Singer and pianist Freddy Cole, master interpreter of jazz and blues standards and younger brother of jazz legend Nat King Cole, came to East Lansing Wednesday for an intimate concert benefiting the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan.
The next morning, Cole, 86, was up at 8 a.m., contemplating breakfast on the back porch of the home of jazz patrons Gregg and Lois Mummaw. Between bites, he graciously took questions from City Pulse’s Berl Schwartz and myself, along with Mike Stratton, host of WLNZ radio’s Sunday night jazz showcase, “The Vinyl Side of Midnight.”
Last night you played a lot of standards that aren’t familiar to most people. How do you choose your songs?
I don’t walk around looking for songs.
Most times, believe it or not, songs come to me on the golf course. We’re playing golf and all of a sudden a song will drop out of the sky. I remember one time I was in Las Vegas, with Joe Williams. We were playing golf at the Desert Inn. Joe would be singing and I’d be like, ‘Joe, shut the fuck up. I’m trying to make this putt.’
What would you say makes a great song, a song that lasts 50, 60 years?
I wish I knew. I’d be rich. You never know what strikes a person about a song. It may be the lyric, it may be the music. Can you please bring me a piece of bacon that’s stiff and good? I love bacon crispy.
How did you get started?
I don’t know. I ask myself that question.
Have I started yet?
When you were young, you had some pretty illustrious guests coming to your house — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine.
They would drop in but they weren’t coming to visit me. I wasn’t thinking about music. I was thinking about going to school, doing chores, playing baseball. Louis Armstrong and my older brother, Eddy, were very good friends. They called me ‘Little Cole.’ It kind of kept me in check, being young and starry-eyed in New York. Those were some real good days, being around 50th Street, where the guys hung out all day. They had bars and everything all down midtown. Like that George Benson song, “There’s music everywhere, give me the night.”
There’s a lyric in one of your songs, ‘The violin will cry…’ [Cole sings.] “And so will I, mademoiselle.’ I like the song.
You’re a romantic. Some singers would glide over a lyric like that, or wink at the audience, but you get inside the song.
That’s exactly right. I learned that from watching Brazilian singers. They live a song. The song lives through them. You feel it.
You didn’t work from sheet music last night. Is it hard to remember the lyrics to so many songs?
Sometimes it is. But you’ll never know it. You can feel it right away if somebody’s not being professional. They stop and make up some words.
That happened with Frank Sinatra in his later years. Did you ever work with him?
No. He came to my parents’ funeral. My wife and I had an anniversary in Atlantic City, when the first casinos were starting out there, and he found out I was in town, and came by with Barbara, and took us out for dinner. Great little time that night. The last time I saw him was in New York, at the Hilton Hotel on 7th Avenue. He called me by my nickname that my brother used to call me. I can’t tell you what it is!
It must be both a curse and a blessing having such a famous brother. Did you try consciously to style yourself differently from Nat?
Fortuately, no. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, rightly or wrongly. That’s the way I live. My father used to say, ‘Every tub has his own bottom. You got to sit on yours.’
What inspires you, charges you up?
Listening to music, watching a good game of golf.
What do you listen to?
All the time, some kind of music has to be on. You never close your ears to anything.
You’ve got to learn how to listen. If you can’t listen, you can’t play.
Do you still play golf ?
I haven’t played in two years. My back is messing with me. You see how I’m walking — stumbling and fumbling. It’s embarrassing, but what are you going to do? My father used to tell us about posture. He said, ‘You’re bent over all the time.’ Sure enough, it’s here to bite me now.
It doesn’t show in the music. When you play a set, the transitions between songs are so smooth and fast.
One thing I dislike is when you go to hear someone and they stand there and talk — what their husbands did that day and they went shopping and this and that. We went somewhere and a guy got up and said, ‘I don’t need your resume. Sing.’ It’s just aggravating. There’s more tunes I can play if I just keep it rolling.