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Nat King Cole’s Life and Impact on Jazz Music Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Introduction

Nat King Cole is considered one of the greatest Jazz musicians in the 20th century. He amazed the world by his style in playing piano and his voice.

This research paper will include a brief biography about Nat King Cole including when he lived, where he was from, and his early career. The paper will also talk briefly about the history of Jazz music and 2 influential Jazz pianists who left their marks on Jazz before Cole. And finally, the paper will provide an explanation of how the style of Nat King Cole was similar or different from his predecessors on piano.

A Brief Biography of Nat King Cole

“Nat King Cole was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama”. When he was a child his father became a minister in a church in Chicago. As a result, the Coles family moved to Chicago. Nat’s mother started to teach him playing piano at a young age. Nat never took any “formal” piano lessons until he became 12 years of age. At that age, he started to play piano in the church (“Cole”).

In high school Nat King Cole formed a band with 2 other musicians including his brother “Eddie”. The band was called the “Solid Swingers”. Nat didn’t finish high school because he could not be successful as a musician and a student at the same time. The Solid Swingers had their first record deal with a company called “Decca” in 1936. In 1937 or 1938 (sources don’t agree on one date), Nat formed a band that included “guitarist Oscar Moore, bassist Wesley Prince, and drummer Lee Young”. One night, the band planned to perform at a club in Los Angeles. The drummer didn’t come that night. At the same night, Nat was called “King Cole” by the club owner. As A result of that, the band’s name became the “King Cole Trio”. The band’s first hit was “Straighten Up and Fly Right” in 1944. In 1948, Cole started his own solo career with the hit “Nature Boy”. During his career, Nat King Cole acted in many movies like “China Gate” in 1957. In 1964, it became a known fact that Nat King Cole was suffering from “lung cancer”. Cole was never healed and died on “February 15, 1965, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California” (“Cole”).

A Brief History of the Playing of Piano in the History of Jazz

Jazz music was born in the early 20th century (“Jazz”). New Orleans was the center of Jazz music in its early years. In the 1910’s, many famous pianists moved to Harlem in New York. There were a lot of Jazz lovers there. The musicians there made a mix between blues music and “ragtime” (Scaruffi). Ragtime is “a style of jazz characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment” (“Ragtime”). The result of that combination was the “stride piano” (Scaruffi). Stride piano is “a style of jazz piano playing in which the right hand plays the melody and the left hand alternates between the bass notes on the strong beats and chords on the weak ones” (“Stride Piano”). The father of New York’s piano style was “Charles ‘Luckey’ Roberts. In the 1920’s, Jazz started to gain popularity among white people (Scaruffi). This popularity remained strong during the 1920’s, 1930’s and the 1940’s (Drowne). One thing that made Jazz music grow strong in the United States was the “House Rent Parties”. House rent parties first appeared during the “World War” (“Harlem”). Those parties first started in some states like Detroit and Chicago, but they gained their reputation after Harlem in New York became the center of Jazz (Drowne).

During the World War, manufacturers in the North states (especially New York) needed a lot of cheap labor in their factories. Black labor in the South states found that an attractive opportunity to make money. Many of them moved to New York. Many white landlords in Harlem weren’t comfortable with the fact that the number of black people was increasing rapidly. They started to fight this big migration movement by putting high rents for homes (“Harlem”). Unfortunately, black labor’s wages “were disproportionately low in New York” (Drowne). Also, white people were moving to other neighborhoods whenever they had a new black neighbor (“Harlem”).

In addition to the low wages, black people were living under uncomfortable conditions. They started to think of a new way to get the necessary money to pay their rents. The idea was to hold music parties in the night clubs to raise money from the guests (“Harlem”). Guests were able to have fun in the night clubs for cheap prices, and hosts were able to raise “enough money to pay the landlord for another month”. Hosts felt that it was necessary to attract more paying guests to their parties. They promoted their parties using the “rent party tickets”. Hosts were giving away those tickets to “friends, neighbors, and even strangers on the street corner. Sometimes, hosts targeted a specific population, such as Pullman porters, interstate truck drivers, or black tourists. Other hosts simply tucked the tickets into elevator grilles or apartment windows” (Drowne).

Rent parties were a need more than a way of entertainment. Harlem became a rich place of Jazz music. Many influential pianists were playing at the rent parties like “Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller”, “Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and “James P. Johnson” (Drowne).

Many musicians made their contributions to Jazz music. But pianists are the ones who have the most remarkable influences. Some of them are:

  1. “Jelly Roll Morton” (1890-1941): This man said that he was the creator of Jazz. He also said that it was created in 1902 and that the word ‘Jazz’ was his idea. Morton was a pianist in his successful band the “Red Hot Peppers” (“Morton”). Morton had a big influence on Jazz “and was in fact one of its first great composers, combining such diverse influences as the blues, ragtime, hymns, and the ‘Spanish tinge’ of the music of the Caribbean islands” (“Jazz Pianists”). Jelly Roll Morton experienced success in the 1920’s, but in the 1930’s his popularity declined because his style was considered “old-fashioned” by the audience (“Morton”; “Jazz Pianists”). “Morton is often credited with mixing individual improvisation within rehearsed group arrangements, a format which became a staple of jazz” (“Morton”).
  2. “Art Tatum” (1909-1956): He was a pianist in a quarter that he formed in 1936. In 1943 Tatum formed another band that included guitarist “Tiny Grimes” and bassist “Leroy ‘Slam’ Stewart”. Pianist Benny Green says that Art Tatum’s had a special ability to create a style that was a combination of different styles of music in one (“Tatum”). Many pianists were influenced by his style like “Red Garland” and “Sonny Clark” (“Jazz Pianists”). Art Tatum’s style was unique because it was different from the style of New York and New Orleans. He “opened up unlimited horizons” for the Jazz piano. Tatum created a new style of improvisation that showed the real skills of the pianist. This style depends on speed. Sometimes the speed can reach up to hundreds of beats per minute (Scaruffi).

How Was the Playing Style of Nat King Cole the Same or Different from His Predecessor on Piano?

Similarities: Nat King Cole formed a trio with a guitarist and a bassist. Cole depended on his piano playing abilities to generate the required percussion. In that case, he is similar to Art Tatum who was a member of a band that included a guitarist and a bassist (“Tatum”; “Cole”). Nat King Cole used orchestra backings in his music. For example, his solo hit “Nature Boy”. Cole’s style made people from different races listen to Jazz, and that’s what his predecessors did in the 1920’s (“Cole”; Scaruffi). The song “Straighten Up and Fly Right” by the King Cole Trio is one song that attracted people from different races to listen to Jazz music (“Cole”).

Differences: Unlike his predecessors, Nat King Cole was famous for being a singer besides being a pianist (“Cole”). Also, his predecessors tried to mix ragtime and blues to create a new shape of Jazz music. The new shape was “dense and loud” (Scaruffi). But Kat King Cole’s songs included “Ballads”. About his style, Cole says: “I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background”. Kat King Cole’s predecessors were mainly famous as instruments players, but he was more famous with his vocals (“Cole”).

Conclusion

Nat King Cole’s unique style was influenced by “blues” and “boogie-woogie” (“Jazz Pianists”). Cole’s influence on Jazz music was not as remarkable as the influence of his predecessors (especially Art Tatum and James P. Johnson). But his style had an influence on many pianists like “Joe Henderson” and “Tom Harrell” (“Jazz Pianists”). Nat King Cole’s career was full of difficulties because of the racial discrimination in the United States during the 20th century. For example, Nat King Cole had the chance to have a show on “NBC-TV” during the mid 1950’s. The show was considered good. But Cole needed a sponsor. He never found one because “sponsoring a program that drew a large, if by no means exclusively, black audience was seen as a waste of money by advertisers” (“Cole”). Nat King Cole’s legacy had a new presentation in the early 1990’s. A new version of Nat’s hit “Unforgettable” was released with Natalie Cole’s voice added on it Natalie is Nat’s daughter). It was a successful hit. Also the “Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio” was releases (“Cole”).

Works Cited

“Art Tatum.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

Drowne, Kathleen. “House-Rent Parties.” Routledge. 2004.Web.

“Duke Ellington.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“Harlem Rent Parties.” The Learning Page. 2003. The Library of Congress. Web.

“James P. Johnson.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“Jazz.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“Jelly Roll Morton.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“Nat King Cole.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“Ragtime.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

Scaruffi, P. Piero Scaruffi. 2005. Web.

“Stride Piano.” Answers.com. 2009. Web.

“The 30 Greatest Jazz Pianists.” WAER. 2001. Syracuse University. Web.

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