William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com
Nat King Cole, ca. June 1947.
Nat King Cole, ca. June 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via flickr.com
Singer and composer Nat "King" Cole was undoubtedly one of America's most identifiable and beloved musicians, and his silken voice helped jazz gain wider popularity. But Cole was also an elegant keyboard player whose innovative groups popularized the jazz piano trio.
Cole was born on March 17, 1917, in Montgomery, Ala., but his family moved to Chicago when he was 4. Growing up in Chicago in the 1920s and '30s, he absorbed music in his father's church and in the city's music clubs.
While attending Wendell Phillips High School on the south side of Chicago, Cole began taking piano lessons from the mother of bassist and former classmate Milt Hinton. Hinton says many people were surprised that Nat became more successful than his brother Eddie, a singer who also played piano and bass.
Eventually, Cole encountered pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines and his Orchestra at Chicago's Grand Terrace Ballroom. Hines became an enormous influence on Cole's piano playing, as did piano masters Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Albert Ammons.
The first incarnation of Cole's pioneering trio banded together in 1937 as the King Cole Swingsters: Cole on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on bass. The musicians assembled to play at Los Angeles' Swannee Inn in what was originally slated as a quartet engagement, with drummer Lee Young. But Young never showed up for the gig, and soon afterward, Cole realized that he actually preferred the trio format. The drummer-less sound gave Cole greater flexibility to develop his singular piano style, demonstrating harmonic and rhythmic advancement that set him apart from other pianists of his time.
Radio played a huge part in the Nat King Cole trio's rise to fame. Their first radio appearance was with NBC's Blue Network in 1938 — a performance that was followed by appearances on NBC's Swing Soiree. Throughout the 1940s, the trio appeared on the Old Gold, Chesterfield Supper Club, and Kraft Music Hall shows.
In 1946, the trio hosted its own 15-minute radio program called King Cole Trio Time — the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During Cole's radio years, the trio waxed a large number of "transcription" recordings, made in the radio studio specifically for radio broadcast. These were important in introducing Cole's sound to the public.
With hits such as "Hit That Jive, Jack," Cole showed a fondness for novelty tunes, but the blues were always an essential ingredient in his repertoire. By the late 1950s, he was at the pinnacle of his career as a jazz pianist and vocalist. As his career continued to soar, his piano playing took a back seat to his burgeoning singing talents, to be featured on the next edition of Jazz Profiles.
Click here to view the playlist.
Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:
Nat King Cole: 'After Midnight' & 'Best of the Nat King Cole Trio'