Jazz legend Freddy Cole, inducted in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2007, passed away at age 88 on June 27 in Atlanta. A recent headliner of the 2017 Atlanta Jazz Festival, he was revered in jazz circles as one of the elite entertainers who captivated audiences with his unique ability to tell a story through his music. While most might be more familiar with his legendary brother Nat “King” Cole, younger brother Freddy — a four-time Grammy nominee — established an international reputation based on his own accolades.
Freddy Cole always drew comparisons to his brother, and strived to carve out his own space. But the one thing everyone agreed on was his talent as both a singer and a pianist. The New York Times said, “Freddy has an impeccable sense of swing . . . he is, overall, the most maturely expressive male jazz singer of his generation, if not the best alive.” Joe Bebco, associate editor of The Syncopated Times, wrote, “He developed a rapport with his audiences, speaking in a voice that was raspier than his brother’s but just as glowing.” And NPR once said, “Pianist, composer, and vocalist Freddy Cole can take any song and bring out colors and nuances never heard before.”
Although Cole was a Chicago native (Born Lionel Frederick Coles on October 15, 1931), he spent more than 48 years in Atlanta, a place he came to love as much as his hometown.
I spoke to several musicians who knew and played with him. Bernard Linnette moved to Atlanta in the late ’70s and decided to pursue a career in playing jazz drums. He found a club on Campbellton Road called 200 South, where young guys could hone their craft. Freddy Cole showed up one day and liked what he heard after hearing Linnette demonstrate his skills using sticks and brushes. “Couple of days after that, he said, ‘Call me.’ Freddy Cole was my first professional gig for about seven, eight years straight.”
Somewhere during this stretch, Cole had switched bassists, and was using Eddie (Wardell) Edwards. “Hilton Head had just opened in ’79,” says Linnette, “and we used to go there every year for about two or three months when I was in the band with Eddie.”
Edwards attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga during the years I was there between 1982-1985. We both studied with Dr. London Branch, a multi-talented bassist, trumpeter and pianist. Eddie was taking reading lessons with Branch while also doing repair work on acoustic basses at his shop.
Rodney Jordan (current bassist for Marcus Roberts and music professor at Florida State University) was also there studying with Branch, and purchased his first serious acoustic bass from Edwards, who had repaired it and left it at Cole’s house after a gig some months before after a tour. He’d worked on the instrument for Blue Note recording artist Layman Jackson — the bassist for Freddy Cole before Edwards joined. Jackson hadn’t paid the bill for the repairs and the bass was still at Freddy’s house. “I bought my first bass from Eddie Edwards back in the ‘80s,” says Jordan.. “I drove from Jackson, Mississippi, to pick it up at Freddy Cole’s house in Atlanta, where I met him for the first time. He was kind and he gave me some great advice. Freddy was like that distant uncle who made you feel like family every time you saw him even if you hadn’t seen him for years.”
Russell Malone — then a budding jazz guitarist from Albany who would later go on to perform with Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. and as a solo artist — moved to Atlanta in 1984 and met Freddy Cole. “I had just arrived in town,” he says. “There were a lot of really good clubs and musicians back then, and several places to play.” Malone first met Freddy at a place called Claude’s on International Boulevard — Cole’s band had Jerry Byrd on guitar, Linnette on drums and James King on bass.
Malone was actively freelancing in Atlanta in 1986 when he caught a break. “Jerry Byrd left the band, and I finally joined the group,” he says. Malone only played in Freddy’s band for a short while. “Maybe two months. I was square as a pool table and twice as green. I was not ‘ready for Freddy!’”
Although Malone’s stint was brief, the experience wasn’t wasted. “The little time that I spent with him, I learned a lot,” he says. “Freddy was the first one to pull my coat-tail about phrasing, learning songs, and really learning the lyrics to songs. A large portion of my repertoire came from him.”
Acclaimed as a singer and a pianist
Jazz pianist Benny Green modeled his pianistic approach not only on his primary musical mentor Oscar Peterson, but also the classic piano-bass-guitar format that both Nat and Freddy Cole were known for. Green expressed the highest level of respect for Freddy Cole’s effortless ability to seamlessly weave tempos and keys together for a hypnotic effect. “It was grown folks’ music for everyone,” Green says. “Freddy favored relaxed tempos and his presentation was irresistible. His sets would flow like one long medley, as he finished a song he’d coyly speak the title again as if he knew you wanted to remember it always.”
Green was instrumental in introducing Freddy to Randy Napoleon, who became Cole’s long-time guitarist. “He came to hear my trio at the old Top O’ The Senator Lounge in Toronto around ’99, Randy Napoleon was playing guitar with me,” says Green. Freddy phoned Green a couple of weeks later, telling him, “Say, I like that little guitar player of yours.”
“Ben told me Freddy had said some nice words about me,” Napoleon says. “It was really encouraging.”
Napoleon first subbed with Cole in 2004, and finally joined the band full time in 2006. Green is obviously still proud of the role he played in connecting the two men. “Randy has been like Freddy’s right-hand man on the bandstand and the road for I believe well over 15 years now,” he says.
The band averaged around 200 performances a year, according to Napoleon. “We would just spend all day together,” he says. “It just felt like we could kind of read each other’s minds.”
Freddy’s bassist, Elias Bailey, joined the band about two years before Randy. “I knew how to play the bass, but I didn’t know how to be a bass player,” he says. He describes Cole as the epitome of professional elegance and style. “Freddy could read every crowd and deliver exactly the right material.”
Being on the road in Freddy’s band meant that one had to learn how to pace oneself. Bailey recalls the routine 18-hour stretches with Cole. “We would start with breakfast together and end up at the bar at night,” he says. The next day, however, it was business as usual. Cole’s old-school work ethic wasn’t lost on Bailey, who fondly says, “He used to say, ‘Show me a musician who sleeps till noon, and I’ll show you somebody without a gig — business takes place in the morning!’”
Last to bed, first one up
Yet it wasn’t all work and no play — nearly every musician I interviewed spoke of the seemingly relentless energy the man possessed. “He wanted to see ‘the cats’ in every town,” Bailey says. “I was in my 20s when I started with him and he could out-hang me then! He was the last to bed, and the first one up in the morning.”
Count Basie Band leader Scotty Barnhart agrees — he saw first-hand how much Freddy loved to hang out. “I asked him to appear on my first Florida Jazz and Blues Festival in Tallahassee in September 2016. It was also his 85th birthday and I made sure we got him a huge cake and the entire audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him. Even at 85 years old, he went with me to the late night jam session afterwards at a club called B Sharps. I mean, how many people you know can do that at that age?”
Evelyn White was the leader of a Nat Cole-styled jazz trio I played in for a few years when I lived in Atlanta during the early ‘90s. One night White was performing solo piano at the Nikko when, suddenly, Freddy Cole walked into the lobby and took a seat. “He introduced himself, and to my surprise, he thought I was good. And he immediately said, ‘You know, you have a classical background,’ and I said, ‘Why, yes I do!’”
Over the next several years, Cole would serve as a musical mentor to White, who, like Russell Malone, was amazed at the seemingly endless repertoire that Freddy possessed. “This man knew every jazz song, especially jazz standards — musical theater too!” Cole regularly offered insightful comments to White to enhance her career. “He knew those melodies,” White says. “He always told me, ‘The harmony you can play with, but you can’t play with the melody — you gotta know the melody.’ He used to talk about how many people would sing — even ‘My Funny Valentine’ — the wrong way.”
The University of Idaho has hosted the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, since the early ’60s. “It was ’98 when I met Lionel Hampton, and Freddy was there every year that I went — for 10 straight years,” says White. The list of performers read like a ‘who’s-who’ of jazz elite, including Russell Malone, who served as house guitarist for many years. “It was so great because a lot of the old-timers were still around at the time,” says Malone. “Clark Terry, Joe Williams, Hank Jones, Lionel Hampton, of course. Titans were still walking the planet!”
Malone and White had ample opportunities to play with Freddy, who religiously attended the festival. “I did see him there with his band maybe once or twice,” Malone says. “But for the most part, he would play with us as the house band. Whatever he wanted to play, he always made it very easy for us because he knows a lot of tunes. He was always very flexible.”
Drummer Lewis Nash met Cole in New York when he played with legendary pianist Tommy Flanagan in a trio from 1990-2000. “Freddy used to come in there to hear us,” Nash says. “That’s where I met him.”
Both Nash and White enjoyed having a chance to perform at the Hampton Festival in Idaho, but it was the “hang” before and after the performances that all the musicians appreciated. Nash, Malone, White and Freddy regularly sat in a tiny little restaurant inside the Sheraton Hotel. “That was the part that I really loved,” White says, “sitting around after the concert was done.”
Malone says, “We spent a lot of time talking in that restaurant. You just learn so much just being around these people.”
White says she often felt like she was out of her league. “I was just an observer, but Freddy — bless his heart — he would always bring it back around to me, and he always asked me a question. Like, ‘Do you know the verse to ‘The Man I Love?’ No? You need to learn the verse. The verse is where the money is.”
Nash says Freddy showed him special attention. “He knew I did a little singing, so every time I would see him, he would have another little piece of paper with a list of a few more songs that he thought might work well with the quality of my voice. Freddy would say, ‘Hey, you should try this one and you should try this one.’”
He also cherishes the private moments with Cole, like taking early morning walks together. “The guys of Freddy’s generation, they like to get up in the morning and walk — that’s where they get their head together,” says Nash. “It dictates everything that happens for the next 24 hours. The stuff that’s beyond the music is sometimes more important than the music itself.”
The end of an era
Malone, now based in New York City, was one of the last people to see Freddy perform. “I saw Freddy at Birdland a few months ago, before the pandemic hit. He wasn’t as spry as he normally was. But once he hit the bandstand, it was like he became rejuvenated.”
Randy Napoleon remembers one of the last gigs he performed with Freddy last August at the Chicago Jazz Festival. “We were playing outside in the amphitheater, and it was a huge crowd. He was physically weak, but emotionally it was more powerful and so deep. He’d sing a ballad and you could hear a pin drop.”
After word spread that Cole had passed, Napoleon says, “It really hit me hard; there’s a big hole. I don’t feel that there’s anyone who has what Freddy had. It’s just the end of an era.”
Nash remembers Freddy as “warm and giving, particularly with musicians coming up after him.”
Comparisons between the Cole brothers cannot be ignored. “That’s not something that we (Cole and I) talked about,” Malone says. “But he did have a song in his repertoire called ‘I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,’ and all his feelings about being compared to his brother were in that song.”
Evelyn White says, “Freddy’s style had a little bit more rawness to his voice and to his playing than Nat.”
Malone agrees, saying, “I never thought he sounded like Nat. I always thought Freddy was a little grittier and funkier.”
This final story from Evelyn White captures the essence of the man whose spirit continues to reverberate. “One day, we’re just sitting there talking, ordering gumbo off the menu, and Freddy goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, baby, every time I see Tony, he asks about you.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay,’ and I didn’t really know who he was referring to. And I’m like, ‘Freddy, what Tony you talkin’ about? And he went, ‘Bennett!’”
White was stunned. “I always wanted to be a good musician,” she says. “I didn’t care about fame. He always said, ‘Don’t stop playing.’ What Freddy did was give me confidence — period. That’s what he did.”
In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to highlight Atlanta’s creative community.