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NCK & QJ

“Quincy, call the cats back on and let the band play a few more tunes…”

It is a disappointed Nat King Cole who whispers these words in the ear of the young Quincy Jones. The scene takes place in Zurich during their 1960 European spring tour, and the “melancholy monarch”, as he has been called by Look Magazine, has just been booed by the hardcore Swiss jazz fans that came to hear the piano master, the peer to Earl Hines or Art Tatum. Instead, they discover a suave and romantic crooner, a man who “every day receives hundreds of letters from female admirers eager to see him perform live” (Jazz Magazine, March 1960). It is a total lack of understanding and it drives the singer off stage. Now Quincy, as an absolute fan of the early King Cole Trio days can understand, and has the right reaction:

“With all due respect, Nat – go back out and try Sweet Lorraine. On piano, with just the rhythm section.”

Cole looks at Quincy for a while, then turns around, walks back onstage, and “plays the shit out of Sweet Lorraine”. This time the crowd appreciates, and the singer gets back to his sung repertoire, and tears up the audience. “He was one of the best who ever did it, a talented, highly intelligent man, with perfect pitch on top of it all.” sums up the admiring Quincy Jones ( Q : The Autobiography of Quincy Jones by Quincy Jones, Random House, 2001 )

“The King of Double Play” writes Jean Robert Masson in his article on the musician-singer in the May 1960 issue of Jazz Magazine. Is this a two-faced man? “The aficionados of the true jazz pianist are tired by his wanderings into the land of sweetly whispered feelings, and maybe they are starting to doubt that Nat King Cole ever was at first and remains, in spite of it all, a jazzman. Is this unfairness? Let us say we are puzzled by these clever and perpetual changes that Cole himself seems the first to enjoy.” Reality is perhaps simpler and more pragmatic. Yes, the King Cole Trio in the forties produced one the most exciting, sophisticated, subtle music , “a musical language capable of expressing the finest shades of feeling and the most complex ideas” (Nat King Cole, by Daniel Mark Epstein, G.K. Hall & Co, 1999). At the same time, the artist, not a very astute businessman, has benefited little from his talent, and has found himself owing large sums to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. This explains what a pensive King confided to Quincy Jones in a German beer hall during the same 1960 European tour: “I remember the moment I stopped being just a pianist and a singing star and became an industry back home. I had to make a choice between moving up fast and burning out in five years, or taking my time and building it slowly so I make it for the long haul.”

Thus it is the star that “sings for America” whom Norman Granz, the great jazz agent, requests for the 1960 tour in Europe. But it is not the first time that Nathaniel Adams Coles makes the trip. He has already sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary once in 1950, at the time of his syrupy hit, Mona Lisa. At the London Palladium the jazz fans had been very critical of the commercial evolution of the great piano player. This had affected him deeply, as Nat had stepped off stage almost in tears, according to his wife Maria.

Neither is it the first time Nat King Cole pays a visit to Paris. In the spring of 1954, the singer travels again to Europe, stopping first in London, where he is at last celebrated by the English public and by the press. Then he crosses the Channel to go to Paris and to perform for the very first time in the city at the Palais de Chaillot. Of course, Nat takes advantage of the opportunity to see the sights of the French capital, in the good company of the great Lena Horne – along with her husband. Maria, Nat’s second spouse, is by his side, as she is on each and every tour; Maria is fully aware, contrary to Nadine, Nat’s first wife, that it is best to keep a man such as Nat within eyesight…

In Paris, Nat and Maria are shown petting a sheep in front of “Le Mouton de Panurge”, a famed Parisian restaurant known for its gigantic meals. This must be to Nat’s liking, whose favorite dishes include pan fried pork chops and delicatessen. His yen for pastrami and other Jewish specialties has brought him among his close friends the nickname of “Nat King Cohn”… In April 1957, Cole returns a second time to the French capital, to sing at the same place, the Palais de Chaillot. French clarinetist Hubert Rostaing leads the backing band.

And so on the month of April 1960, it is Quincy Jones’s turn to conduct his Big Band behind Nature Boy. This meeting of the two musicians is the work of Norman Granz, a great fan of King Cole. In 1942, Granz, then an up-and-coming jazz impresario, produced with King Cole a memorable recording session including tenor-sax Lester Young and bassist Red Callender. Two years later, in July 1944, it is Granz again who hires him to play at the very first J.A.T.P. (Jazz at the Philarmonic) concert-jam session. By getting together, among others, such artists as Jay Jay Johnson (trombone), Illinois Jacquet (tenor sax) Les Paul (guitar) along with the piano player, the agent fulfills his dream of staging jazz concerts in larger and more comfortable halls, where  young artists would get the serious attention they deserved, while  keeping the spirit of a improvised jam session.

When Granz contacts him for this European tour in 1960, he is fully aware of the commercial slant that Nat has taken, even if Granz regrets it. Getting ready for the tour, Granz asks Nat (whom he is paying $ 3,000 per show) if he would play a couple of only instrumental numbers, just him at the piano. Cole replies that he really does not much care for playing anymore… In the book Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice (by Tad Hershorn, University of California Press, 2011) the jazz promoter sums it up: “He may have privately liked to hear jazz, but from what I knew of Nat, I think he just gave up the idea, and for him it was to right decision.” Quincy Jones echoes this sentiment: “I’m not that dogmatic. I think a person has the right to express everything they want to. He was a piano player first and he was a singer. He was the greatest who ever lived along with Sinatra. So be it. I loved to hear Nat sing.”

There is in fact a small dose of chance involved in this reunion of “Q’” and “King”, those two mega names in jazz. Quincy has been in Paris since January 1960; together with his musicians, he is the regular band backing the Free and Easy musical. This show came to Paris to get ready for Broadway, and it flopped. When the musical folds after three weeks, Jones and his gang are stranded. Several concert promoters rush to help, among them Daniel Filipacchi, and Norman Granz.

At the Paris Olympia, the Nat King Cole Show opens with a forty minutes set by Jones’ full Big Band, with Roger Guérin standing in for Clark Terry who has returned to the U.S. After intermission, Cole’s rhythm section takes over Quincy’s. These are the musicians who have backed the singer for several years: John Collins on guitar, Charles Harris on bass, and Lester Young’s younger brother Lee on drums.

Prior to this, Nat King Cole has taken meticulous care in getting ready, under the scrutiny of Sparky Tavares, his private valet. He has sat down at his make-up mirror, put on his ruffled dress shirt, and tied carefully his bow tie. He has worked at his bow tie for ten minutes until it is perfect. Sparky has handed him his knee-length black socks with garters and his file-top shoes. Nat has sat around smoking a cigarette or two, while conversing with his valet in boxer shorts. In this time lapse before show time, perhaps is he cursing himself, as he chain smokes, several packs a day, not to be able to kick this deadly habit that will kill him five years later…Perhaps his thoughts wander off towards his wife Maria, with whom he has recently celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary, and adopted a little boy named Kelly a few months earlier…Or perhaps towards the new Democrat candidate for the Presidential Election, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, with whom he is acquainted and appreciates since 1958. The young senator from Massachusetts has just sent him a note asking for his official support.

More likely, Cole thinks ahead, for in two weeks it will be the highlight of his international tour: he will perform at the Royal Command Performance Gala in London, in front of Queen Elizabeth II and the full Royal Family. Natalie and Maria, his ten year-old daughter and his wife, will fly in from the U.S. for the occasion, as they will be at the Monte Carlo concert under the sparkling eyes of princess Grace of Monaco.

In his dressing room at the Olympia Theater, the stage manager has come to warn him that the intermission is nearly over. Sparky has handed him his stage outfit, the mohair trousers and jacket. This tuxedo was custom made to Maria’s specifications by Sy Devore, the tailor for Hollywood celebs. Finally, Nat King Cole unrolls his six feet one inch and walks towards the stage door.

To describe what follows on stage, to capture the indefinable charm of the American mega-star, there are no better words than those of Alain Gerber:

“King was a great lord. He practiced a mock casualness, but taught true lightness. Not inconsistency, but “aerialty”. He had the supreme elegance to assume a mantle of futility, to incarnate the superfluous, so that he might, within the space of a song, relieve us of our bodily weight and swathe us in the comforting illusion of insouciance. That is why we can’t do without him: “unforgettable” he was and will be forever, he who devoted himself to oblivion.”

(Unforgettable , by  Alain Gerber, translated by Don Waterhouse, booklet for  CD box: Nat King Cole, The Quintessence,  Frémeaux & Associés, 1998)