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Nat "King" Cole

 

 

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Although he is better known for his singing voice and popular songs Mona Lisa, Nature Boy, and The Christmas Song, Nat "King" Cole is also one of the great jazz pianist/singers.  Using a distinctively light, skipping approach in his playing, which was influenced by Earl Hines, Cole became a major influence on Oscar Peterson as well as many pianist as the end of the swing era and the beginning of bop. 

He was born in 1917 in Alabama and grew up in Chicago.  While in high school, he his older brothers' jazz group.  (He had 3 brothers, Eddie, Isaac, and Fred, who would also go on to become jazz musicians).   He moved to California.  He formed a trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince in Hollywood.  Initially, they performed mostly instrumentals, but Cole became more confident as a vocalist by the time they signed a record contract in 1940.  He had a distinctively unique voice and used a jazz musician's feel for rhythm to it, which resulted in him becoming one of the all-time great male jazz vocalist.   After recording Straighten Up and Fly Right and Sweet Lorraine, the group became popular.  His piano-guitar-bass trio format became popular, and Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamaal (and more recently) Diana Krall have copied this format.  In the 1940s, he went on to record with Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young and he also performed at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert (a well-known series that went on for years and featured numerous jazz superstars). 

Cole's career took a permanent change in 1950, when he recorded the #1 hit Mona Lisa. Opened to an entirely new audience that didn't know of his piano genius, he recorded many vocal-pop hits in the Fifties.  He did, however, record a nostalgic jazz record After Midnight, which features Willie Smith and Harry "Sweets" Edison.  (Very good CD!)    He had his own television show in 1956-57, but due to racism, he could never find a sponsor.  However, he did remain very popular as a singer before dying in 1965 from lung cancer.

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