz clubs, Minton’s Playhouse, and her fans included Charlie Parker, and her first husband, drummer Kenny Clarke. After a brief stint with Count Basie, she came to the attention of Decca records, who set out to make her a singing star and in doing so would create one of the greatest series of vocal jazz recordings of all time.

But advancing years and illness were unkind to Carmen’s voice and her looks and her health, and I detect a world-weariness in her later work where there was previously a sharp tang and a biting wit.

Since her death in 1994, Carmen is revered amongst jazz instrumentalists and singers. Her approach to words, melody, harmony and scat singing made her one of the most complete artists jazz has ever known. If Ella was the First lady of Song, then Carmen is the Secretary of State. It’s not the glamour job, but you sure need a sharp tongue in your head. So pour a Scotch and let Carmen help you put the world to rights. It’ll do you the power of good. You might just find you enjoyed it.

Suggested listening:
Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics
Carmen McRae live in Sugar Hill, 1962
Carmen sings Monk
Dream of Life – Carmen McRae and the WDR Big Band