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John Pizzarelli Pays Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole

The charismatic guitarist turns up his vocal chords to honor one of the 20th Century’s most beloved jazz stars

One of the most memorable compliments John Pizzarelli ever received was, “I don’t really like jazz music, but I like what you do.”

Upon hearing this, the guitarist stopped in his tracks for a moment, wondering how anyone could truly dislike jazz. Then he realized that some people simply don’t understand the vast musical umbrella the genre covers.

“People get so scared by the word ‘jazz,’ says Pizzarelli, who grew up surrounded by music thanks to his famous father, Bucky Pizzarelli. “Some people think you play jazz for yourself and not for people around you. Growing up, jazz for me was sometimes the same group of guys playing the same sort of music. Now you have bebop, swing, Latin jazz … there are so many different variations. It’s really exciting. It’s almost impossible that some variation wouldn’t appeal to every kind of person.”

One particular artist under that vast jazz umbrella has made an especially life-changing impression on Pizzarelli. This is Nat “King” Cole. Pizzarelli’s latest album, For Centennial Reasons, is his third tribute to the legendary musician whose timeless songs landed on the top of the pop charts (“pop” at the time was often synonymous with “jazz”), more than a hundred times during his day and remain among the most recognizable of tunes in The Great American Songbook.

 

In a career that began as a small boy playing with his father 35 years ago, Pizzarelli has long connected with Cole’s tunes. In turn, he has developed a knack for cultivating a solid communication pipeline between himself and every audience.

 

“A lot of artists from my father’s generation would get up on stage and play song after song after song,” Pizzarelli says. “Some guys can rely on their artistry so they don’t have to speak. So afterward you’d say, ‘I didn’t get much about the person, but he can really play the saxophone.’ I like to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

With his intricate guitar playing and engaging singing style, there is a unique charisma Pizzarelli brings to the stage that stretches beyond the jazz genre.

“It was around 1983 that I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra in the same venue,” he recalls. “Each guy had a different way of communicating. When Billy told stories between songs, it really added something to the whole experience and when Sinatra sang, there would always be a theatrical aspect. I don’t try to bring that to the show, necessarily, but I keep everybody at ease and let them know what’s going on. I like to keep people informed and entertained.”

Although he is famous for putting his own stamp on Cole’s classics and a slew of others from The Great American Songbook, Pizzarelli is known to sprinkle his style onto pop hits from the likes of Neil Young, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and The Allman Brothers.

“When we get there, we feel it out. I like that,” he says. “We ask ourselves, what record do we want to highlight? Do we want to play more Sinatra? More bossa nova? I could do more Nat Cole. I may play some Ellington. It’s nice to have these problems.”

In the end, Pizzarelli relishes knowing that something in his repertoire will strike some memorable chord with every single member of the audience.

“The best thing about any performance is introducing music to new fans and have people tell you what the music meant to them,” Pizzarelli says.

John Pizzarelli’s 100-Year Salute to Nat “King Cole

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 17

John Pizzarelli along with Mike Karn on double bass and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano deliver a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 17. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (get tickets here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m (get tickets here). Tickets are $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

July 18

The trio’s tribute show amps up for the big stage/multimedia performance in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 18. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.

For more information,  call 970-479-6146.

 

Preview of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Unforgettable

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” The life of Nathaniel Adams Coles bears witness to these words of wisdom from none other than Albert Einstein. Nat “King” Cole, as he became known, was born into an African-American family in Montgomery, Alabama, 100 years ago this year, and this adage served him well during a lifelong struggle with racism.

Nat’s father was a Baptist minister and his mother led the choir at his father’s church. The family relocated to Chicago when he was 4 years old and during his early years, he played the organ at his father’s church. Nat’s mother taught him to play the piano, providing him with the only formal music training he ever received, and as a teen he would sneak out of the house late at night to listen to jazz at local clubs. By 15, Nat had quit high school, determined to become a jazz pianist. At 17, he joined an all-black touring musical show, but was stranded in Los Angeles when the show folded on the road. True to Einstein’s maxim, in the middle of a difficult situation, he saw opportunity and began playing in local bars, all the while honing his jazz chops. When his reputation began to grow, he was offered the opportunity to organize a quartet (piano, bass, drums and guitar) to play at a more upscale venue.

Howard Stone.

The band worked hard to prepare for the gig, as Nat understood this was the breakout moment he had been waiting for. But it appeared that fate would intervene. On opening night, his drummer failed to show up. This is when Einstein’s direction to find simplicity and harmony out of clutter and discord would save the day, along with the mantra of all great jazz players: when all else fails, improvise. Nat found simplicity and harmony with a drummer-less trio, forging a new way to present swinging jazz. It caught on, but as he put it, “for years the Trio did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. We practically starved to death.”

He was not yet 21 and with all of his success, Nat was still unknown outside the world of jazz. Money was an issue and he was struggling. However, that was about to change, for as legend tells it, on a fateful night, the trio was playing in a club when a drunk began harassing him and demanding that he sing a specific song. At first, he tried to ignore the man as he didn’t know the tune and singing wasn’t part of his act. When that failed, he decided to try to shut up the drunk by singing “Sweet Lorraine,” a song that he knew. The audience loved his smooth baritone voice and his unique phrasing and enunciation. That night, out of an extremely difficult situation, he once again proved that when opportunity knocks, you need to open the door.

Nat went on to record the song in 1940, which would become his first hit record and started him on the road to success and fame. During the ensuing two-plus decades, he would record hit after hit, including “Unforgettable,” that aptly described him as a remarkably gifted entertainer. He became one of the most famous singers of the era, moving away from jazz to the broader audience of pop, and in the process selling over 50 million records and successfully touring throughout the world. In 1946, he had his own radio program – a first for a black musician – and in 1956, he had his own network TV program, another first for a black musician.

But unfortunately, in mid-20th century America, Einstein’s axiom proved to be no match for the “discord” and “difficulty” of racism and no matter how hard Nat tried to seize the opportunities that potentially existed for him, there were barriers for blacks that he could not break down.

A case in point, in 1948 he purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles and was greeted by a burning cross on his front lawn. The family dog was poisoned and neighbors confronted him and told him that they did not want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Nat responded, “neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

His TV show, which was lauded by the critics, only aired for a year because a national sponsor could not be found. As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.

At the height of his popularity in 1956, he decided to return to his home state of Alabama and perform in Birmingham. Playing for an all-white audience (audiences were segregated in the South at that time), he was “welcomed home” by four white members of the audience who vaulted onto the stage and attacked him. He survived, but he would never return to the South to perform again.

While racism threatened his very existence, it was Nat’s three-pack-a-day smoking habit that killed him, as he tragically succumbed to lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. And while he died way too young, his musical legacy was renewed for a new generation of fans in 1991, when his daughter, Natalie, recorded a Grammy-winning virtual duet with Nat of “Unforgettable.”

Vail Jazz is extremely pleased to present the John Pizzarelli Trio “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole” on July 17 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and July 18 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here). These shows will be multi-media presentations combining a live performance by John and his trio with classic video of Nat King Cole performing some of his greatest hits.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: The DNA of Jazz

Genetic ancestry testing is skyrocketing in popularity with more and more people attempting to learn about their genealogy. Recently there was a story in the news about Korean-American identical twin sisters that had been separated for adoption at birth. Thirty three years later they were reunited after their connection was confirmed, when each had their DNA tested by 23andMe. That doesn’t happen very often, but the connection between relatives is being discovered regularly now and it is a common occurrence to discover the identity of second and third cousins through the testing.

Howard Stone.

In a way, the genealogy of jazz has been undergoing similar testing for years, not by geneticists, but instead by musicologists who have been examining various styles of music, trying to locate jazz’s “musical relatives.” At the heart of jazz, I’ll call it its musical DNA, are three distinctive “genes”: African rhythms; the blending of multiple music traditions, and improvisation. Many musicologists have concluded that the festive and exuberant music known as choro (pronounced SHOH-roh), which began evolving around 1870 in Rio de Janeiro, is one such relative. However, it would be decades later when jazz emerged in New Orleans, but both forms of music would share many similarities since they sprang from the same musical DNA. Both were A), built upon a foundation of Afro-centric rhythms, B), nurtured in a cosmopolitan center where there was a meddling of cultures and multiple European musical influences and C), heavily relied upon improvisation.

Not unlike jazz in the U.S., choro was at first played by unschooled musicians from the underclasses and with its earthy roots, was regarded with contempt by the white and wealthy establishment. However, by the decade of the 1920s, choro was the popular music of Brazil, while at the same time in the U.S., the decade was known as the “Jazz Age.” In essence, each music grew from the same musical DNA, but in different locales at different times. Each reflected the changing societies it inhabited, but grew into something new and different. And just as successive generations of jazz musicians have reinterpreted the so-called “standards” over time, so too, have choro players reinterpreted composition from an earlier time.

As a jazz fan, my first exposure to Brazilian music was the bossa nova, the musical DNA of which is traceable to the Brazilian samba and American jazz. A close examination of the samba shows that its musical DNA is traceable to choro. So if you were constructing a musical family tree for Brazil, choro would be the father of the samba and one of the grandparents of bossa nova, with the other grandparent being American jazz. The great grandparent would be the rhythms of Africa.

While jazz and choro share much in common, there are, of course, many differences as well. One significant difference is the prominent use in choro of acoustic stringed instruments (mostly guitars, mandolins and related instruments), with the Brazilian 7-string acoustic guitar often featured. Brass and reed instruments are also featured, but no piano or drum set. Percussion sounds are played on the pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine. In jazz, the most common guitar played is a 6-string instrument; however, there are a few jazz guitarists that play a 7-string instrument. The addition of another string allows the guitarist to play a bass line and add depth to the music, but adds complexity that requires a high level of virtuosity if the player is going to master the instrument. In the hands of a passionate and brilliant player, the instrument can be played in a stunning and thrilling manner that defies description. One such player is Yamandu Costa, considered to be one of the greatest Brazilian guitarists of all time. A remarkable interpreter of choro, samba and the music of Brazil, Yamandu will be in Vail performing with his trio Wednesday at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Thursday at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see and hear one of the finest guitarists in the world play the music of Brazil.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.