I’m an interpreter of stories. When I perform it’s like sitting down at my piano and telling fairy stories.
Nat King Cole
While we’ve learned about some of the jazz sirens in past weeks, this week we are looking at some of their male counterparts, the crooners. These are voices that have told stories and live on in our memories.
Nat King Cole (1919 – 1965)
While most famous for his voice, Nat King Cole was also a fabulous, and always swinging, jazz pianist. He made the piano trio instrumentation famous (piano, bass, guitar), a model that was later employed by Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. His singing career was said to have been started accidentally when a drunken patron demanded him to sing a request; it didn’t take long for his richly unique baritone to become the focus of listeners.
Cole did much to further the cause of African-Americans; he was the first African-American to host a prime-time television show in 1956-1957, The Nat “King” Cole Show. The show regularly featured jazz illuminati performing in a jam session format. These shows are excellent snapshots of so many great players at the height of their creative powers. The show ended not because of popularity, but because NBC found it impossible to get enough advertising to make the show viable. This caused Cole to quip; “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
From 1943 until his much too early passing due to lung cancer, Cole appeared in over twenty-five movies, including Citizen Kane, and he also had an incredible number of hits, many of which have become the definitive versions of what are now standard pieces of our popular culture. It is hard to imagine a song like “Route 66” or “The Christmas Song” without hearing his distinctive voice.
Here’s a performance of “Route 66” with his Trio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Mel Tormé (1925 – 1999)
Mel Tormé was nicknamed the “Velvet Fog.” Not only did he have a beautiful voice, but it was amazingly flexible. He also had wonderful ideas while scatting, and because of this vocal gift and his scatting ability, he is, for some, a male version of Ella Fitzgerald.
Raised in Chicago, Tormé both sang and played drums, winning multiple awards as a child. Harry James wanted Tormé to join his ensemble as a drummer when he was only fifteen, but Tormé and his family decided he was too young for this. However, only a year later, Tormé found himself touring as a member of a backup band for Chico Marx, and at seventeen he appeared in his first of many films.
He found himself with a variety show, Mel Tormé Time, and a number of hits in the late 40’s/early 50’s, including “Blue Moon,” “Again,” “Anywhere I Wander,” and “Careless Hands.” After these hits, he began artistically successful ventures with writer Marty Paich. Some other great projects involved Tormé with Buddy Rich, George Shearing, and Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass Tribute.
Here’s his 1949 hit “Careless Hands”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
He was a busy actor, appearing in twenty-two films and twenty-five television shows, including a recurring role on Night Court in the late 80’s that gave him a nice bump in popularity.
Tormé was also a writer, beginning with “Lament to Love” for Harry James at age fifteen. While he wrote over 250 songs, he is best remembered for a tune he claimed to have written in forty-five minutes. He co-wrote the “The Christmas Song” in 1946, and although he often lamented that he wasn’t born ten years earlier so he could have been part of the big band era at its height, “The Christmas Song” (referred to as “my annuity” by Tormé) kept him nicely afloat through his long career.
Check out Tormé’s amazing scatting & Buddy Rich’s drumming in this performance of “Love for Sale”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Tony Bennett (1926 – )
A man who famously left a body part in San Francisco celebrated his ninety-fourth birthday earlier this month. Happy birthday, Tony Bennett!
As a young man, Antonio Bennedetto studied both music and painting, and Bennett occupies a great deal of time these days successfully doing the latter under his original name. He began his incredible run of hits in 1951 with “Because of You” after being signed to Columbia Records by Mitch Miller. “Rags to Riches” and “Stranger in Paradise” followed, and Bennett’s career was then set. All told, Bennett has had more than fifty tunes chart on Billboard, and he has won nineteen Grammy’s along the way. In 1989, as part of the Tri-C Jazz Fest, the CJO backed up Tony in front of a packed Palace Theatre for a most memorable evening.
While Bennett has certainly performed and recorded a great deal of pop music, his leanings have been in jazz. Since 1957, his favored touring ensemble has almost always been a jazz trio, led for most of those years by pianist Ralph Sharon. The recordings that he did with Count Basie and Bill Evans are just great listens, and one would be hard pressed to find a better choice than either of the two Tony Bennett/Bill Evans albums for a Sunday morning. Bennett’s unique phrasing, coupled with his equally unique voice make these, and much of his oeuvre, timeless.
- From Basie Swings/Bennett Sings, here is “Jeepers Creepers”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- From Tony Bennett & Bill Evans, Together Again here is “Make Someone Happy”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
During his long and illustrious career, he has had pop hits as a crooner, and has also released work that is quite worthy of admiration from even the staunchest of jazz hardliners. Few aside from Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald have done more to popularize and continue the Great American Songbook.
Before we part, we’ll leave you with “The Lady is a Tramp,” a duet between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?