For grandmaster singer-pianist Freddy Cole’s 84th birthday, here’s a DownBeat feature I had an opportunity to write about him in 2009.
After breakfast on the second Sunday morning of this summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, the 78-year-old singer-pianist Freddy Cole, only a few hours removed from Saturday’s midnight show, considered a question about retirement.
“No,” Cole said. “No-no. No-NO.” He laughed, ha-Ha-HA, like a descending triplet. “A lot of people ask that. My golfing buddies say, ‘Man, when you going to stop?’ For what? To stay home and be miserable like you? Music keeps you alive.”
It was the final day of Cole’s 12-set, no-nights-off run at Hotel Brufani, a palatial hilltop villa that hosts the festival’s high-profile acts, among them Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, and George Benson, the latter on tour with his “Unforgettable Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole” project, which incorporated a septet and a 27-piece string orchestra. All of them dropped into the Sala Raffaello, a rectangular banquet room filled with white-tableclothed round tables, to hear the maestro sing and play the Fazioli piano with his trio.
“Damn near all of Wynton’s band was there,” Cole said. “I played with them the day before Obama’s Inauguration at Kennedy Center. The kids came grabbing me, called me the old man.”
“Cecil told me he hadn’t seen me play since Bradley’s,” Cole continued, referencing the prestigious Greenwich Village piano saloon where he played nine separate week-long engagements between 1988 and 1991, and a week apiece in 1994 and 1995. “Carmen McRae, who was a very good friend, used to come there all the time. She loved one of my tunes called ‘Brandy’—she’d say, ‘Do my song.’ I’d generally do it.”
At Perugia, Cole spent consequential time performing material—Benny Carter’s rueful ballad “I Was Wrong”; the Ella Fitzgerald-Ink Spots World War Two hit “I’m Making Believe”; Cole Porter’s insouciant “You’re Sensational”; O.C. Smith’s soulful flagwaver “On The South Side of Chicago”—from his new release, The Dreamer In Me [High Note]. But no set was the same, and Cole treated the flow in a conversational, free-associative manner, imparting the impression that even the most knowledgeable connoisseur of the Great American Songbook would be hard-pressed to call a tune that he doesn’t know. His brain seemed analogous to a generously stocked i-Pod on continuous shuffle, with each sound file comprising a well-wrought arrangement complete with harmonized piano-guitar voicings, sectional call-and-response, and shout choruses, each song rendered with such authority as to give the illusion that Cole had sung it every day for the previous year.
“Once I start to play, things happen,” he said. “Unless you stop me right then and there, I don’t know what I’m thinking about. Once I see from the body language that people are into what we’re doing, I’m home free. I can call whatever I want.”
As an example, Cole noted that on the previous evening, “for the first time in quite a while,” he had performed “I’ll Never Say Never Again,” a 1935 chestnut that Nat Cole had covered in 1950. The rendition was one component of a lengthy interlude, spontaneously triggered by a medley built upon “Tenderly,” during which he conjured a suite of his big brother’s good old good ones, segueing seamlessly from one to the next, evoking the elder Cole both in the timbre of his gravelly, septugenarian voice and his exemplary diction, never stiff or exaggerated. Cole imprinted each tune with the stamp of his own personality. A master of the art of compression and release, he swung unfailingly, didn’t scat, and avoided extremes of tempo and register. Perched sideways on the piano bench, he wore an ambiguous smile, simultaneously eyeballing his sidemen and the audience. He accompanied his declamations with unfailingly supportive, hip progressions; counterstated them with precise, pithy, bop-tinged solos that blended vocabulary drawn from the lexicon of, among others, John Lewis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner; and phrased them with a bathos-free subtlety and unpredictable voice-as-instrument suppleness more akin to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn, than to his brother. The delivery, though, contained a panache and directness imbibed from such master male balladeers as Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, both friends and mentors during his adolescence and young adulthood in Chicago. As the week progressed, the years dripped off his baritone, which grew more resonant and open.
“Their voices are exactly the same, but that’s genetic,” said singer Allan Harris, in Perugia to perform Nat Cole repertoire daily on an outdoor stage in the gardens that face the Brufani’s entrance. “That’s the way they were raised. Back in the day, the number one thing that a black entertainer needed to cross over into the white record-buying thing was that you could understand what the brother was saying. You had to speak the Queen’s language to perfection, even to the point of exacerbating it on stage. Not only does Freddy do that, but he puts his own little soulful twist on it, more than his brother did. There’s times where I prefer Freddy over Nat in that respect, because Freddy keeps the soul about him continuously through his performance.”
“With me, every song is a new song,” Cole said. “I don’t do them like everybody else does them. When I do seminars, I tell students about learning a song the right way—the way the composer wrote it. Then you do what you want.
“You’re not going to hear me scat either. A lot of people who do that are good singers, but my way of thinking is that they have great musicians with them—let THEM play. To me, BABA-BABA-DABA-DOP don’t mean nothin’. We had two great scatters, and that’s Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. After that, you could say Jon Hendricks and maybe Eddie Jefferson. They did it with taste and style. But now you have these younger singers who think that scatting makes them a jazz singer. Well, actually, what is a jazz singer? I have no idea. I would say Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer. Sarah Vaughan could sing anything, so they put the ‘jazz singer’ title on her. Carmen McRae was a great singer. But Carmen was a stylist, like Billie Holiday, and my brother, and Billy Eckstine. Lurleen Hunter, from Chicago. Johnny Hartman, who was a dear friend. You get a label put on you, like I say.”
It has been both Cole’s blessing and curse to be labeled “Nat Cole’s younger brother,”a descriptive to which, some decades ago, he penned the riposte “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” which he sang ebulliently to transition into the final portion of his Saturday set. Indeed, as Harris pointed out, although Cole has drawn extensively on the Nat Cole songbook over the years on recordings, concerts, and special projects (he duetted with Benson on “I’m Biding My Time” on Perugia’s main stage), such an extended homage is indeed a rare thing.
Harris pinpointed an occasion in 1977 at a club in Atlanta—Cole’s residence since 1970—when Cole responded to his “mistake of asking for a Nat Cole song” with precisely the same musical answer. “Freddy did that song strongly, and with verve, and he did it demonstratively,” Harris recalled. “Not like he does it now—happy and so on. He didn’t really say he wasn’t about to do any Nat King Cole tunes, but after he finished it was put to rest that you didn’t ask Freddy for any of his brother’s songs.”
“Before I started to play at Bradley’s, I was really ‘Nat Cole’s brother,’” Cole remarked. “That’s about as blunt as I can put it. Or I was a ‘cocktail piano player,’ whatever that is. You get tied into one of these corners, and that’s all you’ll ever be. It’s been a long, hard, worthwhile, fruitful struggle—what’s the use of crying about it now? My brother was quite a man. I always say I’d rather be 10 percent of the man that he was than an entertainer. If he or my father said something, or gave you their word, that was it. I try to be that way. With all the years I’ve been out here, nobody can say that I didn’t pay anybody, that I ran out on a hotel bill. The old one of the ten commandments—do unto others as you’d have them do unto you—is a simple way to live.”
The Dreamer In Me is Cole’s fifth recording for High Note in the past five years, and his eleventh collaboration with producer Todd Barkan, who first recorded Cole in 1993 on his breakout release, Circle of Love. His emergence over the past two decades from “Nat Cole’s younger brother” to the international stature of his golden years is one of the great second acts in the annals of show business.
“Besides Tony Bennett, Freddy is one of the last vestiges of that era where front men told a story with the song through the voice,” Harris stated. “He’s an older gentleman now, and his voice may not be as clear as it was 25 years ago, but his delivery is far beyond anyone younger than him. Freddy takes you on a magical journey. You forget about vocal styling. You forget about smoothness. He’s a master at what he does, and he doesn’t have to impress anyone. Most vocalists, including myself, take a whole song to get our point across. Freddy does it in one phrase. From all the years he spent in clubs, touring the world, and studying the American songbook, he completely understands where the composer is coming from, and stays true to it.”
Cole offers insight into the formation of his aesthetic in rendering O.C. Smith’s paean to the time “when jazz was king on the South Side of Chicago” with “all those little honky tonk joints, filled with people glowing while the cats was blowing.” Early on, when the family lived at 57th and Michigan, he met the Chicago’s prime movers and shakers through his brothers—not only Nat, but also Eddie Cole, a bassist and successful bandleader who had played in Europe with Noble Sissle, and singer-pianist Ike Cole (“he could flat-out play”), whose career comprised primarily long-haul hotel gigs. He began to play with the local luminaries towards the end of the ‘40s, after graduating from Waukegan High School where his promising football career—he was an all-state halfback as a junior—abruptly ended after a tackler stepped on his hand, causing a bone infection that led to an 21-month hospital stay.
“The medical term for it was tuberculosis arthritis,” Cole said. “My brother brought in a specialist from California. I had three operations in the same hospital, but instead of stitching it all up, they drained the bone. It had to heal. Every day for so many hours, I’d sit with this concoction that they put me in. Playing piano was therapeutic—it kept the flexibility in the wrist.”
Cole entered the trenches at 17, when trumpeter King Kolax, whose bands were a rite of passage for several generations of Chicago musicians, hired him for the piano chair. “I was struggling to keep up with the other musicians,” he said. “I was young and dumb. We thought we were hip. We thought we were playing bebop.”
After a four-year apprenticeship around Chicago while attending Roosevelt College, Cole moved to New York in 1953 for a semester at Juilliard, spent 1955 and 1956 at New England Conservatory, and moved back to New York in 1957. “I was playing jazz music before I got to school, and it was difficult to try to fit into this other mold,” he said. “If somebody come through with a gig, I’m out of there! Then I’ve got to go back and catch up. But I’m competitive. I’m a fighter. I will give out before I give up. Looking back, I wish I’d applied myself more. But I did what I had to do, and got my degree.”
He remained in New York for thirteen years, moving to Atlanta in 1970. Over the years, he worked the East Side supper clubs and steakhouses, “joints with the crooked-nose guys,” corner taverns and bars in the outer boroughs. “That’s when I was learning how to do everything,” Cole stated. “I got great advice from a lot of great people.” He referenced an early gig with ex-Ellington drummer Sonny Greer. “He would hold court every day at Beefsteak Charlie’s, where you’d see all the old-timers. Sonny told me, ‘Little Cole, you’ve got to learn how to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell this story about this song.’ When you’re a little kid listening to the teacher read, Sonny said, she’d have you believing that story if she was really good. It took a while to get to what Sonny was trying to tell me. It really hit home when I was in Brazil in 1978—Brazilian singers sing as if they’re singing directly to you.”
There were other lessons. “Without saying it, most of those clubs were run by ‘the fellas,’” Cole said with a chuckle. “Some would be set up for a late night thing when they would all meet later in the evening, so you had to learn the ‘Set ‘Em Up, Joe’ type songs. Unrequited love. You’d see the girlfriend sitting there, etc. Also, there were the barmitzvahs, and other functions. Then you played clubs where it’s nothing but swinging, and some clubs where it was dancing. It was a total learning experience about how to play, what to play, and when to play it. The people that came into those clubs at that time knew what was happening. You weren’t fooling anybody. If you were messing around, you wouldn’t have the gig long. They knew the songs, and would ask about them, so if you didn’t know it tonight, you’d better know it tomorrow. There’s the expression, ‘Yesterday made me what I am today.’ That’s really true for me.”
It was evident from Cole’s forthcoming itinerary that he is as old-school in his “make the gig at all costs” attitude to road life as in song interpretation. Perugia was the last stop of a European sojourn, which began with engagements in Switzerland and Slovenia. He would resume his travels five days hence across the pond with a rapid-fire succession of East Coast bookings, before resuming his “rolling stone gathers no moss” lifestyle with various autumn travels.
“Freddy is invincible,” said Randy Napoleon, his guitarist. “The schedule in this band is more difficult than anything else I’ve done. We’ve done tours where we were out for weeks, traveling every day, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, driving two hours to the airport, catching a flight, maybe transferring and catching another flight—and then hitting. Or you drive nine hours in a van, and then get up and work that night. Freddy loves it. His famous quote is, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m a young man, I’m in good shape, but I’ll be bleary-eyed. Four-five hours of sleep, Freddy’s gone.”
“I’m like an old penny,” Cole said. “I turn up anywhere. That’s what I’ve done throughout my years in the business. I don’t look at myself as a so-called star. I’m just plain Freddy. That’s all you can be.”