Jazz Profiles from NPR
Nat "King" Cole: The Pianist
Produced by Margaret Howze

Nat King Cole  

Pianist, singer, and composer Nat King Cole is undoubtedly one of America's most identifiable and beloved musicians. His silken voice and elegant piano playing helped jazz gain wider popularity, without sacrificing the music's integrity. Not only was he a superb vocalist and pianist, his innovative group helped invent the jazz trio.

Listen to vocalist and pianist Bobby Short, pianist Billy Taylor, bassist Milt Hinton, and guitarist John Collins talk about Nat's piano playing

Nat was born on March 17, 1917 in Montgomery, Alabama, but soon afterwards, his family moved to Chicago, when he was four. While growing up in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, he listened to the music in his father's church and in the city's music clubs.

Listen to writer Will Friedwald discuss Nat's early listening habits

When Nat attended the famous Wendell Phillips High School on Chicago's historical South Side, he began taking piano lessons from the mother of bassist and former classmate Milt Hinton. Hinton says that many people were surprised that Nat became more successful than his brother Eddie Cole, who sang and played piano and bass.

Listen to Milt Hinton recall his childhood with Nat

Eventually, Nat encountered pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines and his Orchestra at Chicago's Grand Terrace Ballroom. Hines became an enormous influence on Nat's piano playing, as did Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Albert Ammons.

Listen to Friedwald talk about the influence Hines had on Nat's piano playing

The first incarnation of the Nat King Cole trio got together in Los Angeles in 1937 as the King Cole Swingsters in 1937. in Los Angeles as the "King Cole Swingsters." The group was composed of Nat on piano, guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. The musicians assembled to play at Los Angeles' Swannee Inn and was originally supposed to be a quartet with piano, bass, guitar and drums, but drummer Lee Young didn't show up for the gig.

Soon afterward, Nat realized that he actually liked the group without the drums, which later gave him greater edge in developing his singular piano style. His playing demonstrated harmonic and rhythmic advancement that set him apart from other pianists at that 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, which was later 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 sponsored their own 15-minute radio program called, "King Cole Trio Time." It became the first radio program sponsored by a black performing artist. During Nat's radio years, the trio recorded a large number of "transcription" recordings, made in the radio studio specifically for radio broadcast, that were used instead of commercial recordings.

Listen to Freidwald explain the significance of Nat's radio transcriptions

With hits such as "Hit That Jive, Jack," Nat showed a fondness for novelty tunes, but the blues was always an essential ingredient. By the late 1950s, Nat 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 sit to his burgeoning singing talents.

Listen to Friedwald talk about Nat's singing contributions to the trio


View the Nat "King" Cole: The Pianist show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for After Midnight, The Best of Nat King Cole, and The Best of The Nat King Cole Trio


More InfoThe Official Nat "King" Cole Society Site