By Kat Bein
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By Michael E. Miller
There's a number in Fred Cole's live set in which he addresses head-on the fact that he is Nat "King" Cole's "baby" brother. It's a midtempo blues song that encapsulates the challenges of such a distinction, and his performances of it practically overflow with dry wit and self-deprecating humor. Most of all, "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me" feels like a deeply respectful love letter to Nat.
He also ruminates on other elements of his family dynamic on his Website: "I started playing piano at five or six. Music was all around me." That's a heck of an understatement, considering that visitors to his Chicago family home included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton.
Cole moved in 1951 to New York, where he studied at the Juilliard School of Music and found himself profoundly moved by John Lewis (of the fabled Modern Jazz Quartet), Oscar Peterson, and Teddy Wilson. He also credits jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine as a major influence. After earning a master's degree at the New England Conservatory of Music, Cole got onboard with Earl Bostic and became a regular member of his touring band.
Fifty years later, his piano playing and singing easily straddle the fine line between jazz and cabaret, and he has continued to keep company with the earls, counts, dukes, and kings of the music realm. It's his approachable, friendly, regular-guy attitude, though, that makes him an original and irresistible entertainer.