Nat King Cole

David Chen MUEL 2752 Dr. Daniel Jones Pre-Rock Era Project: Nat King Cole There is no questioning Nat King Cole’s place as one of the most influential and important American popular musicians in history. Although he was initially known as an innovative and skilled jazz pianist, his singing allowed him to become highly successful in the realm of popular music, more specifically in the big band and jazz genres. Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama on March 17, 1919 (Ruhlmann par. 3). His family moved to Chicago in 1921, where he began to play the piano at age four and took classical lessons at age 12 (Ruhlmann par. ). When he was 15, Cole dropped out of high school in order to pursue a career as a jazz pianist (Ruhlmann par. 4). In 1937, Cole formed the King Cole Trio and began doing live performances and occasional recordings for small labels as well as some radio work. After releasing successful singles such as “That Ain’t Right” and “All for You,” the King Cole Trio was signed by Capitol Records in 1942 (Teachout par. 15). Cole began to utilize his voice increasingly, and critics began to notice the King Cole Trio’s increasing tendency to emphasize popular music as early as 1945 (Teachout par. 0). In 1951, Cole officially disbanded the King Cole Trio and continued his successful career as more of a standup singer than as a pianist (Teachout par. 25). Cole continues to sell great quantities of music today. However, despite his popularity, Cole has often been the subject of criticism. Many criticize Nat King Cole for compromising his artistic integrity as a jazz musician in order to achieve commercial success. Some even consider his increasing popularity and shifting musical style to be “betrayal” (Ruhlmann par. 1).
One article from NPR music argues that Cole’s “singing clearly betrayed his jazz sensibilities,” while another even goes as far as to call Cole a “failed jazzman” (NPR par. 5, Teachout par. 5). Contrary to these critics, Nat King Cole’s transition from pure jazz into popular music only added to his greatness as a musician and as a prominent public figure. Cole still must be considered one of the most important and influential jazz musicians in American music history, and his conversion from pure jazz to the commercial realm of music in fact allowed him to break important racial oundaries in the world of popular culture. Despite accusations that his transition into popular music weakened his integrity as a musician and an artist, Nat King Cole left an indelible mark upon both jazz and popular music during his lifetime. Gunther Schuller, author of The Swing Era, remarks that Cole was “not only one of the most outstanding jazz pianists of his day but stylistically one of the most advanced” (Teachout par. 4). Many important jazz pianists were influenced by the piano playing of Cole, including Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Hank Jones (Teachout par. 4).
It is clear that while Cole is often known only as a popular singer, jazz musicians appreciate his tremendous skill and artistry as a jazz pianist. Nat King Cole’s influence upon jazz did not stop at his playing and improvisational skills. When invited to play at a Hollywood nightclub called the Swannee Inn, Cole decided not to use a drummer (Teachout par. 14). Inadvertently, Cole had utilized the “jazz trio”, a lineup that consisted only of a piano, guitar and bass. While Cole was not the first to use this setup, jazz experts often argue that he was the first to fully grasp the musical possibilities of this unique instrumentation.

According to Terry Teachout of American Scholar, most pianists in groups without drummers tended to overplay in order to fill the musical space and provide additional rhythm; Cole, however, simplified his playing and created a new type of jazz sound (Teachout par. 15, HOWZE par. 6). The King Cole Trio’s lineup was emulated by numerous musicians, including Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Brown, and Ray Charles, and, some assert, helped lead the way in small band jazz (Ruhlmann par. ). Cole explored entirely new territory in jazz, surpassing the influence of other popular musicians of his time. Rather than staying within the confines of jazz as the world knew it, Cole actually created new styles and novel ways of using old instruments, thus furthering the development of jazz as an art form. Nat King Cole’s conversion from pure jazz into popular music, while despised by some, actually increased his significance in popular culture and music.
Cole’s status as a popular singer in fact allowed him to reach audiences and to break boundaries he could never have broken as a pure jazz musician. Starting in the 1930s, Cole’s piano style and jazz instrumentation defined the jazz-piano trio; however, it was not until he began to sing that he became a “consummate and world-famous entertainer” (HOWZE par. 1). Connaitre Miller, a fine arts professor at Howard University, notes that Cole was the first jazz singer promoted on television (Foster par. 6).
It was mainly Cole’s popularity as a singer, and not as a jazz musician, that allowed him to be featured on television. If Cole had remained within the confines of instrumental jazz, he may have silenced jazz critics who accuse him of betraying jazz, but he also would not have been able to spread his jazz-influenced singing to such a wide audience as the one afforded him by his television appearances. Nat King Cole’s popularity as a jazz singer even allowed him to challenge racial boundaries of his time.
The King Cole Trio was, according to Terry Teachout, about as popular as a black unit could be within the confines of jazz and show business, and “[broke] through the concrete ceiling that kept most black musical acts from reaching the highest peaks of celebrity” (Teachout par. 14). On November 5, 1956, The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC and became the first of its kind hosted by an African-American (Noble). On one notable occasion, Nat Cole was not allowed to stay at certain hotels or visit certain casinos in Las Vegas.
Eventually, Cole sought legal action against those hotels and clubs, using his celebrity status to challenge Las Vegas’s intolerant system (HOWZE par. 6). While Cole’s status as a pure jazz musician may have been jeopardized by his transition into popular music, this very transition allowed him to effectively attack significant racial issues, an undertaking he could not have dreamed of as a jazz musician with a much smaller following. Nat King Cole may be the perfect example of an artist turned popular entertainer. As a jazz musician, Cole was almost unparalleled.
Nat King Cole was certainly considered by jazz fans, musicians, and critics to be a leading jazz pianist, and often played in respected jazz venues such as the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (Murph par. 8). Furthermore, Cole all but pioneered the “jazz trio,” a lineup that was highly emulated and influential in the development of jazz, proving that he was not only a highly skilled and respected jazz musician, but also an innovative and original one. Later, as a popular singer, he gained a tremendous monetary and commercial success as well as a massive audience.
Even though he lost the respect of certain jazz purists, he gained much more influence upon pop culture, and using this influence, Cole popularized and cemented jazz’s influence on popular music while even addressing racial boundaries of his time. These accomplishments would have been much more difficult, or even impossible, to achieve if Cole had remained a pure jazz musician. In this sense, studying the career of Nat King Cole may yield important insights pertaining to the boundary between classical and popular music.
As a purely classical musician, a musician such as Nat King Cole may be much more respected within followers of that particular musical genre; however, throughout history, musical figures who have crossed the line between classical, artistic music and popular music are much more memorable than those who do not. By entering popular culture, musicians are much more likely to have the ability to affect significant issues of the time. For example, Bono of U2 or Angelina Jolie possess a relatively great sphere of influence when it comes to political causes.
If neither were as engrained in popular culture as they are, it would be safe to say that they would not bring as much attention to the issues they care about. By gaining popularity, prominent figures also gain influence within popular culture and maybe even on the course of history. Although sometimes criticized by jazz purists, Nat King Cole’s commercial success in fact allowed him to affect American popular culture in unprecedented ways and secured his status as one of the most important musicians of his time. Works Cited Foster, Shivonne. “Cole’s Memory, Legacy is Unforgettable. ” The Hilltop (2007). March 2010 < http://www. thehilltoponline. com> Howze, Margaret “Jazz Profiles from NPR: Nat ‘King’ Cole: the Pianist. ” NPR 2010. 9 March 2010 http://www. npr. org/programs/jazzprofiles Murph, John. “Nat King Cole: Getting their Kicks. ” Jazz TimesMay 2009. 9 March 2010 http://jazztimes. com Noble, Amy. “The Story of Nat King Cole. ” March 1998. 9 March 2010 http://members. pcug. org. au Ruhlmann, William. “Nat King Cole. ” All Music Guide 9 March 2010 http://www. pandora. com Teachout, Terry. “Nat King Cole. ” American Scholar 61. 3 (1992): 437-443. 6 March 2010 http://web. ebscohost. com/

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