Nat ‘King’ Cole – Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years
Seven CDs comprising 183 tracks recorded between 1936-43. Produced for release by Zev Feldman, George Klabin, Will Friedwald, Seth Berg, Jordan Taylor and Matthew Lutthans.
(Resonance Records, 2019. CD review by Leonard Weinriech)
Success, for most black jazz artists was an unfamiliar concept. In most cases, public acceptance and critical acclaim followed some distance behind the hearse. Outside of notable exceptions like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Billy Eckstine, Louis Jordan, George Benson and the subject of this review, Nat ‘King’ Cole, few crossed the invisible border between art and entertainment. Yet, yearning for what U.S. philosopher William James (1842-1910) called ‘the bitch-goddess’ was not uncommon. As the late Ronnie Scott used to growl into his mike: “I know a jazzman who’s a millionaire. Mind you, he started off a billionaire”.
These thoughts were prompted by the succession of 183 tracks on the lavish seven-CD assemblage of Nat Cole’s earliest (and sometimes, scarcest) recordings before he joined the Capitol label. It starts with his recording debut in 1936 when Nathaniel Adams Coles played piano in his brother’s band in Chicago. The band’s five tracks are competently workaday until the pianist bursts forth in swaggering style, proud, confident and intense, with unashamed echoes of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. Proof, were it needed, that before he ever crooned a note, Nat Cole was already a consummate jazz pianist.
Ripple dissolve to Los Angeles, California, 1938. Not only had Cole departed his brother’s band, but he’d also formed a new trio with two talented musicians: guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince. Furthermore, tipping his hat to showbiz, he’d ditched the final ‘s’ on his surname and acquired a royal crown and title. The Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio radiated powerful charisma, knocking out the gilded Hollywood set with a combination of uncanny interplay, seamless vocal harmony and finger-snapping swing. Enthusiasm, precision and musical genius transformed lightweight jump tunes (Rib Town Shuffle, Jivin’ With The Notes, Crazy ‘Bout Rhythm) into art. Both the pianist and the guitarist possessed cool (before ‘cool’ became ‘cool’), intimate vocal styles (Sweet Lorraine, Russian Lullaby). But it rapidly became evident that the King had the edge on sensuality.
Between ’39 and ’41, the Trio made recordings with various vocal groups before signing with the Decca label and legendary producer, Milt Gabler, to carve a niche with Hit That Jive, Jack. Then, in 1942, the King met the President: the summit session with the innovative Lester ‘Prez’ Young, arranged by energetic impresario Norman Granz. Oscar Moore should have turned up, but apparently forgot. Dim your lights and immerse yourself in the sublime (non-vocal) explorations of Indiana, I Can’t Get Started, Tea For Two and Body And Soul. Further Granz dates followed with Prez disciple, Dexter Gordon and trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, a Basie alumnus.
The bitch-goddess had further plans. In the autumn of 1943, during the American Federation of Musician’s notorious recording strike, the Trio circumvented the ban, cutting All For You and Vom, Vim, Veedle for the Excelsior-Scherman transcription label. Both tracks, acquired by producer Dave Dexter Jr for release by the fledgling Capitol Record company, smashed into the charts and Cole became wedded to the label for the rest of his career. His musical integrity, courtly manner and honey-drenched balladeering propelled him to the pinnacle of U.S. entertainment. He sang at Jack Kennedy’s Presidential Inaugural Gala in 1961. And even though his jazz piano took a back seat, it was never abandoned.
But it’s impossible to please everyone. Inevitably, Cole’s vaunting popularity enraged bigots. When he bought a house in Los Angeles’ lily-white Hancock Park, the Ku Klux Klan welcomed him with a fiery cross on his lawn (members of the local property-owners association told him they didn’t want any ‘undesirables’ moving into the neighbourhood. His response: “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain”). He was physically assaulted by racist thugs on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. And although he managed to get his own series on national TV, the NBC network was never able to persuade sponsors to advertise because they feared negative repercussions in the gallant South. (Personal note: growing up in South Africa, I learned of a woman in the apartheid stronghold of Stellenbosch who destroyed her substantial collection of Cole’s records when she learned he wasn’t white.)
Towards the end of his life, Cole telephoned Capitol, the record corporation constructed on his voice to be greeted with the message: “Hi, this is Capitol, home of the Beatles”. He died in 1965, aged 45, from smoking too many cigarettes. At his funeral, distinguished pallbearers included Bobby Kennedy, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr, Johnny Mathis, Jimmy Durante and Frankie Laine. One way or another, the bitch-goddess exacted her price.
126 of the tracks were retrieved from ‘commercial transcriptions’ originally recorded in the pre-tape era for use in radio stations, unwieldy 16-inch vinyl platters with extended frequency response played from the inside outwards at 33⅓ rpm. Rare discs were contributed by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and a number of international Cole specialists. There’s a profusion of precious photographs plus insights, extensive notes by the rabbi of all jazz vocalists, Will Friedwald, and appreciations by musicians and critics. Resonance Records deserve a standing ovation for the elegance of the production, a triumph of intrepid detective work and painstaking remastering (courtesy of master engineer, Doug Pomeroy). As a tribute to the odyssey of a superstar, Hittin’ The Ramp, is a ravishing success.
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