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Cole at 100: Not That Nat But This One

Nat King Cole’s centennial is the perfect opportunity to talk about jazz’s most overlooked great small band

Nat Cole, Oscar Moore, and Johnny Miller performing on the King Cole Trio Time radio program, Jan. 16, 1947
L to R: Nat Cole, Oscar Moore, and Johnny Miller performing on the King Cole Trio Time radio program, Jan. 16, 1947 (photo: NBC Radio)

Little wonder that Nat King Cole is revered as one of the towering crooners of the recorded-sound era; he sang as if his lungs were lined with silk. An earthly balladeer whose voice always seemed to be flirting with contrails, he stands alongside a select few in the top tier of American entertainment icons: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, James Dean, Babe Ruth. And of course we have “The Christmas Song,” in any one of four versions—go with the first, from 1946—which is as festal as wreaths and crèches, and probably more central to the holiday season for many.

I became a hardcore Cole guy in college, which is when I started to mull something that I thought needed redressing. When you’re known as a crooner, and enough time passes after you’re gone, you can become song-typecast, known only for a few indelible works. But as March 17 marks Cole’s 100th birthday, it seems a good time to venture back to the 1940s, before that pigeonholing process began, when he was one badass piano player with worlds in his fingers, leading one of the greatest small units in jazz history.

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Originally Published

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.