Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Nat King Cole Harvest Is In

Resonance Records’ latest deluxe archival set presents a hidden early history of the great pianist and singer in captivating fashion

Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole (photo: Charlie Mihn/courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries)


Nat King Cole
Left to right: Wesley Prince, Oscar Moore, drummer Al Spieldock, and Nat Cole at the Romany Room, Washington, D.C., spring 1941 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress)

Trawling the Archives

Seth Berg has had a long professional relationship with Zev Feldman, who leads Resonance in its much-praised, Grammy-nominated curation of archival jazz material. Berg manages several musicians’ estates, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Peggy Lee, but he now spoke to Feldman as a representative of the Cole family.

“I went to Zev and said, ‘We’ve got the hundredth coming up, and a release would be nice. If you can find stuff, we’ll do stuff,’” Berg recalls. “That got them talking to the Will Friedwalds of the world, and it just happened organically from there.”

Feldman (and Resonance partner George Klabin) did indeed contact Friedwald. He, in turn, connected Feldman with two researchers: Matt Lutthans, who is also a recording engineer, and discographer Jordan Taylor. “These guys live, eat, breathe, and sleep Nat ‘King’ Cole,” Feldman says.

Indeed, on his own Lutthans “had the set 90% assembled, strictly in rough form” for several years, he says. His sources, however, were the bootlegs and budget compilations that had done most of the reissuing. Once they were under Resonance’s aegis, he and Taylor determined to do it with the best sources possible.

They started with German archivist Klaus Teubig’s exhaustive 1994 Cole discography. (“His work is indispensable,” Taylor says.) From there, they pored over holdings at the Library of Congress, which included the early Decca Records catalogue as well as the archives of the Armed Forces Radio Service, for whom the King Cole Trio made about a dozen recordings in 1943. There were numerous university archives, including Rutgers’ Institute of Jazz Studies and the University of Colorado. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, they hit pay dirt: a collection of thousands of radio transcription disks, including one with an aircheck of a Long Beach DJ playing “Gone with the Draft”: a transcription of a transcription.

When they started scouring private collections—“cover[ing] the basements of America,” as Friedwald puts it—they uncovered previously undocumented stuff. There was, for example, a homemade record of the trio playing Trummy Young’s “Whatcha’ Know Joe” on the radio in December 1940. Teubig had listed six titles from a 1939 Cinematone transcription session; while these proved elusive, a North Carolina collector contributed a worn Cinematone recording of “Trompin’,” which the trio had already recorded for Standard but which Teubig had not listed. “We were shocked,” Lutthans says. “That either means that seven songs were recorded at the session thought to be a six-song session, or there was a second recording session for Cinematone.”

Most remarkable of all, Taylor had a lead on a one-of-a-kind private recording from the Romany Room, a nightclub in Washington, D.C., that Cole played in 1941. “The grandson of the club owner reached out to me,” he says. “‘The Romany Room Is Jumpin’’ is something that’s been not just unreleased, but there was no knowledge of it. Never appeared in any discography or anything like that. We were thrilled.”

Once they had access to the recordings, Lutthans went to work transferring and cleaning them up where possible, and Taylor did the research. He worked out session dates (though many of them are still speculative) and locations. He also found some theretofore unidentified composers—especially of the songs from the transcriptions, which the services probably bought for cash down just as they did with the Trio’s talents.

“These tunes were really obscure,” Taylor says. “They were never again recorded by anybody, and rarely registered with the copyright office. So I spent some time on the Internet, searching through digitized catalogues. There were some tunes that we weren’t able to identify; it’s highly likely that those are the work of Cole himself, or Oscar Moore. But if we had enough to go on then we were able to definitively ID these composers, which I think is important.”

So does Resonance, which was careful to compensate not only the Cole estate—which had never received a penny for some of the material—but the identifiable songwriters and publishers as well. “This is an official release that’s sanctioned by the family,” Feldman says. “We made it a priority to do it the right way.”

That includes the packaging. Hittin’ the Ramp’s discs are enclosed in gatefold sleeves that contain the discographical information. Also included is a 56-page book with period photographs; a historical essay by Friedwald and a technical one by Lutthans; an appreciation of Oscar Moore’s greatness by guitarist Nick Rossi; and testimonials about Cole from Mathis, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, and his younger brother Freddy. If it’s a collector’s dream, it’s also a rich education both for the uninitiated and for Cole fans who may know little about his early jazz years.

“I want to hook people on Nat, man!” Feldman says. “We want to right the wrong, and get people to talk about him as a great piano player on top of these other gigs. The research that went into this, just the knowledge and the scholarship, is staggering. People are going to find that immense pleasure is gonna come from this.”

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.