Next year we celebrate the centennial of one of the most important artists in all of jazz, Nat “King” Cole. Although loved and respected today as one of the finest balladeers in American popular music, far too few realize that he was also one of the most important pianist in Swing and early modern jazz.
Working alongside his brother Eddie in a small jazz sextet, Cole found himself stranded in Los Angeles. He had no difficulty finding work, and he formed his first trio in 1938. Accompanied by Oscar Moore on electric guitar and Wesley Prince (later Johnny Miller) on string bass, the trio featured bright and attractive interpretations of standards, current pop tunes and jivey originals. The vocals were largely a group effort, featuring all three musicians singing in unison. Cole’s piano, however, was a standout. Stylistically his solo work was “out of Fatha’ Hines,” although he brought his own prodigious technique, a unique sense of melody and rhythm, and especially original phrasing to everything he played.
While Cole began featuring his own singing the early 1940s, the focus remained, for a while at least, on his piano, and he worked with such artists as Frank Sinatra, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and the Gene Norman group that performed as Jazz At the Philharmonic. His movement to the realm of popular song stylist began in the late 1940s, and as time passed he featured his piano work less and less. While we mourn the loss of his great piano work, now the whole world could enjoy the unique singing style of this great artist.
But let’s not forget that jazz pianists with such disparate styles as Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans paid tribute to Nat Cole’s influence. This SOUNDIE from 1946, a jazz original titled “Got A Penny, Benny,” is delightful evidence of his years with the trio.