“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.”
Even if you couldn’t pick out Nat King Cole from a crowd today, you’ve probably heard his voice—maybe in the background at a department store during the Christmas shopping season, or on an elevator, or while enjoying a tasty treat in your local Panera Bread. Cole was cutting edge, hot stuff at the time, even if now he’s been relegated to easy listening.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even “easy listening” has fascinating origins and a busload of talent behind it. Although his performance style is well known for being smooth, sweet, and charming, Cole’s career was anything but an easy ride.
Jazz fans attacked him for crossing over to pop, but he was a challenge to the pop world just by virtue of being black. His life as a working musician was also a continual struggle against racism, which included a principled insistence on never playing segregated spaces. At one point, a white supremacist group attacked him on stage. He also became the first black musician to be given his own TV variety show, only to have the show taken off the air in little over a year due to advertisers’ refusal to support a black man who had his own show. He was also hectored significantly for his choice to buy a house in cushy, all-white Beverley Hills. He refused to back down, though, becoming a one-man force for integration during a time of great racial adversity.
Cole of lung cancer in 1965 at only age 45, but he left behind a unique musical legacy spanning over twenty-five years of recording. Today we might not think much of a song like “Route 66”—it sounds sugary and old-timey, music our grandparents would like—, but in 1946, it marked a black musician’s entry into a world that hardly welcomed him. Luckily, the world was about to change drastically.