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NAT KING COLE by Daniel Mark Epstein

NAT KING COLE

By Daniel Mark Epstein

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-21912-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An effusively admiring biography of the brilliant jazz pianist whose mellow crooning made him one of the first black performers to win mainstream success with white audiences. As in his book about controversial 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Sister Aimee,1993), Epstein displays a warm affection for his subject that is appropriate when detailing the breathtaking work of Nat King Cole (1919—65) as a key figure in the transition from the Golden Age of Jazz to the Swing Era, but somewhat much when dealing with his personal life. The cooperation of Cole’s widow, Maria, explains Epstein’s gushy portrait of their marriage and ain—t-it-sad coverage of the singer’s divorce from his first wife, frequent casual infidelities on the road, hard-hearted financial dealings with his sidemen when he hit the big time, and late-life affair with a white teenage chorus girl. Nonetheless, this is a marvelously evocative rendering of American jazz in its glory days and a thoughtful assessment of Cole’s transition to ballad singing, which resulted in such megahits as —Nature Boy,— —Mona Lisa,— and —Unforgettable.— Purists cried ’sellout,— yet Epstein makes a strong case for Cole’s desire to reach a wider audience without abandoning his musical sophistication. Wealth and prominence brought Cole into direct conflict with racism: Residents tried to prevent him from buying a mansion in Los Angeles’s affluent Hancock Park section in 1948; Las Vegas hotels that paid him thousands of dollars a night to perform wouldn—t permit him to stay in their rooms. Although he sued two hotels in the late 1940s, Cole was by nature nonconfrontational; he played before segregated audiences in the South, justifying it as the best way to challenge prejudice. The horrifying depiction of the chain-smoking singer’s ghastly final days as he succumbed to lung cancer might prompt a few readers to chuck their cigarettes. Could use a bit more edge, but Cole emerges as a lovable man with forgivably human flaws—and, more to the point, a great artist in both the jazz and pop idioms. (b&w photos)