A velvet smooth voice singing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose” is always the first thing that comes to mind whenever I see the name Nat ‘King’ Cole. In fact, even though the dapper Cole was often pictured sitting at a piano, and I knew that he had been the leader of a jazz trio, it wasn’t until I came across Nat King Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein that I really understood how important Cole had been to the American music scene.
By the time I finished the book yesterday, I felt like I had added a new wing to the library in my mind. Why hasn’t anyone looked at making a modern day biopic of this man’s incredible life? It’s not just a life story, it is a life of great stories within a storybook life.
Cole grew up in Chicago, with a piano playing mother and a preacher for a father, in an apartment a stone’s throw from the city’s jazz district. Epstein’s narrative portrayal of the young man kept bringing the childhood of artist Pablo Picasso to mind with his vivid descriptions of Cole’s precocious musical talents as a four year old. The one thing that came back to me, chapter after chapter, is how much Cole worked at learning his craft, forever writing songs and crafting lyrics to sit atop the glide of his lithe hands, hands that always seemed to be resting on piano keys somewhere.
A buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air The monkey thought that everything was on the square The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back The monkey grabbed his neck and said 'now listen, jack'
'straighten up and fly right' 'straighten up and fly right' 'straighten up and fly right' 'cool down, papa, don't you blow your top.'
Straighten Up And Fly Right written by Nat Cole
The first time I heard this song years ago, I had no choice but to imagine just what Cole proposed in his lyrics—an actual monkey riding on a buzzard’s back high in the air. The light but insistent tune carrying the words seemed to have been tailored to fit these simple sixteen lines that catapulted Cole and his trio from being one of the hottest Los Angeles nightclub act in the forties to nationally known stars.
The book was a treasure trove of information about the developments in the twentieth century that illuminated not only the lives of Nat Cole and his family and friends and business partners and band members, but also the work of other prominent African American
I read about the dance called the Mess Around and immediately saw where the title of a Ray Charles hit song by the same name had been plucked.
When I read that Rhinegold Beer was one of the first sponsors of Nat Cole’s historic variety show on NBC, the Harlem bars featured in the novel Invisible Man popped into my head.
And when I read the quote by Andrew J. Copp, president of the Hancock Park Property Owners Association, who sent this message to Nat Cole: “Tell Mr. Cole if he will rescind the sale of his house, we will give him his money back with a little profit”, I could hear almost the exact same line in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin In The Sun.
Epstein boiled this great musician’s life “down to a low gravy”, as jazz musicians used to say, presenting the very essence of Nat 'King' Cole, a virtuoso whose music still soothes the soul.