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Nat King Cole: Original Five-Tool Jazz Player

Take Five celebrates the birthday of pianist and vocalist Nat King Cole. He was born on March 17, 1919, and over the course of his life became a jazz innovator and an icon of American popular music. A baseball fan, Cole had been scouted by the Negro Leagues as a player, which leads us neatly to our metaphor for today. To put it in baseball parlance, Cole was perhaps the first "five-tool player" in the jazz world.

In baseball, a five-tool player is a treasured resource. He's fast, he's a good defensive player, he throws with accuracy, and he hits for both average and power. Having just one of these skills can make a baseball player's career. The odds against having more than one are astronomical. Having five produces a very rare player.

Cole could wear the five-tool cap. He was the originator of the guitar/bass/piano trio format, played an extremely influential role as a pianist, broke down barriers between jazz and popular music and became a true multimedia superstar. He was also the first African-American to host a nationally broadcast television series. He was enduring, iconic and, appropriately enough, unforgettable.

His pop persona has burned so brightly for so long, it has somewhat eclipsed the breadth and importance of his influence. So, in the spirit of fair play, it's a fine time to celebrate the original five-tool player of jazz, Nat King Cole.

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Jumpin' At Capitol

Cole is credited with launching one of the most popular trio configurations in jazz: piano, bass and guitar. One night in 1937, as the story goes, Cole's drummer didn't show up for a gig. The band carried on without him. Cole liked the sound of the group without a drummer and took his first step into jazz history. The music scene of the time was dominated by big bands, so a trio was an oddity, especially one with no drummer. But the Nat King Cole Trio became the standard all trios strive for and very few attain. Listen to the dynamics between Cole and electric-guitar pioneer Oscar Moore as they read each other's minds in "Jumpin' at Capitol." Along with bassist Johnny Miller, they drive the music into a brilliant give-and-take that sounds as joyful to play as it is to hear.

Straighten Up And Fly Right

Cole's big break came in 1943, when his trio was signed by the fledgling Capitol Records. His composition "Straighten Up and Fly Right," with Cole on vocals and piano, became a hit in 1944 and sold 500,000 copies. It not only crossed over from the race charts to the pop charts; it also vaulted the barrier between jazz and popular music. Cole went on to become Capitol's most successful recording artist of his time. The Capitol Records building, that round landmark office building one block north Hollywood on Vine, became known as "The House That Nat Built."

I've Found A New Baby

It's one thing to be noted as influential. But when you read the list of musicians directly influenced by Cole's revolutionary trio, you discover an artist who actually changed the face of the art form. He was emulated by the likes of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Brown and Ray Charles. By 1946, he was already a chart-topping artist with his trio, but still in great demand as an instrumentalist, as evidenced by his solo and drive in "I've Found a New Baby" with saxophonist Lester Young and Buddy Rich at the drum kit. The spontaneity and joy is immediately evident.

(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons

Nat King Cole was the original king of all media. He was a massively successful pop singer, hosted his own network TV series, played the big rooms in Las Vegas, toured internationally and acted in movies. The singles charts of the late 1940s to mid-'50s sported at least one of his recordings every week. When the first Billboard albums chart was published on March 15, 1945, The King Cole Trio was at No. 1 and stayed there for weeks. This led to the biggest Trio recording so far, his first No. 1 pop single, "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons." That recording session marked Cole's turning point from jazz pianist/singer to lush balladeer (the other track recorded that day was "The Christmas Song," which went on to become one of his all-time biggest sellers). At this point, the Nat King Cole Trio basically became a thing of the past. Cole stood up, stepped away from the piano and walked into music history -- heralded not as one of the innovators of jazz, but as the quintessential voice of mid-20th-century popular music.

Route 66

By 1957, rock 'n' roll started to change the face of the pop charts. It was at this moment that Cole took one last trip back to his jazz roots with the After Midnight LP. It was his last all-jazz album. The strong rhythm section includes his longtime guitarist Johnny Collins, but the trio itself is never featured without a guest soloist such as trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, who plays on this track. Along with Sweets and The King Cole Trio, Cole reached back for a song that was a hit for the trio more than a decade earlier. It's Bobby Troup's classic composition, "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66." Cole was the first artist to record this iconic American song in 1946; it's since been covered by everybody from Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones to Depeche Mode. Cole's reworking of it here is every bit as delightful as the original.

Mary McCann