Freddy Cole: elegance at the piano

When Freddy Cole sits down at the piano, he carries listeners away with the story of his song. Whether it’s one person on his piano bench or 3,000 listeners at a festival, he’s got a tale to spin with his smoky baritone voice and deft fingers. While he never had the pop stardom of his older brother Nat “King” Cole, he is nonetheless a master, sharing a repertoire of songs spun from a lifetime of jazz.

A song a day: Pianist Freddy Cole shares a repertoire gathered from a lifetime of jazz. Photo by Clay Wallen

Xpress: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in more than 50 years of recording jazz?
Cole
: To be truthful with you, it’s been being able to be consistent with what we are able to do. I managed to have enough work to keep my band together. That’s one of the main things and the reason that we’ve moved like we have moved.

Your bio mentions that you were ready to “hit the road” at 18, but your mother pushed you to go to college. Do you feel like your education helped you?
Education can never hurt anyone. Education is used properly to advance yourself to whatever degree you can get to.

Do you feel like your training and background in classical music gives you an advantage over someone who just goes out and starts improvising jazz?
Each individual has his own goal and own way of approaching things. That’s the way I look at it. What I do has nothing to do with the way that you play it.

Did you feel you had to compete with your brother Nat?
No. I don’t know why people would ever think I would have to compete with him. I would never compete with my brothers or my sister. … That’s how I approach life. All the competitiveness that comes about is from different journalists, writers or whoever wants to try to stir up something. I guess they think it’s an interesting story, but that never was the case with us.

Did you ever get to play with him?
Yeah, I did. I recorded with him. My brother had me play piano on several CDs. He was a great piano player, but he gave me a shot and I played on them and then that was the extent of it. I didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Did your family grow up making music together?
I was the youngest one, so I wasn’t there. My older brother [Eddie], and Nat, they played in the same band together a while, and then each one branched off and got his own thing. And with my brother Ike, same thing. We just made music. That’s all it was. We were blessed to be anointed with the talent of playing music.

I was listening to the NPR interview you did and you mentioned Sammy Greer told you to go be a musician with your talent and learn a song a day.
That’s right.

Are you still learning a song a day?
I keep a song on my mind all the time. I’m listening to music all the time. Yeah, basically I’m learning something every day.

At what point in your career did you feel like, “Now I have enough songs in my repertoire that I can play anything, anywhere, anytime?”
I’ve always felt that way. I was dumb enough to feel that way all my life. He can who thinks he can. But, it takes a while to learn how to present what you do. That’s what my thing’s all about. I work hard at the presentation. That way hopefully you’ll walk away from the show saying, “Boy that was a good show.”

In the past decade you were inducted as a living legend to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, accepted to the Steinway Artist Roster, awarded Playbill’s Nightlife Outstanding Male Jazz Vocalist title twice, and inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. What changed in the past decade that people started to give you these awards and recognition?
Well, like I said earlier, my records began to get more recognizable, they started to sell, and I started to get a little bit more notoriety and that’s what it’s all about. A little more notoriety can put you into the category of people saying, “Oh boy, where’ve you been? This is good!”

The jazz world just lost Hank Jones, who was somewhat a contemporary of yours. Was he someone who influenced you or who you played with over the years?
Hank Jones is one of the most masterful piano players who ever lived. No, he hasn’t influenced what I play, because I could never play like Hank. Very few will ever be able to play like Hank.

Who do you feel is the biggest influence on your style of playing?
That’s difficult to say just one person. I would say I was influenced by a whole era of music, from Hank Jones to today. It gets so difficult to start calling names because you’re going to miss some. Collectively, I would say overall jazz music was beneficial for me to hear, to have been around, and to have lived during times when we’ve had some of the greatest entertainers the world will ever know.

What do you feel has become the signature for your style that you most want to communicate to your audience?
Love! L-o-v-e.

That’s good enough for me!
That’s right. That’s exactly what I want to do, a circle of love. It beats anything else I know.

[Wendi Loomis can be reached at wendi@jazzandpoetry.com.]

who: Freddy Cole Quartet
what: WNC Jazz Society series presents
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Saturday, July 31 (8 p.m. $25 members; $35 non-members; $10 for students with ID under age 25. dwtheatre.com or 257-4530).

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