Cole Mine

Baltimoire biographer Daniel Mark Epstein captures the essence of Nat King Cole, one soothing note at a time

November 04, 1999|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

Everybody knows Nat King Cole.

He sang "Sweet Lorraine" to the generation that fought World War II and gave the 1950s "Unforgettable" and "Mona Lisa." Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without his rich, smooth voice singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire."

Everybody knows the artist whose trio skipped across the color line with its irresistible combination of jazz, jive and class. Aficionados know the piano man who found his voice.

"He's the link between Earl Hines and the be-bop generation, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, the way he trimmed down the notes," says Daniel Mark Epstein of Baltimore, author of a new biography of Cole. "Nat was a minimalist. He gave you just what you needed."

In "Nat King Cole" (Farrar Straus & Giroux), Epstein uncovers the man behind the elegant facade. Like a million others of his generation, Epstein grew up with Cole's music playing in the background. It was his parents' music. They knew it and played it, the records spinning away on the stereo. "But I'd never listened to it closely enough to understand why it was so great," he says.

Listening to Cole became an indispensable part of the research. Cole didn't leave letters or diaries. He left music. His solo piano recordings were a revelation.

"That's just sublime music. You listen to that, and it just transports you. The music is so beautiful and so articulate in stating the themes," says Epstein. "You can't believe how many musical ideas, how many, what's the word, shades of feeling." There's excitement in his voice when he talks about the musical soul that spoke to him, its power and sophistication undiminished by time. It is the same with any great artist, Mozart or Bach, Joplin or Gershwin.

"It's a kind of musical intelligence that understands what part of a chord is really important to convey a musical idea or feeling. That's the poetry of Nat's art," he says. "I don't know what more to say about it than that."

After three years of writing and research, interviewing family and friends, fellow musicians, acquaintances and peripheral figures such as Vic Damone, Epstein believes he has a grasp on what drove Cole.

"This man's outward demeanor actually hid some real demons -- maybe demons is too strong a word, but he was tormented, I think, by his need to succeed, his desire to please his father," he says.

Nathaniel Alan Coles was born March 17, 1919, in Birmingham, Ala. His father, Edward Coles, was a preacher. In the early 1920s, the family joined the Great Migration to Chicago. For a precocious child with prodigious musical talent, there was probably no better place to grow up than Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. All the early jazz giants were there, playing, jamming, filling the night with their virtuosic joy.

By the time he was 16, Cole and his Rogues of Rhythm could hold their own in a battle of the bands against the Earl Hines Orchestra. This would be like high school football champs taking on last year's Denver Broncos and losing by a fourth-quarter field goal.

Epstein opens the book with this exhilarating scene. He goes into the ballroom, sits through each set. Cole is seemingly unconcerned. Hines is increasingly frustrated. Epstein gives us the block chords, the tender evocations of melody, the thunder of Hines beating the keyboard and the partisan crowd into submission.

As good as he was, Cole spent years playing small clubs for small pay. His groundbreaking guitar-bass-piano trio barely made a living. In 1940, Hines passed the hat around to raise money for Cole. A year later, Cole's trio was happy to make $165 a week.

In the fall of 1943 he wrote and recorded "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Six months later, the trio could command $2,000 a week, easy. He would never be broke again. His songs turned street talk into a hipster's happy-footed jazz: "Hit that jive jack, put it in your pocket till I get back."

Biddy Woods, a Baltimore music promoter, remembers Cole from those days. They met at the old York Hotel on Madison Avenue and Dolphin Street. Woods remembers Cole as one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet, a perfect gentleman, and smooth.

"He was silk," says Woods.

He brought a new style of singing. He was a black man singing love songs, some were silly, some were as seductive as cocktails and dim lights, but he was singing about love, and even the white girls could punch them up on the jukebox. Lovers cuddled up while he sang, "Gee, baby, ain't I good to you."

"Nat gave you a sampling of blues with the velvet style," says Woods. "I guess you describe it like seeing a sunrise. It kind of takes your breath away."

Yet, in the segregated America of the 1940s, Cole's fame could mean nothing. He endured innumerable slights, large and small, frightening and frustrating. In an instant he could go from being Nat King Cole, songster heard on radios from coast to coast, to being just another black man in America.

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