Nat King Cole: Hittin’ The Ramp – The Early Years (1936-1943)
In Julius Caesar, one of his most famous tragedies, William Shakespeare has the character of Mark Anthony speak an uncomfortable truth about the human mind as he delivers his poignant eulogy for the fallen Emperor of Rome who was assassinated in 44 BC. “The evil that men do lives after them,” Anthony said, “The good is oft interred with their bones.” Things are no different in our time. No one is spared – not even artists who contribute so much not just to our history, but also to the well-being of human life. If you live in the glare of public life chances are you are likely to be remembered for how short you fell of perfection. What good you did, in Mark Anthony’s words, “is oft interred with (your) bones.”
Take Nat Cole, for example. The chances are that refusniks still consider that he “betrayed” The Music in exchange for fame and fortune by abandoning the art of his pianism in favour of caressing the microphone with his velvet voice. Meanwhile the great things that he has done for The Music is have all but been forgotten; “interred with his bones” so to speak. In that context, the release of this monumental boxed set entitled Nat King Cole: Hittin’ The Ramp – The Early Years (1936-1943) can never be understated. The seven CDs (or 11 vinyl) set which resurrects his extraordinary mid-1930’s to mid-1940’s recordings are more than a mere historical statement of fact. They constitute music of historic significance for so many reasons.
First, the repertoire is proof that Mr Cole is an artist – and a pianist – of the first order for he continues the great lineage of so-called revolutionary “stride pianists”; one that includes Earl “Fatha” Hines that used their pianistic virtuosity to emulate melodic lines established by horn-players. Second – and this fact is of the utmost importance – Mr Cole’s music genius help shape not only the art of the trio, but in many respects his great trio work – certainly in terms of his harmonic conceptions – foreshadowed the advent of the organ trio. Third, all of this great music leads to Mr Cole’s late career; one in which he was transfigured from a piano-playing vocalist into a musician who caressed the microphone with his velvet-laced baritone voice, to become one of the greatest popular entertainers the world has ever seen.
It’s clear that Mr Cole’s musicianship was shaped by the fact that he grew up, the son of a minister, who no doubt proclaimed the Gospel at the Baptist church where he ministered as well as at home. Add to that the fact that Mr Cole’s mother was the organist at church. It’s more than likely that both these things shaped his voice: “proclaiming” the lyrics of the songs with perfect intonation and diction, just as much as “singing” them, both with heartfelt emotion, and melting all of that into a hypnotic, liquid vocal sound that seemed to imitate the sound of air blown through the great pipes of the church organ. It is also likely that Mr Cole’s musicianship was of its times, that is, it was influenced by what he probably heard over the airwaves: Black American music played by the great pianists of the day and sung by men and women who polished the art of song.