Nat Cole, prison, a space invader

Books Of The Region

February 06, 2000|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Popular music was a cultural mountain peak in the American century, particularly in its dixieland-jazz-swing-bebop years, and Nat King Cole was a prime exemplar. Two of his performance crossovers --piano to voice, black audience to general -- still dazzle the critics (who timed him: "40 or more distinct notes in less than four seconds").

Cole and his world are a natural for the biographer; a two-way happy circumstance, that Daniel Mark Epstein should take on the project, because "Nat King Cole" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pages, $27) is Epstein's best book yet, and also the best of the books about Cole.

How, you may say, can anyone translate music (or art, or dance, or lust) into words on pages? Better to play any of the dozens of Nat King Cole Trio (piano, guitar, bass) recordings, with or without the velvet voice; except that discography is never the whole man. Cole's career was more than a bit scattered, what with the romances and the business ups and downs, the composing and the endless concertizing (occasionally in Baltimore), the first of all network TV shows starring an African-American, the 1956 interlude as target for White Citizens' Council goons, and finally the heavy-smoker's lung cancer (in 1965, at age 45).

For his book, Epstein interviewed and archive-searched nationwide. Writing, he stresses the music, the piano technicalities, and puts Cole in the company of Earl Hines and Art Tatum. This on-key life of Nathaniel Adams Coles (he dropped the s while a youth in Chicago) straightens up the contradictions and it flies right, beautifully right.

A strange pairing, the 13 Maryland Penitentiary convicts and the philosophy professor. For an hour or so every week, Drew Leder from Loyola College has gotten them to think and talk about the universe and themselves. No academic credits, no lectures or required reading -- it's more like a lab course.

He sets the topic, cites relevant authorities, tapes the speakers; edited, with his interpolations, these class discussions now form "The Soul Knows No Bars" (Rowman and Littlefield, 212 pages, $23.95), a book that will be read and responded to across the country, this increasingly penalogical country.

Leder recounts the reasons for his interest in the Pen; he reminds himself of the crimes leading to these criminals' confinement. But his book has little to do with laws, police, judges, victims even. Its theme, rather, is individuality and, in men who don't always like one another, humanity.

One day the inquiry is into power; another day, sex and race, or the nature of time, or guns and violence, or space. Leder (a Jewish Quaker, himself) sparks the group with quotations from Plato, Job, Jesus, Martin Buber, Malcolm X. Bright people, these 13 inmates, one of whom was H. B. Johnson Jr., famous for winning outside-world playwriting contests and for having AIDS (he has since died).

The operative word in the previous sentence is, of course, people.

The makers of picture books were slow getting around to this city's residential majority, and then it took a national project. "Baltimore," by Philip J. Merrill and Uluaipou-O-Malo Aiono, is in Arcadia Press's soft-cover Black America Series (128 pages, $18.99) -- the first of the 20 cities to be published so far. For everyone interested in historical progress, it's a vital book.

Merrill and his Nanny Jack & Co. have been collecting black memorabilia for years -- expensive stuff by now, the authors note ruefully. Often, nothing on the backs of old photos tells who the subjects were. And little turns up from East Baltimore.

But the reproductions in "Baltimore" make old times real again: Inez Murphy's 1925 Douglass High report card; newly inducted World War I draftees; Lt. Leon Paris, of 1610 Druid Hill Ave., aviator, with his single-engine plane; Bertha Sewell's deed to a half-lot in Mount Auburn Cemetery; the assembled Frontiers Club, with the York Hotel on Madison Avenue as backdrop; the poet Countee Cullen, "on one of his rare visits to Baltimore"; Felix Blair's membership card in the Prince Hall Masons; Black Sox and Elite Giants baseball; Alpha Phi Alpha's local chapter; a class-reunion program for the Cortez W. Peters Business School; the steamer Starlight, en route to Brown's Grove on the Chesapeake.

The final image in "Baltimore" is of two bus tickets for the March on Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963.

Arcadia Press also publishes a uniform, national old-picture series: 920 titles so far, including Annapolis, Towson, Baltimore (postcards), Baltimore (old objects), Easton, Ocean City (two vols.), Along the Potomac, Prince George's County, Salisbury, Wicomico County.

Some reproduce old picture postcards; others present images of old objects. Some are 96 pages, $16.99; others, 128 pages, $18.99.

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