One of the fascinating things (to me, anyway) about jazz from the pre-LP era is the occasional collaborations of artists who are not generally associated with one another. This is one of them.
How do I pick the records to share with readers of this blog? In this case, purely by accident. I had not intended to write any more on Nat King Cole, having featured him twice before in this space. Ditto Stan Kenton, whose later work was highlighted here some time ago. In fact, I have a handful of other jazz pieces started and had planned to go back and finish one of those. But then this record popped into my mind for some reason (a reason I have now forgotten) and here we are.
In the jazz music of yore there were many collaborations. Many of them made sense. For example, saxophonist Lester Young played on many of Billie Holiday’s early solo records. This made sense because the pair had worked together for a time in Count Basie’s 1930s band, and their styles (and personalities) were very much in sync.
There were also a couple of well known albums recorded in the 1950s with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. One sang, one played, and each was a longtime star who brought something unique out of the other.
Other collaborative projects, however, were the kind that most would never have considered in a million years. And this is one: Nat King Cole and Stan Kenton.
I have written about each of these two before. Briefly, Nat King Cole was a fabulous pianist and leader of the King Cole Trio before a string of vocal mega-hits turned his career’s trajectory in a very different direction – that of the smooth crooner of ballads.
Stan Kenton led a series of bands, each of which was very much unlike the others. The one thing that at least most of them had in common was that they played aggressively unique harmonies, and played them loudly.
Really, these two musicians had virtually nothing in common. Cole was black, Kenton was white. Cole had an easy sense of rhythm and swing while Kenton was all about unusual instrument voicings, complex chords and power. And by 1950 Cole was popular with a wide swath of music fans while Kenton catered to a small, but singularly dedicated fan base (sometimes called Kentonistas).
OK, they had one other thing in common – both of them were artists who made up the backbone of the Capitol Records talent bench from its earliest days.
Before WWII there had been three big record companies – Victor, Columbia and Decca – and almost all popular music (and any artist with any fame at all) was released on those labels, or one of their subsidiaries.
Capitol was the brainchild of singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer who, with the financial backing of some others, founded the label in 1942. Capitol was among the first to resolve royalty issues with the American Federation of Musicians during their recording strike of 1942-44. This allowed union members to record for the company before they could record for most of the competition.
Nat King Cole’s trio and the Stan Kenton Orchestra were among the label’s first artists, each churning out a string of hits starting in 1943. But while Cole started modestly and rose to ever greater stardom, the Kenton band started with a bang but disbanded in 1948 due to either Kenton’s exhaustion or to his inability to keep doing the same thing.
On August 16, 1950 Cole’s quartet and Kenton’s new band came together in Capitol’s Hollywood studio to record two sides. Side B was something called Jam-Bo credited to “Stan Kenton & His Orchestra with Nat ‘King’ Cole” while this record got Side A with credits in the reverse order. I have never heard Jam-Bo, so perhaps it is something for me to search out. Or perhaps not.
Although he was not formally credited, Cole was at the keyboard while Kenton (also a piano player) was not. Cole, however, employs more than a little of Kenton’s style of mostly chords and few individual notes. But otherwise, for anyone who knows the music from this era at all, both Cole and the Kenton band are instantly recognizable.
There is not much to say about Nat Cole’s velvety voice, one of the smoothest ever captured in shellac. His full trio (plus bongos) is here swinging at its easy best. And then there is the Kenton part of the record.
The Kenton band of 1950 was a big group. Like most big bands there were five saxophones, but instead of the typical three trumpets and three trombones there were five of each. This was when Maynard Ferguson was Kenton’s lead trumpet, and his playing is evident where the recording equipment struggles to capture the stratospheric notes that were his stock in trade. Also, this record was a rare commercial success during Kenton’s highly avant garde recordings of 1950-51.
It is the rare record where two artists with very different styles each does his own thing in a way where the two individual things come together into a fabulous combination. Cool and hot, there is something here for everyone, and each part seems to make the other better. What is remarkable is that Kenton does not overpower Cole, and Cole does not relegate Kenton to a more-or-less anonymous backup band. In this record we get a full helping of both.
The song itself was an obscure old thing that dated to 1930. Pete Rugolo, an arranger who had come to prominence working for Kenton and who was, in 1950, Capitol Records’ Musical Director, brought the tune up to date for this recording. This is a classic Rugolo arrangement, and has proved to be the definitive one for this melody.
Was this a project born of Cole’s attempts to branch out from his trio (which was actually a quartet, despite its billing)? Was it a chance for Kenton to juice his record sales with a larger audience? Or perhaps it was Pete Rugolo’s idea to find interesting combinations of talent in the Capitol universe. I do not know, but I am certainly glad that someone thought of it.
Another question has surfaced – there has been a debate about whether this was recorded in a single studio or whether the Kenton Band and the Cole group were recorded in separate rooms and dubbed together in order to avoid acoustical compromises which would have disadvantaged either the intimate quartet or the big, powerful band. Such dubbing would have been a really early use of the technology made possible by recording with magnetic tape. I have not been able to find a definitive answer to this question. In any event the recording engineers had their work cut out for them in blending these two very different groups. And they delivered marvelously.
The record did very well commercially, lasting thirteen weeks on Billboard Magazine’s Best Seller Chart, peaking at number eleven. Which, incidentally outperformed another project in which Cole linked up with the Les Baxter Orchestra for a Nelson Riddle arrangement called Mona Lisa, which had been recorded five months earlier.
The pair re-recorded this arrangement (in stereo this time) in 1961. The Kenton personnel were different and Stan was not leading the band, and some argue that it was not as good as this version. The only difference is that recording technology was better matched to the overpowering strength of the Kenton outfit so those high trumpet notes come through even better.
And, to bring things full circle, Natalie Cole covered the song in recent times, confirming that this brief partnership produced something with a legitimate place in the Nat King Cole legacy.
It would seem that although Nat Cole was on the way in 1950, he was still experimenting with different combinations of accompanying bands and styles. It would be another year before his collaborations with Nelson Riddle (and the Les Baxter Orchestra) of Too Young and Unforgettable would fix him into the groove that would make him forever famous with non-jazz audiences.
And for those who have seen the other samples of Cole’s work here, there should be no doubt about his versatility. Whether as a jazz pianist, a singer with his trio or being backed by a band powerful enough to blow out most small-group performers, Nat brings the goods every time.
The record is just as valuable for giving us a small dose of Stan Kenton early in his band’s peak years. By 1950 most other leaders of big bands had pulled the plug, unable to make the transition from the era of the big dance halls to the era of small jazz venues. But Kenton persisted, making the kind of music that only a big band could make yet in a style that had almost no continuity with the 1930s and 40s heritage most associated with that kind of group.
Capitol records would go on to make a lot of money from Nat Cole (and a little from Stan Kenton), and would soon be home to the big guns like Frank Sinatra (1953-60) and The Beatles (1963-67). The iconic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles (completed in 1956) would become known as The House That Cole Built. It would also become known for having the go-to studio for anyone who wanted to record a big band, a reputation that remains to this very day. The studio’s wonderful acoustics are undoubtedly a side effect of having to record Stan Kenton all those years ago.
For me (and for many Kenton fans) it is the singular punctuation of that unique band (dare we say Unforgettable?) that moves this record out of the mainstream of Cole’s (great) work and gives it a place on the shelf of any jazz fan. That this record is equally accepted by both Cole fans and Kentonistas is shown in the way it has been included in multiple reissues by both artists. That, jazz fans, is what a good collaboration is all about.
This recording of Orange Colored Sky is found at MusicProf78’s fabulous YouTube page.
Stan Kenton (L), Nat King Cole (C) and disc jockey Peter Potter (R) Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library
Stan Kenton (seated) and Pete Rugolo (standing) Photo in public domain as part of the William Gottlieb collection in the Library of Congress
Capitol Records Building – Wikimedia Commons, Attribution: AllyUnion