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.

 

 

Lush Life… The Genius of Billy Strayhorn

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I wish I’d met Billy Strayhorn. I wish I’d been able to tell him what a profound effect he, his life, and more importantly his music has had on me. I was 16 or 17 when I first heard Nat King Cole perform Billy’s song Lush Life. It knocked the stuffing out of me then, and knocks it out of me still. Its a hymn to broken hearts, broken lives and the truth of the human condition. I’ve never met a singer who wasn’t simultaneously won over by it and terrified by it.

I’ve performed it occasionally over the years and at the age of 43 I’m only beginning to do it justice, because now I’ve lived at least some of what he wrote about. I only really started to “get” Lush Life when I was in my late 30’s. When my younger vocal students express an interest in performing it I put them off. Yet Billy Strayhorn wrote it when he was only 17 years old.

The wonderful Scottish jazz vocalist Annie Ross knew and liked Billy. Now in her 80’s, and having lived the words of this song, her time-served performance of it filmed in Glasgow captures its very essence.

Billy Strayhorn’s body of work is huge, and he shares the credit on hundreds of works with his mentor, boss, collaborator and friend Duke Ellington. Here was a young, shy, urbane, highly intelegent African American man working in one of the highest profile entertainment organisations in the United States, but who was also unashamedly and openly gay in a very intolerant age. He was everything that America told him he was not allowed to be.

Though the Duke Ellington band was always chock full of creative talent, Billy is arguably its most important alumus. He was employed initially to be Ellington’s staff arranger, orchestrating Ellington’s compositions and those of his own that Ellington requried. But he ultimately became Ellington’s collaborator, each of them working together on the same work. They were so in sync musically, that its sometimes hard to know where Ellington stopped, and where Strayhorn began.

In 1940, the American Society of Composers and Publishers went on strike, and society members, including Ellington, were banned from recording their work for broadcast. However Billy wasn’t a member and came up with a huge pile of new tunes for broadcast. Within this pile was a score that he’d written as his audition piece for the Ellington band, its title the simple direction Ellington had given him to get to there: Take the A Train.

Though he lived his professional life in Ellington’s shadow, Billy could and did exercise his right to compose music of incredible sophistication for himself. Lush Life, Chelsea Bridge, Upper Manhattan Medical Group, Blood Count, Isfahan, Johnny Come Lately and Satin Doll – a song often incorrectly credited to Ellington. I don’t think there was any malice in Ellington blagging the credit for one of Billy’s tunes, but Ellington had a colossal ego and for all that Billy was his closest friend, never shied away from exerting his own artistic influence: Ellington knew a hit when he heard it and Ellington was the boss. Always.

Ellington and Strayhorn had been a team for 28 years until Billy died from cancer in 1967. Ellington’s wry response to those who called Billy his alter ego was  “Billy is only my right arm, left foot, eyes, stomach, ears and soul – not my ego”. Ellington had ego enough for both of them. Billy Strayhorn’s legacy doesn’t need an ego to back to it up.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra present the music of Billy Strayhorn  in venues across Scotland in February.