Nat King Cole was enduring, iconic and, appropriately enough, unforgettable.
Nat King Cole was enduring, iconic and, appropriately enough, unforgettable. Keystone/Hulton Archive
Take Five celebrates the birthday of pianist and vocalist Nat King Cole. He was born on March 17, 1919, and over the course of his life became a jazz innovator and an icon of American popular music. A baseball fan, Cole had been scouted by the Negro Leagues as a player, which leads us neatly to our metaphor for today. To put it in baseball parlance, Cole was perhaps the first "five-tool player" in the jazz world.
In baseball, a five-tool player is a treasured resource. He's fast, he's a good defensive player, he throws with accuracy, and he hits for both average and power. Having just one of these skills can make a baseball player's career. The odds against having more than one are astronomical. Having five produces a very rare player.
Cole could wear the five-tool cap. He was the originator of the guitar/bass/piano trio format, played an extremely influential role as a pianist, broke down barriers between jazz and popular music and became a true multimedia superstar. He was also the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast television series. He was enduring, iconic and, appropriately enough, unforgettable.
His pop persona has burned so brightly for so long, it has somewhat eclipsed the breadth and importance of his influence. So, in the spirit of fair play, it's a fine time to celebrate the original five-tool player of jazz, Nat King Cole.