by Daniel Mark Epstein
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux; 0374219125; $27.00US; Oct. 99
When he died in 1965, at age forty-five, Nat King Cole was already a musical legend. As famous as Frank Sinatra, he had sold more records than anyone but Bing Crosby.
Written with the narrative pacing of a novel, this absorbing biography traces Cole's rise to fame, from boy-wonder jazz genius to megastar in a racist society. Daniel Mark Epstein brings Cole and his times to vivid life: his precocious entrance onto the vibrant jazz scene of his hometown, Chicago; the creation of his Trio and their rise to fame; the crossover success of such songs as "Straighten Up and Fly Right"; and his years as a pop singer and television star, the first African-American to have his own show. Epstein examines Cole's insistence on changing society through his art rather than political activism, the romantic love story of Cole and Maria Ellington, and Cole's famous and influential image of calm, poise, and elegance, which concealed the personal turmoil and anxiety that undermined his health.
Daniel Mark Epstein is the author of many books of poetry, stories, and essays. His work has been widely anthologized. His plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in regional theater, and his biography of Aimee Semple McPherson was praised by The New York Times as "a fascinating story, well told." He lives in Baltimore with his wife and son.
The following is an excerpt from the book: Nat King Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux; 0374219125; $27.00US; Oct. 99
Copyright © 1999 Daniel Mark Epstein
The kid was wearing a light green gabardine suit that draped his long, slender frame so loosely it looked like the first high-note blast of a trumpet might blow his coat off. His mouth was set, his dark face brooding like the rain-fixed clouds on that warm night in September. Approaching the bandstand with a flat-footed, pigeon-toed shamble, he held his head down and to one side, his slanted eyes averted, as if afraid to meet the gaze of several thousand dancers, jazz lovers, and curiosity seekers who filled the Savoy Ballroom.
The kid was shy, and he was amazingly bold. He was the one the young dancers had come to see. They came to hear him play, the boy who would be King, a skinny sixteen-year-old pianist who dared to go up against Earl Hines in the Battle of Rhythm. In 1935 Hines was King of the Ivories, pianist without peer, leader of the hottest dance band on the South Side of Chicago, which was the jazz mecca of America at the very moment the music had achieved a peak of perfection it could not sustain or regain, ever. The music would never be better.
Earl Hines smiled at the people. They called him Gatemouth because of his long smile, full of teeth. He had a dapper pencil-thin mustache and wide-set eyes with high arched brows. He grinned at the jitterbugs on the dance floor, and he smiled up at the slim kid who was whispering orders to his sidemen setting up on their side of the double bandstand.
Gatemouth beamed at the crowd of thousands milling and jostling on the half-acre dance floor of the Savoy Ballroom. The bar in the northwest corner of the room was busy serving drinks to parties at the tables around the three sides of the dance floor. There were 3,000 people in the joint already and it would hold 6,000, at 40 cents a head. It was 30 cents a head before 8:30, when the show was to begin, but most folks couldn't get to the Savoy much before the show started. Gatemouth smiled at his competitor, but the youngster, self-absorbed, earnest, did not smile back, not because he was rude or hostile but because he was going about his business.
Earl Hines may have wondered if this very skinny, very black kid with the slanted eyes and bad complexion knew how to smile. A woman leaned over and whispered in Earl's ear. Wasn't there something about this boy, anyway, a power lurking? Wasn't there a kind of sweetness and vulnerability in his young face, his lean athletic carriage, his thick, soft hair? He was, well, he was adorable, that was the word, like a lion cub. You couldn't help but like him whether or not he could play a bit of piano ...
You could hardly help liking the kid, and right now Gatemouth was trying. He was trying like hell not to like him, tonight's rival in the Battle of Rhythm. The King of the Ivories could not figure out just how this had happened, how he, a master pianist and bandleader, thirty-two years old, at the top of his game, had been matched against this kitten half his age, this child who was up past his bedtime. The fledgling band would play the first set, Hines's band would follow, and so they would alternate, all night, competing for the crowd's applause. What hare-brained publicist, what backstabbing promoter would have put him in this position. Ed Fox of the Grand Terrace? Eddie Plique or Harry Englestein of the Savoy?
What could Hines possibly win from this beanpole kid and his high school band? It was as if Jack Dempsey, in the full glare of Madison Square Garden, should be pitted against some half-starved club fighter from Des Moines. If he beat him up, the crowd's heart would go out to the victim. If he didn't, if the youngster scored any points off the old man, he'd look like a young hero ... Gatemouth smiled at the Savoy. He had been set up. Money was changing hands. Money was always changing hands. Gatemouth was the property of Ed Fox of the Grand Terrace, on loan from the Terrace to the Savoy for two nights in September, the 7th and 8th. Last night the show had gone from 9 to 4 a.m. after the election of the "mayor" of Bronzeville, an annual popularity contest on the South Side. Folks had called this area Bronzeville since the blacks had settled here at the turn of the century.
Hines had been so busy he might not have noticed the little two-by- five-inch ad on page four of the Chicago Defender that day:
Battle of Rhythm
Sunday, Sept. 8th
Earl Hines and his Orchestra
Nat Cole, Chicago's Young Maestro,
And his Rogues of Rhythm
Gatemouth had to admit it was good marketing. His orchestra was the premier dance band in the Midwest, with nightly network broadcasts from the Terrace Ballroom, and dozens of recordings on the Victor label. And the kid? Somehow he was already famous in Chicago. Almost a year earlier, October 6, 1934, the Negro newspaper the Chicago Defender had published a headshot of the fifteen-year-old in a white collar and dark necktie, pouting pretty much like he was doing now, under the words "Plenty Hot," over the news story that "Nat" Cole had "started out a few years ago as just another musician, but today he is known as the leader of one of the hottest bands in the Middle West." Started out a few years ago! How old was he then? Nine? Ten? Now everybody knew that the kid and his band were battling every Sunday afternoon at the Warwick Hall against an older high school bandleader, Tony Fambro. They called Tony "Little Duke" because he modeled his band on Ellington's.
Jazz was bigger than any varsity sport on the South Side of Chicago in 1935. Any boy who could blow five notes on a horn or pluck a fiddle string or bang a pot wanted to be in a band. There were dozens of these outfits, hundreds of them. Somehow Nat Cole, playing in clubs and dance halls from childhood, had set himself apart, above the rest of them.
Everybody liked him, liked to hear him play piano. He had a following. And somebody "up there" liked him too, it seemed, somebody in the upper echelon of the Chicago Defender, the weekly newspaper that was the voice, the conscience and the guiding spirit of the South Side. They kept printing his name and his picture in the "Stage-Screen-Drama" section of the paper. On December 15, 1934, they had printed Nat Cole's picture again, this time the brooding, intense face in three-quarter profile, in white tie. It was to publicize the Defender's Midnight Show at the Regal Theatre. This was the seventh annual Christmas Basket Show, all proceeds to go to needy families.
Cole's name already was being used to sell seats in the largest theater on the South Side of Chicago.
"You are sure to like his playing," wrote the journalist, "for he is a second Earl Hines."
Gatemouth smiled, reflectively. Was there enough room in Chicago for another Earl Hines?
To know Nat Cole you must first know Earl Hines, his artistic father.
Earl's teeth were like the white keys of a piano. They called him Gatemouth because his mouth was like the pearly gates and he was always smiling. He smiled because he loved to play piano and he was almost always playing. Sometimes he smiled so hard the muscles in his face would freeze and the smile would stick on his face for an hour or so after the show was over. One of his sidemen would have to massage the smile off his face.
Musicians were already beginning to call Earl Hines "Fatha" at age thirty-two because he had given birth to a style--more than a style, a virtual language--of jazz piano. There were wicked rumors that Hines had an invisible third hand, that he had made a pact with the Devil. Men who had never seen him up close, envious musicians, said that Gatemouth had cut the "webs" between his fingers with a razor blade, so as to give him the extra stretch needed to manage those tenth-interval trills.
Every kid pianist in the Midwest copied Earl Hines.
Little Nat Cole learned to play jazz piano by listening to Gatemouth on the radio. And when the radio blew a tube the boy would sneak out of his apartment on Prairie Avenue, run several blocks through the dark, and stand outside the Grand Terrace nightclub, under the elevated train, and listen to Earl's piano live from there. It inspired him to precocious mastery of jazz.
Hines, too, had been a prodigy, mastering the Czerny exercises and playing Chopin preludes by the age of eleven in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. By the time he was fourteen Hines was winning prizes and getting his picture in the paper. He was drawn to popular music. Earl was living with his Aunt Sadie Phillips when he was in high school, and she dabbled in light opera. Musicians like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, renowned pianist/composer Lucky Roberts, and singer Lois Deppe liked to visit Sadie and play on her piano. That is how Earl first heard ragtime and blues.
Mr. Deppe the jazz singer was so impressed with the boy's command of the keyboard he persuaded Earl's father to let him come and live at Lieder House. This was a sort of cabaret and inn in Pittsburgh. There, for fifteen dollars a week, Earl accompanied the singer. Soon Hines organized a band called the Symphonian Serenaders. He watched other pianists. Jim Fellman taught him to make "tenths" with his left hand. Johnny Waters of Detroit could stretch tenths with his right hand while playing a little melody with the middle fingers. Young Earl watched, and listened, and stretched his growing hands.
Deppe took him on the train to visit Lucky Roberts in New York. The titanic composer of "Junk Man Rag" lived in a three-room apartment furnished exclusively with pianos. Talk about the musicians' skill in terms of quantity must have started with Lucky, who did indeed play a lot of piano. He had great big hands, and fingers bigger than most people's thumbs. Lucky would break down your piano. He could, and would, break down anybody's piano, when he got warmed to his work on numbers like "Maple Leaf Rag" or "The Crazy Blues." He made money writing show tunes, most of which went to buy pianos, which he regarded as a disposable commodity like shirt collars and umbrellas. He had a piano for every day of the week, for every mood. To walk through Lucky's rooms was to survey the wreckage of his musical epiphanies.
Earl Hines and Lois Deppe
watched Lucky roll up his sleeves and attack one of his torn-out
pianos in pursuit of some uncommonly syncopated boogie-woogie; the
men ducked and dodged piano keys as they came flying across the
By the time Earl Hines arrived in Chicago in 1924 at age twenty, he had recorded eight sides for Gennet, including his own "Congaine," and Lucky's "Isabel." He had formed his own band with Benny Carter on sax and "Cuban" Bennet blowing trumpet. And at twenty-one, Gatemouth had forged a piano style that surpassed that of James P. Johnson and rivaled the work of the great Jelly Roll Morton, the self-styled "Originator of Jazz."
Ferdinand Joseph Morton, a.k.a. Ferdinand La Menthe and "Jelly Roll," born in Louisiana in 1885, moved to Chicago a year before Hines. In the sporting houses of New Orleans's red-light district, Storyville, Jelly Roll fused ragtime, blues, and marches into a foot-stomping, finger-snapping dance music for the piano. His left hand would "stride" out bass rhythms like the drums and saxhorns of a marching band (oomp-cha, oomp-cha) while his right hand fingered syncopated melodies and high obbligati.
It was Jelly Roll's stride style of piano that folks danced to in sporting houses and gin mills from New Orleans to Biloxi, in roadhouses and at rent parties from Jacksonville to Mobile, from St. Louis to Kansas City, from San Francisco to Detroit, as Jelly rambled for twenty years before hauling up to Chicago in the summer of 1923.
Jelly Roll came swaggering into a house party and musicians made way for him like the Red Sea parting for Moses. He was a slender and light-skinned Creole, a dapper man utterly without humility. As he took over the piano he would throw his head back and proclaim: "I am the great Jelly Roll Morton." Then he would turn his head to the crowd and flash them a smile that lit up the 30-point diamond set in his front tooth. He would pound the keyboard hard with block chords in both hands to establish his authority, then lightly tease with a seductive melody as he again shouted, "I am the great Jelly Roll! " Then the voodoo thunder of the striding bass would start in the left hand and a double-note obbligato or trill in the right hand on a knockout tune like "King Porter Stomp." As he played, Jelly Roll would scream, "I invented jazz! Yes I did! I did that!" But by then everybody would be jumping and swinging around the room, and the music was so good nobody cared who had invented it.
Jelly Roll may have created jazz piano. But Gatemouth Earl Hines was the first grand master of the art, bringing to that complex, many-voiced instrument the volume and harmonic richness it deserves. He drew upon three hundred years of European chording and counterpoint to embellish the dance music of New Orleans. He would free his left hand from the chains of the stride bass, without missing a beat of dance rhythm, using his left to make melodies and harmonies from one end of the keyboard to the other. Upward glissandos, octave slides, he played with a nimble left hand so free of his right that it was hard to believe there was only one man at the piano.
Jelly heard Earl Hines playing solo at the Elite No. 2 Club in Chicago in 1924, before Gatemouth went on the road with Carroll Dickerson's band. A few years later he might have heard Earl at the Sunset CafÈ, a mob-controlled nightclub on 35th and Calumet, playing ducts with Louis Armstrong, numbers such as "Muggles" and "Weather Bird Rag."
There in the Sunset CafÈ in 1927 and 1928 the twenty-one-year-old keyboard genius and the twenty-seven-year-old archangel of the trumpet created the seminal rhythmic language of ensemble jazz.
It is fitting that the central act of creation was not a solo or a chorus but a duet: high jazz was born by Satchmo's horn out of Gatemouth's piano. Listening to the masterpieces recorded in those years, "Skip the Gutter" or "West End Blues," you cannot separate rhythm from melody, or divorce the inspiration of the piano from the trumpet's. They greet each other, trade phrases and solos, they harmonize. They fall in love, fight, and make up again. If Jelly Roll Morton heard them at the Sunset CafÈ, or later at the Warwick Hall, where Gatemouth and Satchmo tried, and failed, to start their own gangsterless nightclub, Jelly might well have wondered what God had wrought, what his own invention had come to. These young men were breaking the old wood into kindling and setting the house on fire.
ON HIS BIRTHDAY, December 28,1928, Earl Hines and his ten-piece band opened Ed Fox's brand-new Grand Terrace, a Chicago nightclub and dance hall at Oakwood and South Parkway Boulevard. Customers sat on different terracelike levels on either side of the bandstand. Owner and manager Fox was a stocky Jew with close-cropped hair, a flat nose, and a triangular smile. He had ambitions to be a music impresario.
Puffing on a cigar, he told Hines, "I have a hundred thousand dollars," back when that much could buy more than a million can now. "I'm going to run this place for one year. Whether anybody comes in here or not, you're going to get your money."
For the twenty-three-year-old pianist this was a dream come true. He bought a three-piece suit and a beaver coat. He bought kid gloves and a big gold ring. His contract with Fox guaranteed Gatemouth $150 a week, rain or shine. It was a fortune. Earl and his band began recording for Victor records in 1929. Summers the band toured, playing St. Louis and Earl's hometown, Pittsburgh. WSBC radio began broadcasting Earl's performances at the Grand Terrace.
In 1932, when business was booming at the Grand Terrace, Al Capone sent five men to pay Ed Fox a visit. They entered without knocking. The first man went straight to the cash register. One stood outside the front door, on guard, one on either side of the building, while the lieutenant of the squad led Fox to the back office.
"We're going to take twenty-five percent," Capone's man told Fox.
"You must be losing your mind," the club owner replied.
When the visitor softly explained that Fox needed protection, and that his wife and little boys also needed protection, Ed Fox found himself without the heart to refuse it.
From that point forward Fox had a partner in the gold mine that was the Grand Terrace, and Earl Hines had two bosses, one of whom was scarface Al Capone. Police never came near the speakeasy. Gangs would come in and try to outspend one another. Al Capone would drop by the club. Earl said hello to him at the door. Capone would lift his hand to straighten the handkerchief in Earl's breast pocket and later Gatemouth would find a hundred-dollar bill there. It was during the reign of Al Capone that Earl Hines got his three-thousand-dollar Bechstein piano. Band members Jimmie Mundy and Trummy Young were amazed how Earl could break strings in the Bechstein with the power of his left hand. Later they would hammer at the Bechstein with their fists and they couldn't do it.
Capone began to think of Gatemouth as property. When Hines went on the road with his band, two bodyguards accompanied him everywhere because Scarface was worried a rival gang might injure Hines to hurt Capone. When the pianist protested he didn't need two bodyguards, Capone shrugged and said it was no big deal, he had thirty of them himself.
Now Gatemouth smiled at the boy called Nat Cole. Did he really want to be a second Earl Hines? Did he know the cost?
DURING THE RULE OF THE GANGSTERS in the 1930s Earl Hines's dream became a nightmare. He was a black songbird in a gilded cage. Hines was one of many great musicians chained to a certain nightclub or theater the way antebellum Negroes were chained to a plantation. The jazz slave masters were mobsters: Owney Madden of Harlem's Cot- ton Club, Johnny Lazia of Kansas City, and Al Capone in Chicago. The bandstand at the Cotton Club even featured white columns, with a backdrop that depicted the slave quarters and weeping willows of a Southern mansion. The mob network controlled the bookings and salaries of such jazz luminaries as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.
But while Fox and others at the Grand Terrace were getting rich, Gatemouth found himself shackled to a $150-per-week contract that was built to outlast Chicago itself. Through his front man Ed Fox, Capone had a covenant with Hines that would not even allow him to use his own name if he left the Grand Terrace without permission. The contract existed in perpetuo: If Fox died, Gatemouth would be the widow's chattel; if she died, the eldest son would inherit the pianist . . .
If it wasn't the gangsters it was the musicians' union complicating Earl's life. Jealous musicians without steady work resented Earl's arrangement with the Grand Terrace. They would mutter under their breath: "Everybody standing around the mail box / While Gatemouth got his pension with Mister Ed Fox." It was bad enough having Al Capone ordering him around, but he was damned if the union was going to tell him where he could play.
So in May of 1933, when the union suspended Hines for playing a nonunion cafÈ in St. Louis, he tried to ignore it. He needed money. A month later he played a nonunion gig at a dance in Danville, Illinois, and the union suspended him for a year. That hurt him, and he spent much of the summer of 1933 in the appeal process, getting his colleagues to forgive and reinstate him.
And if it wasn't the gangsters, or the union, it was the women, flirting, distracting, double-timing, loving and leaving him in joy or misery. But that was another story ...
Through all the toil and trouble Hines at least had his music, his piano, and the orchestra to nourish and sustain him. And he enjoyed the company of bandmates who were great musicians in their own right: Walter Fuller and George Dixon on trumpets, Trummy Young and Louis Taylor on trombones, Budd Johnson and Jimmy Mundy on saxophones, plus Omer Simeon and Darnell Howard, versatile on clarinets and saxes.
Now they were all standing around at the Savoy Ballroom, smoking, drinking, joking, waiting for this new kid Cole to hit the keys and make music. That's what they were all here for, the music, to play it and hear it and dance to it. None of them were getting rich from it.
It was almost nine o'clock, and soon the kid had to begin. A stream of automobiles crawling bumper to bumper north and south on South Parkway Boulevard was unloading passengers--girls in black satin dresses, guys in loose pinstripes and shiny wing-tip shoes. Incredibly, the crowd was still filing into the ballroom, three, four thousand of them, laughing, jostling under the lighted beams of the high ceiling, eddying around the square columns with the plaster Corinthian capitals, maneuvering for a little ground on the dance floor with a clear view of the stage.
There stood the announcer, Eddie Plique, a thin white guy with a pinched face, dark eyes, and a square chin, holding a crumpled piece of paper. Over the din at the Savoy, Eddie Plique introduced the meager band of high school boys that would throw the first punch of the evening... "Ladies and gentlemen, Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes!" Applause. "On saxophone, Andrew Gardner, on trumpet, Charles Gray ... Russell Shores on drums ... on bass, Mr. Henry Fort, on trombone John Dawkins ... and last but not least, the Prince of Ivories, Nat 'Schoolboy' Cole!"
At the sound of Cole's name, a roar of affection arose from the audience, and Earl Hines knew he was in trouble. The Schoolboy had the home-court advantage. If this scant band of amateurs could play jazz at all, then it would take enormous finesse and tact for Hines's fourteen-piece orchestra to survive the night with any dignity. It was David vs. Goliath.
Could the kid play? Gatemouth watched the boy as he sat sweating under the bright lights of the bandstand, fronting his ragged orchestra of dented horns, dressed in ill-fitting green suits like their leader's, gripping their instruments in terror as if the dancers were about to open fire on them. What would they play?
The kid jerked his left hand in the air and dropped it. There sounded the dull sputtering of an alto saxophone, and they were off running, the kid nodding on the beat, his arms hanging at his sides as the muted trumpet stated the theme. It was Gatemouth and his arranger Quinn Wilson's version of "Sweet Georgia Brown." Hines might have known the battle of rhythm would be fought with his own weapons. The kid knew him by heart. Maybe he would just echo the master, roughly, in respectful homage. That wouldn't be so bad. Or would it?
"No gal made has got a shade on ... sweeet Georgia Brown..." No vocal, just the simple tune played by the muted trumpet in a steady moderate tempo and a little doubling at the end of the chorus but nothing too ambitious. Then the sax returned to take over the next chorus, blurting the melody, chewing it up a little while the trumpet harmonized in the fourth line, or commented with obbligati in the fifth and sixth. It wasn't very good playing but it wasn't quite embarrassing either ...
Then the crowd that had been murmuring and restless grew still. There was a perceptible straining of attention as they heard, somewhere a long way off, ever so faintly through the dense forest of horn growls and blasts, drumrolls, and thumping bass, a ripple of harmony. There was a dear harp in the distance that moved toward them rapidly as the young man at the piano began to brush his long hands lightly over the keys, looking at the crowd slyly out of the corners of his eyes. It was the kid, Nat Cole, entering the Savoy Ballroom through the last bars of the second chorus, come to rescue his schoolboy band from adolescent aimlessness and confusion.
The next chorus was all his, and Cole pounced on it, grabbing up the theme with his right hand in bright clear octaves while keeping a solid stride rhythm with his left hand. That was good, a fine copy of the master, Gatemouth, but how far could he go with it? The crowd was bouncing, nodding in time, and some were calling out encouragement. At the fifth bar Cole hit the high note and slid down off it into the middle register with the grace of an otter. Then he bounced back to play three more measures the same, maintaining the melody line within the cascade of glissandos, and the crowd began clapping in time. At the ninth bar the kid threw his right hand far east to grab whatever notes he could find up there and came down with clams, cherrystones, raw noise. But it hardly mattered as Nat cut the notes into double-eighths, sixteenths. All the while that stride rhythm kept going strong, rocking in the bass, Earl's men were staring and all the kids in the ballroom were on their feet dancing.
Gatemouth smiled in wonder at the kitten on the keys. It would be a long night. The kid had the gift, no question. But how bad did he want it, the music, the moments of glory, the trouble--gangsters, unions, the women? He might have the gift, but he was going to have to fight for it. Tonight and forever.
Who was Nat Cole, this boy who would be King?
Copyright © 1999 Daniel Mark Epstein