Freddy Cole's Time to Shine

Out from the shadow of his iconic brother, a class act enjoys the spotlight

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Freddy Cole
By Salvatore Corso
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Freddy Cole and Clark Terry in 2003
By Clay Walker
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Freddy Cole with Todd Barkan, courtesy of RobertaOnTheArts.com
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Freddy Cole in the early '80s, photo from the JazzTimes Archives

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It’s Monday at noon, a rather anomalous time for a jazz performance. Nor is the venue your typical jazz room. Stage West, slightly out of place in an industrialized suburban corridor near the Toronto airport, usually caters to retro music revues and road-show comedies starring second bananas from ’70s TV series. But on this particular afternoon, Freddy Cole has been booked, and the capacious space is almost full. The average age hovers around 70. They’re here for the lunchtime buffet and, one suspects, the hope of catching a hint of elder brother Nat in Freddy’s performance. He doesn’t disappoint, filling the first set almost exclusively with material from his recent albums but subsequently indulging the crowd’s nostalgic yen with a lengthy medley of Nat’s hits.

Snippets of “Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable” are greeted with far more boisterous applause than anything else Freddy has played or sung, but he takes it in stride. He knows there will be more dates like this, plenty of them; but his chockablock schedule will also offer up plenty of opportunities to fully exercise his jazz chops. It is, he sagely appreciates, all good. Indeed, onstage and in post-concert conversation, there is a remarkable tranquility about Freddy Cole. It’s not reserve, or shyness, but hard-won contentment.

Although Cole recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and next year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of his earliest recording, it is only within the last two decades that he has made a significant impact as a singer and pianist. Yet there’s no interest in backward glancing or ruminating over “what if” scenarios. He lives, and works, utterly in the now, so much so that the members of his quartet—drummer Curtis Boyd, whose association with Cole dates to 1965, bassist Elias Bailey and guitarist Randy Napoleon—have learned to simply go with the flow. “There is never a set list,” says Bailey. “Freddy just puts his hands on the piano and starts playing. His repertoire is huge, and he might decide to do any song at any point, so you have to do a lot of homework. After six years with him, I still feel I’m catching up.”

Napoleon, the newest member and youngest at 34, who joined the group four years ago, thought he knew Cole’s work before he signed on but quickly learned otherwise. “I had a number of his albums and Elias had given me several recordings of live gigs, with maybe 50 or 60 arrangements,” he says. “I memorized them all, but immediately discovered they were only a drop in the bucket. He knows a million songs, all the familiar ones and many others that have fallen by the wayside. The cliché is true that he’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know. And he chooses material from all across the musical spectrum. He borrows songs from Bill Withers or Lionel Richie, and then turns around and sings some forgotten Tin Pan Alley tune.”

But there is, all three bandmates agree, a method to Cole’s extemporaneousness. The foursome plays hundreds of shows a year, crisscrossing the country and circling the globe, yet whether it’s Bangor or Bangkok, Cole has an uncanny knack for gauging the room. “He looks at the audience,” says Bailey, “and knows which of the 5,000 songs in his head is the right one to play.”

Adds Napoleon, “All he has to do is look around and he knows what the crowd will respond to.” Laughingly, Cole likens himself to a GPS device, always taking the group in new directions. “They never know what I’m going to do, because I never know what I’m going to do,” he says, grinning. “I’ve learned that one word or one line can grab the whole audience for you.”

True to his Zen-like serenity, Cole speaks very little while performing, usually just a whispered “thank you” between songs, and even on swinging numbers he remains imperturbably mellow. “The way he sings a melody is always perfect,” says Bailey. “He has unbelievable phrasing, and nothing is ever rushed.”

Napoleon is equally enamored of Cole’s unfettered style. “What I admire most about Freddy’s playing and singing,” he says, “is that it is extremely unpretentious. When I listen to many of my contemporaries, I hear a lot of speed and a lot of weight behind the sound of their notes. But Freddy is a master at finding the simplest way of saying something. There’s no bullshit. His delivery is conversational and intimate. He just tells the story, honestly and directly, and what he leaves out is as important as what he puts in.”

Boyd concurs, noting, “My definition of a great jazz singer isn’t about jumping through hoops or swallowing fire or doing handstands. It’s telling the story. Very few singers can do that. Freddy and Tony Bennett are the last of that great breed.”

The same halcyon attitude pervades Cole’s studio work. Todd Barkan, currently director of programming and emcee for Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, produced all but three of the 18 albums Cole has recorded since 1993, including the quartet’s latest HighNote release, Talk to Me. As Norman Granz was to Ella and Oscar, Barkan is to Cole: the mastermind who recognized the uniqueness of Cole’s appeal and helped polish that laidback technique, paving the way for his late-career success.

Barkan, whose rich history as a jazz impresario includes founding San Francisco’s legendary Keystone Korner, says, “Freddy’s charm and greatness as a studio artist is that he is able to sound as relaxed and natural as he is on the bandstand. We usually capture every track in one take, with maybe one overdub. There is a very, very organic unity to his recordings.”

Assembling the albums is an equally instinctive process. Choosing the songs for Talk to Me began, for instance, with Cole’s desire to record the title track, based on his admiration for Little Willie John’s 1958 version, and to cover a favorite Billie Holiday number, “My First Impression of You.” Both tunes got him thinking about songs as intimate conversations, which became the album’s overarching theme, and led to the Al Hibbler hit “I Was Telling Her About You” and to Bill Withers, a longtime friend and one of Cole’s favorite composers, from whose songbook he plucked “Lovely Day,” “My Imagination” and “You Just Can’t Smile It Away.”

The album is, says Barkan, ideally illustrative of Cole as “a master storyteller. Take ‘You Just Can’t Smile It Away,’ which is a very simple song. He gets so deep into those lyrics that he makes it a really heart-opening experience. You can take any other 15 singers and do the exact same song and you would not have anywhere near the emotional depth and storytelling virtuosity that Freddy has.”

Such distinctiveness hasn’t come easily. Growing up the youngest of four brothers in a Chicago household rife with musical talent—including not just Nat, 12 years Freddy’s senior, but oldest brother Eddie, a gifted bassist, and Ike, a fine pianist—it wasn’t easy to stand out. Nor did Freddy want to. Though he started playing piano at age 6, he admits, “I’d just play around with it until I could get outside. It was bye-bye piano and I was gone to play ball.”

He wasn’t yet a teenager when Nat hit the big time in the 1940s, and much has since been made of the fact that prepubescent Freddy encountered the likes of Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie in his own living room. Truth is, he says, “I wasn’t overwhelmed by any of them. After I got into the business, I realized what giants they were, but at the time it didn’t faze me that all these legendary people were in the house. I just wanted to get in, get my school clothes off, and then I was gone.”

His skill at sports very nearly led to a football career, but a hand injury scuppered his professional chances. “I still love the game,” he says, “and I’m still a season ticket holder [cheering on the Falcons in Atlanta, his adopted hometown], but I’m glad it didn’t happen because it probably would’ve killed me!”

Instead, he became the first member of his family to attend college, studying music at Chicago’s Roosevelt Institute and then moving to New York to attend Juilliard. Immediately afterward, in 1951, he spent a few months on the road with Earl Bostic. “He was a fantastic sax player,” Cole remembers, “and he had Johnny Coles and Benny Golson and George Tucker. It was a great band, but I didn’t have enough experience to be dealing with them.” So he returned to school, acquiring a master’s from the New England Conservatory.

Striking out on his own, he returned to Chicago for his debut recording session, scoring a minor R&B hit with “The Joke’s on Me” for the local Topper label. That attracted the attention of Columbia, which signed him to its OKeh subsidiary. It was at Columbia that Cole met Tony Bennett, who has remained a lifelong friend. “We started there at the same time,” Cole recalls. “I was actually offered ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ first, but turned it down.”

Instead, he covered the Ink Spots’ “Whispering Grass,” sounding like a near-exact replica of Nat. (Though neither it, nor any of his other OKeh sides, has been reissued, his version of “Whispering Grass” can be easily found on YouTube.) While acknowledging that his brother was an unavoidable influence, Cole cites Hibbler and particularly Billy Eckstine as his preeminent role models; he paid album-length tribute to Eckstine with last year’s Grammy-nominated Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B. As for pianists, he favored the styles of Teddy Wilson, John Lewis and Oscar Peterson.

Apart from a single album for Dot Records, 1960’s Waiter, Ask the Man to Play the Blues, and a handful of European and self-produced recordings, strong echoes of Nat still prevalent, Cole remained largely under the radar straight through the 1980s. Still, he says, “I was never destitute. I was doing commercials and gigging and was busy as hell. I was always working in different phases of the business, always learning. There were guys like Milt Hinton, who I’d known since I was knee-high, and [drummer] Sonny Greer, whose influence I still feel to this day, who steered me in the right direction. It’s like the old biblical statement: Keep your eye on the prize. I had the determination to get out there and just keep plugging away.”

Although, even after his death in 1965, Nat loomed large, Freddy insists it “wasn’t all that tough” to try to distinguish himself from his iconic sibling. “There’s no denying we have a similar sound. I ran into a jam in some places. I’d drive up and the sign would say ‘NAT KING COLE’ in big letters, then in tiny type at the bottom, ‘by his brother Freddy.’ But I rebelled against that, and still do.”

Nor did he ever ask for any assistance from Nat, although Freddy claims their professional paths did cross twice, with him playing piano on “If I May” in 1955 and again in 1962 on the million-seller “Ramblin’ Rose.”

In 1972, Cole departed New York, settled permanently in Atlanta and launched the short-lived labels Dinky and First Shot. His work from this period is all but impossible to find, although Cole owns the masters and is considering reissues. Indicative of his continued anonymity, among the releases was one with the dispirited title The Cole Nobody Knows. That album’s thematic bookend, 1990’s I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me (re-released by HighNote in 2004), included the Cole-written title track which dealt head-on with his brother’s still-hovering specter, featuring lines like, “Hey, I’m not trying to fill nobody’s shoes/You see, my brother made a whole lot of money/But I sing the blues.”

Interestingly, the album also included the paean “He Was the King” and a 10-minute medley of Nat’s hits. Such apparent duality continues to this day, although on disc Freddy tends to steer clear of Nat’s massive hits in favor of less-familiar gems like “Strange,” “To the Ends of the Earth,” “Somewhere Along the Way” and “Send for Me.”

It was in the early 1990s that Cole first encountered Barkan. “We met in a bar in New York,” Barkan recalls, “a very small venue on the East Side. I couldn’t believe that this great talent was working in so obscure a venue, a tiny non-jazz place. I was so inspired by his singing that I vowed to help, and thought the best way to do so was by producing some good-quality recordings for him.”

At the time, Barkan was working on the Grover Washington Jr. album All My Tomorrows and arranged for Cole to make a guest appearance, adding vocals to three tracks. (Ironically, the album includes Washington’s take on Nat’s hit “Nature Boy,” though not featuring Freddy.) Barkan leveraged the Washington project to score a four-album deal with Fantasy Records, followed by a two-year stint at Telarc. In 2005, Cole and Barkan found what seems a permanent home at HighNote. Together, they’ve shaped everything from Christmas and Brazilian albums to salutes to Tony Bennett and Michel Legrand.

Although Cole’s career is now at full throttle and shows no signs of slowing, its acceleration was hardly immediate. “It was a long, hard climb,” says Barkan, “that took five or six years.” The key momentum-builder was unexpected praise from Ben Ratliff in a 1998 New York Times piece. “He happened to come into the Iridium—the old Iridium when it was in the Empire Hotel basement. It was a Tuesday night and there might have been eight people in the club. I didn’t even know he was there. Sure enough, two days later, we got a glorious review. It might have been the most important review of Freddy’s entire career, the kind to hang your press kit on.”

Cole, said Ratliff, “embodies a vanishing esthetic: he’s one of the few male jazz singers these days who is still at the height of his powers and can be taken seriously.”

Since that gilt-edged notice, Cole has recorded with a wide assortment of first-class players, including Bill Charlap, Cyrus Chestnut, Houston Person, Kenny Washington, Arturo O’Farrill, Cedar Walton, Mike Renzi, George Mraz and Peter Washington. Never, though, has he sounded better or more fully defined than alongside the current configuration of Boyd, Bailey and Napoleon. “They really do exceptional work,” says Barkan. “It’s a testament to how devoted the individual members are to supporting Freddy and presenting him in an optimal setting. Recording with this band represents Freddy as well as he can be represented, and I think they’ll make many more great albums.”

Meanwhile, with three Grammy nominations under his belt, Cole has settled into a peaceful groove. “I’m old enough,” he says, “to understand the business and know you got to do what you got to do. One of the advantages of having so much experience is that I can adapt to any audience. … What I find most satisfying is that the battle is never won, but each step forward is an ‘I told you so.’ I was told I couldn’t do what I’m doing. I was told that I was just a cocktail pianist or that I was riding on my brother’s coattails. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when my peers recognized who I am and what I do. When you’ve got people like Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae and Tony Bennett coming to your gigs and respecting what you do, who could ask for more?”

Of his longtime friend, Bennett says, “Freddy is a true jazz singer. He sings and plays piano beautifully. You’ll never hear him sing a wrong note. He’s my kind of jazz artist.”

So, at age 80, the savviest of survivors, Cole’s focus is straight ahead. “If you slow down, somebody will start gaining on you,” he says with a chuckle. “And I’ve still got a lot to do and a short time to do it in.”

Originally published in December 2011

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