“The rage felt by jazz fans as he moved primarily to pop singing is not unlike the anger folk music fans felt when Bob Dylan turned to rock in the mid-'60s; in both cases, it was all the more acute because fans felt one of their leaders, not just another musician, was going over to the enemy.” – Nat King Cole bio on iTunes.
Even today’s smooth, pop-styled elevator jazz tunes sound pretty much nothing like even the smoothest pop music, and in 1946 the difference was even greater, so Nat King Cole’s decision to record pop was a big deal to jazz fans. Jazz was still a relatively new movement, a music born and raised in urban black communities. Jazz had been viewed as bizarre and even offensive hipster music, a bit like hip-hop in the 80s or folk in the early 60s, but it represented dignity and self-determination for black people, so for one of jazz’s most beloved players to start singing sweet little ditties for cross-over audiences felt a bit like a slap in the face.
To be fair, though, Nat King Cole—like most musicians—was just doing his thing. He was trying to make records that would succeed, and he was genuinely multi-talented. Clearly, he did not need or want to play jazz piano in dingy bars for the rest of his life just to satisfy some purists. The jazz world might have been disappointed, but crossover audiences were grateful for Cole’s many classic tunes in the sultry style of “Route 66.”