Book review

Will Friedwald – “Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole”

Will Friedwald – Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole
(Oxford University Press Hbk 633pp. Book review by Andy Hamilton)

This very authoritative title is the first true critical biography of Nat King Cole – jazz pianist, pop singer, and cultural icon. Drawing on decades of research, it explores how Cole became a pioneering instrumentalist in the transition from swing to modern jazz, and the most popular male singer of his generation. Music is the main focus, but the book gives a detailed account of Cole’s personal life, and addresses the social context of his time. Cole was the first black musical superstar, which gave him an important role in the civil rights movement, though like Louis Armstrong he was unjustly criticised for not being radical enough. The book is divided into Act One, 1937-51, the years of the King Cole Trio, and Act Two, 1951-65, the years as solo singer. Friedwald prefers to talk of the period of Cole the bandleader v. Cole the star, rather than contrasting pianist and singer – Cole always played piano, and indeed sang from an early point in his career, certainly from the beginning of his Trio.

Born Nathaniel Coles in Montgomery, Alabama in 1919, Cole moved with his family to Chicago when he was four. He played organ and sang in the church where his father was pastor, and heard Earl Hines at the Grand Terrace Ballroom – his greatest pianistic influence, along with Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. In 1937, he formed the King Cole Swingsters in Los Angeles with Oscar Moore (guitar) and Wesley Prince (double bass). The piano trio – with drums in place of guitar – is now a standard jazz format, but trio with guitar in place of drums was the dominant precursor. By 1939, the leader adopted the stage name of Nat “King” Cole. The King Cole Trio signed with fledgling Capitol Records in 1943, beginning the association that brought commercial success to musician and label.

A liquid vocal style made Cole’s work accessible to white audiences, and launched his career as a pop superstar; he gradually appeared less often with his trio. In the 50s he had a TV show and appeared in several films, achieving huge mainstream popular success – which has meant that his pianism is underrated, even within jazz. I recall Oscar Peterson, on one of his BBC TV shows, praising the simplicity of Cole’s solos as an ideal model for an aspiring jazz pianist. Not a putdown – but to be clear, Cole was an immensely greater jazz pianist than Peterson, more fertile, original, melodic and with a beautifully relaxed swinging feel. As Friedwald comments, “Early Morning Blues” from 1940-41 shows that Cole “is already one of the finest blues pianists in history” (p. 63); some of his greatest recordings as pianist were with Lester Young in 1942 and 1946. During his pop success, Cole continued to record as a jazz pianist, and After Midnight from 1956 is an almost perfect jazz album. But like Garner, Shearing and Peterson, he used jazz techniques to attract a pop audience, and too often produced a cocktail piano sound.

Friedwald is one of the most insightful critics on jazz singing, and he notes Cole’s telling slips in the 1949 recording of “Lush Life” – “siren of song” instead of “siren song”, and “strifling” instead of “stifling” (p. 240). When it was re-recorded in stereo, he didn’t correct them! Clearly Cole was a great popular singer – but was he a great interpreter of the lyric? The deeper artistry of Sinatra – or genius of Holiday – would never have made those mistakes. Yet Friedwald is clearly right that “Sinatra can take a simple song and make it profound; Cole takes a complex song and makes its meaning abundantly clear”. His clear diction was a product of an era when African-American entertainers worked hard at assimilating into white culture. As Friedwald notes, he introduced more standard songs than anyone after Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. Cole and Armstrong were the only jazz musicians to achieve a breakthrough to a mainstream audience.

The three most important arrangers for Cole were Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. It’s interesting to discover that Cole gave Riddle a largely free hand in his arrangements, stating only key and tempo – Sinatra specified on a measure-to-measure level, strings, trumpet solo and so on. But while Friedwald praises Nelson Riddle’s arrangements, I’d describe them as superior kitsch.

Friedwald is insightful on Cole’s role in the history of the music. He comments that “There were three major trends in black popular music in the mid-1940s: bebop, rhythm and blues, and star vocalists – and the Trio incorporated all three of these developments… aggressively and completely” (p. 97). He contrasts Cole the improviser, at the JATP (Jazz at the Philharmonic) concerts, with “the classic Trio set pieces, which had been carefully honed to perfection in live performance by the time they were recorded” (p. 148) – which reinforces the “entertainment” aspect of the Trio. He tells the story of “Nature Boy” from 1948 – “in terms of its long-term implications for [his] career…perhaps the most significant song that Cole ever recorded” (p. 211). Its composer, proto-hippy eden ahbez – who insisted on his name in lower-case – was “a legitimate prophet who was also writing for profit”, Friedwald quips. Cole gave ahbez full credit – “profits with honor”, the biographer adds.

The mystery of Cole, which puzzles Friedwald less than it does me, is why he recorded and played so little jazz. There is no comparable example among jazz geniuses. As Friedwald writes, “Cole probably recorded less in pure jazz settings (apart from the Trio) than any other [jazz] pianist of his stature” (p. 170) – I wouldn’t call the Trio a pure jazz setting. Cole was a great entertainer, when he could have been – even more than he was – a great artist. Not that giving pleasure to millions, as authentic entertainer rather than cynical manipulator, is an ignoble aim. Manager Carlos Gastel, and second wife Maria, encouraged the commercial side of his career. But violinist Stuff Smith, who appeared on After Midnight, commented shortly after Cole’s death that “Nat didn’t really want to sing. He wanted to have a group. Nat wanted to play piano, I think. I might be wrong! Commercially speaking, it was a good thing he sang…to make some loot. Well, loot’s great” (p. 333). Maybe that’s all there is to be said. On almost every other question about Nat “King” Cole, Friedwald provides close to the final word, in what is a really splendid and model biography.

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