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Nat "King" Cole: Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943)

Victor L. Schermer By

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While he achieved fame and fortune as a pops crooner of the 1950s-60s, Nat "King" Cole firmly occupies a place in jazz history. Unlike Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and others who began their careers as singers, Cole started out as a pianist, composer/arranger, and band leader, working small clubs in Chicago, soon adding vocals at the suggestion of a fan. From the late 1930s through 1943, when he received his legendary contract as a singer with the newly emerging Capitol Records, Cole participated in, among other things, a Decca label sextet, took on a big band venture, played piano in nightclubs, and fronted small groups, including his first and long- lasting piano trio consisting of himself, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince (and later, Johnny Miller) on bass. Cole spent his early years as a working jazz musician who happened to include vocals in his repertoire.

It is to the credit of Resonance Records and the efforts of producers Zev Feldman and George Klabin, and journalist Will Friedwald, that in the centennial year of Cole's birth, they have meticulously assembled a full collection of recorded material (available as 7 CDs or 10 limited edition LP vinyls of 183 tracks) of Cole during those early years. This is more than a multi-disc compilation recording. It is a living document honoring Cole and providing a rare and rich picture of music that kept the people of America enjoying themselves at home, in juke box joints, places of entertainment, and the armed forces during the Great Depression and World War II.

Nat "King" Cole always had an astute business sense, so he not only recorded for mass market record labels like Decca, he also had contracts with companies that provided transcriptions exclusively for the juke box industry and radio stations. Thus, this mammoth, definitive collection "draws upon a wide range of sources, including many newly-discovered tracks unearthed for the first time from archives located all over the world. Here is a crazyquilt sample of tunes, record companies, and a bit of the history of the collection provided in the Resonance Records release announcement:

"The tracks, all of which have been re-mastered, include: ""Trompin" (jukebox-only release for Cinematone, 1939), "What'cha Know Joe" (undocumented radio performance, 1940—now the earliest known recording of Nat "on the air"), "The Romany Room is Jumpin'" (private recording, 1941) and "Beautiful Moons Ago" (longer alternate take, 1943). Sessions include Nat at age 17, playing piano in his brother's band in Chicago, 1936; the first "King" Cole Trio recordings from 1938, made for radio broadcast only, for Standard Transcriptions; further radio transcription sessions for Standard, Davis & Schwegler, Keystone, plus his first (uncredited) session for MacGregor, with vocalist Anita Boyer; the Ammor Records Session (Spring 1940—the first commercial-release sessions for the trio), the Decca Recordings (1940-41), the small-label sessions for Excelsior and Premier labels (1943), many previously-uncirculating Armed Forces Radio performances, and, with producer Norman Granz at the helm, early jazz sessions with Lester Young (Granz' historic, first session as a producer) and Dexter Gordon, originally released on Philo and Mercury, respectively."

From this blurb, and listening to the tracks themselves, you get a sense of an archeological find of venues, people, times, and places long gone but from which emerged the well known jazz and popular music of the 1940s -60s. And sandwiched among the songs which faded into oblivion, some, like "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Sweet Lorraine," and "Mona Lisa," brought fame to Cole and became jazz standards, while others, like "Blue Skies," "Caravan," "Moonglow," and "I Was Doing Alright" were already destined to become part of the American Songbook.

The collection amply illustrates what many historians, pianists, and serious listeners consider Nat "King" Cole's two greatest early contributions to jazz: the development of the piano trio and the swing era transition of jazz piano from stride to modern jazz furthered also by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. While not as technically brilliant as Tatum or Wilson, Cole in these recordings shows himself to have a great mastery of the instrument and the musical imagination so crucial to improvisation. His playing is impeccable, and he never misses an opportunity in even the most mundane tunes to turn an interesting phrase. He also proves himself superb at comping for others like guitarist Moore and later the likes of Lester Young, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and the fledgling Dexter Gordon. In this respect, he is truly a "musician's musician," with an incredible ear and ability to adapt to whatever is called for in a given situation. It's no accident that Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Erroll Garner, and Ahmad Jamal among others considered him to be one of their inspirations.

Although there is ample opportunity to hear Cole's piano work throughout the discs, and experience how it evolved, most of the tracks are limited to Cole's playing when he is comping or taking solos. Recordings of him just on piano came later with Nat King Cole at the Piano (Capitol, 1950) and The Piano Style of Nat "King" Cole (Capitol, 1956). A notable exception is on Disc 4, track 22, "Honeysuckle Rose," an instrumental version where Cole, guitarist Moore, and bassist Prince solo in turn, and you can hear Cole's mastery of the Fats Waller stride style and Django Reinhardt's influence on guitarist Moore. And many tracks give listeners an opportunity to discover Moore, a marvelous and unheralded guitarist who anticipated some of the developments that came a few years later with Herb Ellis, Jim Hall, and Kenny Burrell.

Regarding the vocals, many of the songs in the collection, some of which appear in more than one take, are of the trivial sort, designed for commercial consumption with titles like " Scotchin' With The Soda" and "Hit That Jive," with hip- for-the-time lyrics and a kind of bounce that could keep conversations or dancing going at bars, soda fountains, and homes, not the intimate, blues-oriented sounds of a Billie Holiday or the young Sinatra at his best. They are best enjoyed today for their rhythmic atmospherics. However, there are some fine exceptions, such as the tunes that made Cole famous like "Sweet Lorraine." "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "The River St. Marie," where you can hear him coming into his own as a singer with what would eventually become his signature way of phrasing and expression. There are some tracks that feature swing band vocalists like Anita Boyer (Disc 3: tracks 11-18), who for some reason flitted around the big bands and never found a home but whom one regrets never having heard before. And add Maxine Johnson, another relatively forgotten one (Disc 4: tracks 1-11), who does a serviceable job as well.

The listener's special attention is brought to tracks featuring jazz icons not usually associated with Cole, like tenor saxophonist Lester Young and bassist Red Callender (Disc 5: tracks 21-22; Disc 6: tracks 1-2); and the young saxophonist Dexter Gordon with Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpet and again Callender on bass (Disc 6, tracks 13-16). These are historically notable because they were arranged by the young impresario Norman Granz as he began to assemble the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in Los Angeles.

Important for Cole's biography is that at this juncture his career he could have taken a turn where he went with jazz piano as a sideman and leader and/or perhaps became a specialized vocalist like Johnny Hartman. That was in 1943, the same year the Capitol contract came along. Cole of course took the high road to popular success and a decent lifestyle, although he may have missed jamming with the great jazz players, having brought some of them on his memorable TV show. Indeed, he was the first African American to host one. This and the well-received biopic Afraid of the Dark (Showcast Media, 2014) illustrate Cole's commitment to racial equality, the film showing how he suffered from racism (especially when touring the South) and his strong stand against it. This collection from his early days makes us realize how careers and lives can take sudden turns that determine our destiny.

Hittin' the Ramp is a valuable historic collection that documents the emergence of the incredible and "Unforgettable" Nat "King" Cole, who was truly a musical icon and a notable African American citizen and family man. It should be owned by serious jazz enthusiasts, educators, pianists, and institutional libraries. Many of the tracks should receive plentiful air time. However, many jazz fans, unless they have a special nostalgia for the music of its time, may find the cost prohibitive (approximately $85 for the CDs and $200 for the vinyls on Amazon), especially as only a few of the massive number of tracks will sustain their interest. (Perhaps Resonance Records should consider putting out a CD of highlights.) What is indisputable is that this boxed set fills an important gap in the recorded history of jazz. Kudos to Resonance Records and their producers and staff for their dedication in creating in such fine form this lasting contribution to the music.

Track Listing: DISC 1: Honey Hush; Stompin' at the Panama; Bedtime; Thunder; Mutiny in the Nursery; F.D.R. Jones; The Sheik of Araby; The Blue Danube; Button Button, Jingle Bells; Swanee River; With Plenty of Money and You; Don't Blame Me; Lullaby in Rhythm; Dark Rapture; The Wiggly Walk; Flea Hop; Chopsticks; Patty Cake, Patty Cake; Blue Skies; Liza; Three Blind Mice; Caravan; There's No Anesthetic for Love; Dixie Jamboree; Ta-De-Ah; Riffin' at the Bar-B-Q; Harlem Swing; I Lost Control of Myself.


DISC 2: The Land of Make Believe; That Please-Be-Mine-Able Feeling; Dancing in the Street; You're So Different; I Wouldn't Have Known It; Let's Get Happy; Undecided; 'Taint What You Do; Do You Wanna Jump, Children?; Riffin' in F Minor; Ol' Man Mose Ain't Dead; Blue Lou; Honey; Russian Lullaby; Georgie Porgie; The Limp; Snug as a Bug in a Rug; Liebestraum; Fidgety Joe; Two Against One; Some Like it Hot; Crazy Rhythm; Moonglow; Don't Let That Moon Get Away; My Blue Heaven; I Was Doing Alright; I Can't Get Started; Old Man Moon; Carry Me Back to Old Virginny;
DISC 3: Moon Song; Baby, Won't You Please Come Home; Rosetta; Trompin'; You're My Life; Hoy Soy; Take 'Em; Scategoria; Rhythm Serenade; Rib Town Shuffle; Music'll Chase Your Blues Away; I'll Gather Up My Memories; A Fool's Affair; Jump, Jack, Jump; I Knew a Time; Mine You'll Always Be; Doin' the Bow Wow; Lilla Mae; I Like to Riff; On the Sunny Side of the Street; Black Spider Stomp; By the River St. Marie; Slew Foot Joe; Crazy 'Bout Rhythm; Off the Beam; King Cole Blues; Jivin' with the Notes; Never Mind, Baby.
DISC 4: I'm a Perfect Fool Over You; Lovely Little Person; Love Me Sooner; Sentimental Blue; Goin' to Town with Honey; Syncopated Lullaby; Falling in and Out of Love; Let's Do Things; Jumpy Jitters; Nothing Ever Happens; What'cha Doin' to My Heart; Bedtime; Honey Hush; French Toast; Vine Street Jump; B Flat; You Send Me; Love Is My Alibi; Pogo Stick Bounce; Whatcha' Know, Joe?; Sweet Lorraine; Honeysuckle Rose; Gone with the Draft; This Side Up; Jumpin' with the Mop; Jam Man; Let's Try Again; Fudge Wudge; Smokey Joe; Windy City Boogie Woogie; Ode to a Wild Clam.
DISC 5: Let’s Try Again; Whatcha' Know, Joe?; Lazy River; Georgia on My Mind; Rockin' Chair; A Little Jive Is Good for You; You've Changed; Babs; Scotchin' with the Soda; Slow Down; Early Morning Blues; The Romany Room Is Jumpin'; This Will Make You Laugh; Stop! The Red Light's On; Hit the Ramp; I Like to Riff; Call the Police; Are You Fer It?; That Ain't Right; Hit That Jive, Jack; Indiana; I Can't Get Started.
DISC 6: Tea for Two; Body and Soul; Vom, Vim, Veedle; All for You; Hip Hip Hooray; I Know That You Know; I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town; Pitchin' Up a Boogie; I'm Lost; Beautiful Moons Ago; Let's Spring One; Slender, Tender, and Tall; I've Found a New Baby; Rosetta; Sweet Lorraine; I Blowed and Gone; Solid Potato Salad; F.S.T. (Fine, Sweet & Tasty); Got a Penny; Let's Pretend; My Lips Remember Your Kisses; I'm an Errand Boy for Rhythm;. Straighten Up and Fly Right.
DISC 7: Honey Hush; By the River St. Marie; I Like to Riff; Black Spider Stomp; Sweet Lorraine; Early Morning Blues; Gone with the Draft; Trompin'; Sweet Lorraine; Gone with the Draft; Scotchin' with the Soda; Gone with the Draft;The Romany Room Is Jumpin' ; Hit That Jive, Jack; Beautiful Moons Ago; Honeysuckle Rose; I Know That You Know; Solid Potato Salad; My Lips Remember Your Kisses; Straighten Up and Fly Right.

Personnel: Nat “King” Cole Trio: Nat “King” Cole: piano, vocals; Oscar Moore: guitar; Wesley Prince or Johnny Miller: bass. Selected artists on some tracks: Anita Boyer: vocals (CD 3: tracks 11-18); Maxine Johnson: vocals (CD 4: tracks 1-11); Lester Young: tenor saxophone; Red Callender: bass (CD 5: tracks 21-22; CD 6: tracks 1-2); Dexter Gordon: tenor saxophone; Harry “Sweets” Edison: trumpet; Red Callender: bass (CD 6, tracks 13-16).

Title: Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943) | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Resonance Records

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