cover image Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

Daniel Mark Epstein. Farrar Straus Giroux, $27 (437pp) ISBN 978-0-374-21912-3

Dulcet-toned Nat King Cole is remembered best today for ballads such as ""Mona Lisa"" and ""Unforgettable,"" perhaps less so for his skills as a preeminent jazz pianist and composer. This respectful biography depicts a multitalented musician who--whether contending with racism, with black leaders criticizing his lack of activism or with jazz critics who believed he had ""sold out""-- maintained an implacable, dignified demeanor. Born Nathaniel Coles, he grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, when Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Gatemouth Earl Hines were helping to turn that city into a virtual mecca of jazz. Cole moved to Los Angeles in 1937, paying his dues as a struggling musician and eventually forming the original King Cole Trio. The fledgling Capitol Records recognized the commerce in Cole's liquid voice (a voice created in part, according to Epstein, by Cole's heavy cigarette habit) and exquisite style, making him a star as he and his trio moved away from jazz and embraced the pop ballads the public craved. At the height of his popularity, Cole became the first African-American to host his own television show, which, while a ratings success, fell victim to prejudice as it failed to secure a national sponsor. By the time Cole died in 1965 of lung cancer, he had become one of America's best-loved entertainers. Epstein (Sister Aimee) writes gracefully and possesses admirable musical knowledge; yet his sympathetic narrative is oddly flat. Whether because, as Epstein writes, Cole ""was a master of the art of concealment"" or because his personality differed little from his calm, genial and sophisticated facade, the portrait of Cole that emerges is less vibrant than his music--the man himself retains a regal distance. (Nov.)