Had he lived another 55 years, Nat King Cole would be a centenarian today. The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, observing its 10th anniversary this Labor Day weekend in Easton, paid opening-night tribute to one of the greatest jazz pianists and vocalists of 20th-century America. It’s hard to imagine, after his performance Friday night at the Avalon, that anyone other than Allan Harris and his piano, bass and percussion trio could have paid “King” greater honor.
Cole, who died at 45 of lung cancer in 1965—he was a lifelong smoker—might have been America’s leading pop and jazz idol (think Frank Sinatra) except for his race and longevity. Harris, who opened the concert with a medley of Cole standards—“If Nat King Cole sang it, that was a standard,” he said—recalled the 1950s, when black artists were discouraged from including selfies on album covers so that they could “sell records in the South.” Nat King Cole hosted one of the most popular radio programs in the ‘50s before landing a TV variety gig on NBC. He was the first black entertainer to headline a primetime network show. But, exposed as black while singing, no national sponsor, not even cigarette companies who could still advertise on TV back then, supported Cole’s show. When it was canceled in its first year, he observed ruefully, “Madison Avenue was too afraid of the dark.”
The irony was inescapable for me, there in the impeccably restored Art Deco Avalon Theatre, where as a teenager I recall sitting with dates I longed to squeeze, while African-American patrons of Easton’s only movie house were restricted to the balcony. “Is Easton the South?” Harris asked the audience. Back then Easton was border-state up for grabs as witnessed in the two statues around the corner at the courthouse—Frederick Douglass and the Confederate Talbot Boys.
Harris repeatedly referenced Douglass, Talbot County slave native, abolitionist author and freedom hero, in his otherwise comic asides between songs associated with Nat King Cole. Most of the songs are staples of our past for an audience Harris exposed by a show of hands was of a certain age. But the most poignant was Cole’s latest and perhaps greatest hit, a posthumous recording with his also-deceased daughter Natalie. “Unforgettable,” as rendered by Harris in his smoky Nat King Cole intonation with brilliant and inventive accompaniment by pianist Arcoiris Sandoval, bassist Nimrod Speaks and percussionist Shirazette Tinnin—now there’s a collection of original names—brought tears to my eyes with its heartbeat vibrance.
The opening song list put us in the mood for a Cole remembrance: “L.O.V.E” (“love is all that I can give you’), “I Remember You,” “We’re Not Too Young at All” and the tender “A Blossom Fell,” best known for Cole accompanying himself on piano. Here, Sandoval plunks teardrop notes into the pool of Harris’ seductive whispering. The pace picks up with “Walking My Baby Back Home” and Harris’ guitar-fused “Fly Me to the Moon,” bringing to mind Sinatra as much as Cole. After intermission, he mellowed out with “When I Fall in Love” (“it will be forever”). I detected couples married for decades (Harris, married 43 years, asked for another show of hands) holding hands to the throb of Speaks’ unspoken bass.
Among the “surprises” Harris promised at the outset was “Cross That River,” part of his project focusing on former slaves who became Western cowboys in quest for freedom. Described by critics as the Allman Brothers meet Nat King Cole—featuring Harris’ inspired improvisational guitar riffs—the diversion was an altogether appropriate and spiritual lift for this centennial tribute. A shout-out to percussionist Tinnin who strode a cajon—looks like an onstage speaker—that she slaps with open hands to produce an impossibly rapid rhythmic beat.
The King, with his deft piano hands, would approve. So did the standing-ovation opening-night festival audience.
Monty Alexander celebrated the first decade of his eponymous jazz festival with a generous three-hour concert featuring 14 musicians. Most memorably for me was a riff on the James Bond theme from the movie “Dr. No.” On Nov. 22, 1963, I had a date to see the film at the Avalon, just downstairs from our balcony perch on Saturday night. I called to ask if she still wanted to go out for the evening just hours after President Kennedy was assassinated. The theater was eerily empty that night and afterward we gathered at a friend’s home to watch the news from the Dallas sheriff’s office where at a press conference someone from the back of the room corrected the assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald had been a member of an anti-Cuba committee. No, it was the Fair Play for Cuba Committee some guy shouted out. That guy was Jack Ruby.
History aside, Monty Alexander and his usual suspects—bassist J.J. Shakur and drummer Chuck Redd—led an all-star cast of contributors—steel drummers and brass artists among them—in a pure celebration of improvisational jazz with a Caribbean flavor, acknowledging Alexander’s native Jamaican roots. Alexander teased us with familiar piano refrains, such as “You Are My Sunshine,” before riffing off in melodically unpredictable directions that reward us with bluesy detours and spontaneous instrumental inventions.
That’s what makes jazz jazz—an original American art form. Bravo.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
ALLAN HARRIS: ‘NAT KING COLE AT 100’
MONTY ALEXANDER CELEBRATES 10th ANNIVERSARY
Friday night, Aug. 30; Saturday night, Aug. 31, Avalon Theatre, Easton
Upcoming in Monty Alexander Jazz Festival: Brunch performance featuring guitarists Randy Napoleon and Dan Wilson, 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. seatings on Sunday, Sept 1, Tidewater Inn; Cyrus Chestnut: “Where Gospel Meets Jazz,” 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1, Avalon Theatre
INFO 410-819-0380, chesapeakemusic.org/jazz