Living for decades in the shadow of his famous, beloved big brother, Nat “King” Cole, Freddy Cole didn’t begin to emerge as a fine singer and pianist in his own right until the 1990s, when he was already in his 60s.
Over those years of fraternal total eclipse, Freddy Cole diligently fine-tuned his craft, both with formal studies, including a Juilliard stint, and by playing virtually everywhere and anywhere.
While painfully shortchanged back then in terms of fame and fortune, Cole nonetheless amassed a priceless artistic asset by learning how to get inside a song’s essence as the way to get inside his listeners’ heads, and maybe even their hearts.
Cole will display the signature warmth, openness and performance skills he’s honed as a lifelong troubadour as he leads his quartet on Saturday, July 23 at 8:30 pm in his second appearance at Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club.
Evidently, Cole’s glowing style was much at home in his debut performance at the snug shoreline club noted for its intimate ambience, a happily flourishing venue where nuance thrives, the audience listens, and the piano is tuned.
What brother Nat seemed to have been born with—that preternatural ability to connect with ease and grace—Freddy studied, polished and perfected, transforming that quality into his own expressive approach. Yes, his baritone timbres, flawless timing and relaxed, romantic phrasing at times recall the unforgettable sound of his superstar brother, but Freddy is very much his own man.
Now 84 years old, he has been crowned as a grand patriarch among sage interpreters of the American Songbook and jumping jazz standards, and is often praised as “a musician’s musician.”
In fact, since his long overdue ascension, which escalated precipitously early in the 21st century, Cole’s acclaimed recordings and popular live appearances have transformed him into a royal figure, perhaps even as the incarnation of yet another King Cole, not through the rite of family succession but in his own right.
As Freddy “King” Cole or King Cole II—take your choice of monarchical monikers—Freddy embodies a mini-restoration of Nat’s aesthetic realm. Or, less exaltedly but no less accurately, he represents the continuation of Nat’s regal values, including grace under pressure, swing, and sophistication.
From the time Freddy was a kid and the youngest of four gifted brothers, the musical intensity in the Cole household was formidable. His hometown of Chicago rocked with live jazz then, as did radio and the flood of readily available 78 rpm platters serving everything from Basie to Bird.
Besides Nat, the future jazz titan who died from lung cancer at only 45 in 1965, Freddy had two other older, also musically talented brothers, Eddie and Ike.
Born in 1931, 12 years after Nat, Freddy began playing piano at age five or six, a precocious musical gift complementing his equally obvious athletic skills.
By the late 1940s, Freddy was a sensational running back and linebacker in high school, a player with maybe even the potential to make a name for himself in the NFL, running touchdowns instead of chord changes.
All those dreams of pigskin fame were quite literally spiked in a split second one day when Cole dove after a fumble and wound up with his left hand severely damaged and bleeding, slashed open accidentally by an opponent’s metal cleats in a violent pileup on the muddy field of glory.
Some of that inglorious muck got stuck in the open wound. Instead of bowing out immediately, Cole elected to play through the pain.
Days later, a serious bone infection had set in, leading to a long hospitalization and even the possibility that his infected hand would have to be amputated. What saved Cole from amputation, he says, was that he could still play the piano with his damaged left hand. That encouraging sign was one of the reasons doctors decided not to amputate.
Naturally, Nat, the loving, super-gifted brother was a powerful influence on Freddy in his formative years. Nat’s star was already rising in the ‘40s with his splendid King Cole Trio. And a 12-year difference in the sibling relationship inevitably elevated the iconic big brother to all-knowing adult status and godlike influence, transcending that of mere mortals like mom or dad.
Nonetheless, Freddy developed his own interests and varied, style-shaping tastes.
For example, he expanded his influences outside the family sphere to many jazz singers, including his prime influence, Billy Eckstine. He loved the way Billie Holiday phrased and enjoyed listening to vocalist Dick Haymes on the radio.
Although Nat had one of the brightest, hardest-swinging piano sounds ever, Freddy says his main keyboard influences were such diverse stylists as Oscar Peterson, John Lewis and Teddy Wilson.
Inside the insulated world of the conservatory, Freddy studied at Juilliard and later earned a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.
But his best training ground was the real-life conservatory without walls -- that is, performing night after night in front of live audiences.
Over his long apprenticeship on the road, he developed the ability to read his audiences’ feelings, an intuitive, visual literacy that can’t be taught in the conservatory. It’s a skill learned only through frequent, total immersion in playing for audiences with varied responses to what and how you’re performing.
Cole played countless venues, even at what he says were then called roadhouses.
As a peripatetic roadhouse scholar, he learned all the tunes. Besides mastering lyrics and chord progressions, he perfected his timing, phrasing, and the relaxed rapport he establishes with listeners.
Now deeply ingrained, connecting with audiences has become an automatic element in achieving his primary goal, which is to reach out and touch each individual listener with his music. An emotional bonding, it’s also a form of communion that celebrates both Nat’s legacy as well as Freddy’s unique artistry as a singer and pianist.
Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.
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