The Smell of Money: George Shearing and Nat “King” Cole

“It Never Entered My Mind”

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Recorded by George Shearing for Concord Jazz in San Francisco, California in May of 1985.

George Shearing, solo piano.

The story: Two of the most talented pianists in the history of jazz were George Shearing (1919-2011), and Nat “King” Cole (1919-1965). Cole is better known today because he achieved enormous mainstream popular success in the 1950s and 1960s as a singer. Later, after his death, he remained popular in part because of the success of his daughter Natalie Cole, who was also a very successful singer. But from the standpoint of jazz piano, both were masters. Shearing’s abilities as a jazz pianist were well-known. Cole’s were obscured by his great success as a singer.

Shearing and Cole knew each other, and indeed were friends. After Shearing moved to Los Angeles around 1960, he and Cole, who had lived in Los Angeles since his earliest success recording for the L.A.- based Capitol Records in the mid-1940s, were able to socialize more, something that they both enjoyed. In addition, both men had wonderful senses of humor, and this greatly enriched their friendship.

George Shearing.

Shearing was blind.This disability never restricted him musically, and seldom restricted him in any other way. His attitude about his blindness was rather matter-of-fact. He was also keenly aware that sighted people have incredible curiosity about blindness. After answering questions (often the same questions), about his blindness over many years, Shearing slowly developed some humorous ways of dealing with these endless inquiries. The following story is taken from Shearing’s autobiography (co-authored by Alyn Shipton), which is entitled: Lullaby of Birdland, (2004) Continuum.This book is worth reading for its accurate recollection of Shearing’s involvement in jazz and the American music scene, and its consistent good-humor.

Once at a convivial gathering of musicians and music-related people, Shearing and his first wife Trixie were enjoying the conversation, when Nat Cole suddenly asked Shearing: “George, how do you tell the difference between different denominations of dollar bills? Doesn’t all paper money feel the same? (Well, as it happened,Trixie and I had got our reply to this kind of question set up a long time before.So we went straight into our routine.The idea was that if I’m handed a one-dollar bill, she was to do nothing. If it’s a five, she taps me once, but I pretend to smell the money. They hand me a ten, she taps me twice, and again I smell the bill. Twenty would be three taps, fifty is four, and a hundred–I don’t know, we never got there.)

George Shearing and Nat “King” Cole.

So I say, ‘Nat, the way I handle money is that I can smell the difference between the notes.’ Now. of course, everyone at the table immediately wants to put me to the test. So they hand me a ten. Invisibly, Trixie taps me twice. I smell the bill and say ‘It’s a ten.’ Then they hand me a twenty. Three invisible taps, I smell the note and say ‘It’s a twenty.’ Then it’s a five. One tap, I smell it and say.’It’s a five.’ 

Now Trixie spots that the next bill is going to be a one, but to cover her traces she says, “I don’t like the way you people are looking at me. You give me the impression that you think I’m giving George a tip-off. I’ll move away so that you can be sure that he is really smelling the difference. They hand me the next bill. I smell it and then say confidently, ‘It’s a one.’ 

Nat can’t believe what he’s seeing. He says: ‘How DO you do that?’ So I gently explain to him, ‘Nat, for every different monetary denomination,they use a different grade of ink. Each has its own particular smell.The problems only really start to arise when the smell wears off, and you’ve got to start feeling the different paper grades using your nose.’ Finally, Nat just walked away, shrugging his shoulders. He believed me. I didn’t tell him the truth for about five years after that. By then, he had gone around the world telling people that I could smell different denominations of money.”

The Music: George Shearing had throughout his career developed a deep relationship with so-called “classical”(*) music. His early piano studies in England centered around the piano literature of the great composers of Western music, including J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as that of many Nineteenth Century Romantic era composers. Shearing’s knowledge of this music provided him with many opportunities throughout his long career to mix “classical” themes, jazz, and the best of great American Popular Song.(**) In this recording he artfully superimposes Rodgers and Hart’s beautiful (and heartbreakingly sad) “It Never Entered My Mind” atop Erik Satie’s ethereal “Gymnopedie No. 1.” The resulting music, as one might expect, is both introspective and lovely.

(*) I use quotation marks around the word “classical” when it is used as an an adjective that is supposed to describe music, because I think that when that word is used in that way, it has no denotative meaning. Definitions can be tricky, and I don’t have one that is more meaningful. Swing era bandleader Artie Shaw, who loved words and usually used them well, called “classical” music “long-form” music. That is fine as far as it goes, but it is still inadequate in a number of ways.

(**) He also played straight “classical” music with many symphony orchestras over the years.


“Back to the Land”

Composed by Lester Young.

Recorded by the Lester Young Trio in late March-Early April 1946 for Mercury Records in Los Angeles, California.

Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Nat “King” Cole, piano; Buddy Rich, drums.

Nat “King” Cole.

The music: I will cite the liner notes from Mosaic’s wonderful set of CDs entitled: Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions (2016, page 32), written by jazz musician and historian Loren Schoenberg, to get at the essence of what Nat Cole’s jazz piano playing was all about on this recording. Mr. Schoenberg, as a pianist and tenor saxophonist, often hears and understands much more than the average listener to classic jazz:“…(Cole) plunges immediately into deep water with ‘Back to the Land,’ a blues for which there is no recorded precedent. Abstraction had long been an element of jazz piano: James P. Johnson,Duke Ellington,Earl Hines,Count Basie and Art Tatum and their disciples took apart various components of both ‘classical’ and popular music conventions to create an inherently American musical reality (to a far greater extent than the exalted Gershwin and Copland ever did – Charles Ives was their predecessor in this regard). On every level, be it rhythmic,harmonic or melodic, Cole is exploring territory that only Tatum had trod before, and never to this extent, with the caveat of judging by recorded performances. Musicians played many things on the job that they would never think of sharing with the public through their recordings.Rich and Young don’t blink an eye at even the most outrageous (and that’s an accurate description) of Cole’s superimpositions, which remain startling today – one can only imagine how they sounded in 1946.”

Lester Young was widely recognized as a master of the blues. Here, Nat Cole definitely proved that he was able to play the blues comfortably with the best. To my ears, Nat Cole’s playing was a part of a distinguished tradition of jazz piano, one starting with Earl Hines, and then running through Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Many young pianists who came to jazz maturity in the 1930s were formed in this same crucible. Cole was simply one of the most talented, and creative. His enormous success as a singer, unfortunately, caused him to play piano much less. The unintended and regrettable result was that American music was denied continuing exposure to his great talent and creativity as a jazz pianist.

Cole plays three 12-bar blues choruses here, each quite different from the others. The first is a clever abstraction of “St. Louis Blues.” The second contains a dialog between Cole’s right and left hands that gets pretty far out there (the superimpositions referred to by Mr. Schoenberg). The third takes us back to more basic, preaching blues.

Nat “King” Cole – 1950s.

The absence of a bass here creates opportunities for Cole to supply some very interesting bass sequences at the keyboard using his left hand. The rolling, broken chord patterns he uses are a nod in the direction of pianist Avery Parrish, whose long solo on the blues “After Hours,” which he recorded with Erskine Hawkins’s band in 1940, was very much in the air in the mid-1940s. But as Loren Schoenberg pointed out, Cole went way beyond that with his playing on this recording.

It must be said that the drummer here, the master of pyrotechnics, Buddy Rich, provides the most subtle, whispering accompaniment for Young and Cole, quite a departure from his usual power and volume.

“The Back-To-The-Land movement is a term covering a number of agrarian movements across different historical periods. The common thread is a call for people to take up smallholding and to grow food from the land on a small-scale basis, whether for themselves or for others. There have been a variety of motives behind such movements, such as social reform, land redistribution, and civilian war efforts. Groups involved have included political reformers, counter-culture hippies, and religious separatists.

There was again a fair degree of interest in moving to rural land after World War II. In 1947, Betty MacDonald published what became a popular book, The Egg and I, telling her story of marrying and then moving to a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. This story was the basis of a successful comedy film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.

The Canadian writer Farley Mowat says that many returned veterans after World War II sought a meaningful life far from the ignobility of modern warfare, regarding his own experience as typical of the pattern. In Canada, those who sought a life completely outside of the cities, suburbs, and towns frequently moved into semi-wilderness environs.”(*)

(*) Excerpted from Wikipedia.

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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