Hail to the King! When Ginger Rogers died they said of her dancing that she did everything her more lavishly praised partner, Fred Astaire, did, and she did it backward and in high heels. Her artistry therefore was that much more difficult and, by implication, greater.
Something like that comment occurred to me while reading Daniel Mark Epstein's biography, Nat King Cole. As a singer, Cole did everything his more lavishly praised contemporary, Frank Sinatra, did, and he did it in the face of fierce racial discrimination, all the while being one of the country's premier jazz pianists.
His artistry may have been harder to achieve, but was it greater than Sinatra's, to which it often has been compared? It's not for an amateur enthusiast like me to say, though I think that anyone who could make out of such odd, haunting songs as Nature Boy and Mona Lisa boffo hits that turned into enduring ballads has got to be a vocalist of extremely high caliber.
The author doesn't say, either, remarking only that Cole ranks with the greatest ballad interpreters of all time, including Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. But he gives us thejudgments of experts like Nat Hentoff, who in the 1950s wrote that Cole's sound, placement, diction, phrasing and beat are the best in contemporary pop or jazz. Whatever his place in popular music, he achieved it in only 45 years. He was born Nathaniel Adams Coles on March 17, 1919, in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of a wholesale grocer. He died February 15, 1965, in Santa Monica, California, of lung cancer, brought on by a lifetime of smoking multiple packs of cigarettes a day.
The central place in his life, however, was Chicago, to which his family moved in 1923 when his father decided to quit the grocery business and become a minister. Chicago was the capital of jazz when jazz was at its peak. Cole was mad for the music, and he learned directly from its Founding Fathers: Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton.
He was an apt pupil of these men, though not of school, which he quit at 15, by which age he already had a highly developed talent, a band, and afollowing. Dropping the s from his surname, he took the band on the road, one that, with occasional rocky patches, led steadily upward, from the creation of the Nat Cole Trio in the late 1930s to Cole's emergence in the mid-1940s as a leading pop singer. The Golden Age of Jazz had segued into the Swing Era, and, in Epstein's estimation, the trio largely defined the term swing, because, despite their modest number, no group on earth could swing like Nat Cole's Trio. Purist historians and biographers might not entirely agree with Epstein's approach ( Written with the narrative pacing of a novel, the publicity material says), nor with his sometimes lyrical, not to say purple, language. It is also hard to discern why he switches back and forth, calling his subject Cole and Nat and Nathaniel.
Style aside, this is a full biography, covering not only Cole's show business career but his domestic life: his two marriages, his five children, and his flagrant philandering that culminated, in his final months, in an intense infatuation with a 19-year-old Swedish-born actress. Though, regarding this subject, methinks the author doth protest too much how devoted the Coles were. It rings as unnatural as calling him Nathaniel.
Yet he was also, according to Epstein, a kind and decent person, rare qualities among artists in any medium. Also rare were his great self-discipline (in musical if not personal areas) and gift of friendship.
And he rarely complained, not even when he suffered the indignities that African-American performers routinely encountered then. Some were not so routine: In 1956 a band of Alabama white supremacists cooked up a loony plot to snatch him from a Birmingham stage to what end, neither they nor anyone else could say. Cole's mild reaction to this assault earned him the scorn of many black leaders, but ultimately his cool behavior redounded to his credit.
It's too bad he smoked all those cigarettes. He might still be with us now, at age 80, a white-haired senior citizen of song. But then, so many of his jazz idols, like Fats Waller, died extremely young. It's one of the few places Cole fits a musical pattern.