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Pianist, singer and bandleader Nat "King" Cole may have made his name as a singer, but his work as a pianist is most musically significant. Taking the intricacies of Earl "Fatha" Hines' right-hand lines and coupling them with the more spare, left-hand ones developed by Count Basie, Cole's impact on subsequent generations of pianists is far-reaching.
Cole was born in Montgomery, Ala., on March 17, 1917. By the age of 4, Cole's family had moved to Chicago, where he started playing organ and singing in his father's church. Along with his jazz musician brothers Fred, Eddie and Isaac, Nat made his recording debut on Decca (1936) for the group Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers. Cole left Chicago that same year, and eventually settled in Los Angeles. He formed his trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, a group that would become known as the Nat Cole Trio. His trio format was to influence Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, among others. Cole maintained a trio until 1951, recording for Decca, and later for Capitol.
Arguably, Cole's most important recordings were from the early '40s. Among them is a 1942 date with Lester Young and Red Callendar, and a later date with Young and Buddy Rich for Verve. In 1943, the Cole Trio had a hit with "Straighten Up And Fly Right," setting off his career as a singer. From 1944-'46, Cole toured and recorded as part of Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic. After his No. 1 hit "Mona Lisa" in 1950, Cole soon earned his own radio and television show. He died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 15, 1965.
In 1997, Cole was elected by the Readers into the Down Beat Hall of
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