802 Bookshelf: Nat King Cole

by Daniel Mark Epstein, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, 438 pages, $27 hardcover

Volume C, No. 6June, 2000

Bill Crow

Mr. Epstein gives us a well researched and insightful biography of Nat Cole, whose successful career as a popular singer somewhat overshadowed his contribution to the jazz world. During his early years as an entertainer, Cole’s piano playing became a great influence with jazz musicians. His lyrical solo style and his balanced, lilting way of feeding accompaniment to other soloists became a benchmark for other jazz pianists. Fortunately, his early trio recordings and the lovely things he did with Lester Young are now available in reissue on compact discs.

Epstein details Cole’s musical career, which began a few years after his father moved the family from Montgomery, Alabama, to Chicago. He was attracted to the piano as a child and, with his mother’s help, quickly learned to play, going on to study with bassist Milt Hinton’s mother. Tall for his age and musically precocious, Cole was able at the age of nine to insinuate himself as a clarinetist into the newsboy band led by Major N. Clark Smith, who was also bandmaster at Wendell Phillips High School. By the time Cole entered that school in 1933 he was already playing the piano in South Side nightclubs and, as his professional life became predominant, he dropped out of high school before graduating.

Chicago was alive with first-rate jazz during Cole’s developing years, and he was influenced in particular by the brilliant playing of Earl Hines. It only took him a short while to move from imitations of his idol to a style of his own, which borrowed from Hines but had its own elegant voice. By the 1940s that voice had become one of the connecting links from the piano styles of the swing era to what came to be known as modern jazz.

After working a while in Chicago with his own band, and with his brother Eddie in a road company of Shuffle Along, Cole settled in California, where he scuffled for a couple of years. Unable to find bookings for a full band, he worked more often as a soloist. Eventually he was able to find work for a trio, and engaged bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. It was a winning combination and the King Cole Trio soon had steady bookings and began recording. Cole’s singing added to the group’s appeal, but the main feature was the quality of the instrumental interplay between Cole and Moore. The trio moved on to dates in New York, Chicago and Washington, recorded for Decca Records, and returned to the West coast in triumph.

Cole’s trio, with Johnny Miller replacing Wesley Prince, became even more popular during the war years, with a hit record of “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” In 1943 he signed with the new record company, Capitol. The King Cole Trio recordings for that label were paramount in making the company a success.

Cole gradually moved away from the piano keyboard and into the role of solo singer. Oscar Moore left the trio in 1947, and soon the billing was changed to Nat King Cole and the Trio. A number of hit vocal records soon established him as a major star. Epstein describes the ins and outs of Cole’s career and personal life in interesting detail. The book ends with Cole’s tragic death from lung cancer, brought on by a many years as a heavy smoker.

The book contains a lengthy section of notes on source information, a bibliography, and an interesting collection of photographs from Cole’s life. It is now available in the Local 802 library.