Freddy Cole
Jazz Legend Returns for Rare Appearance at Atlanta Jazz Festival

By Lee Valentine Smith

A legend in his own right, Freddy Cole pays tribute to his brother on his latest album He Was The King. Released last year on burgeoning jazz outlet Highnote Records, the disc is a reverent homage to his older brother Nat "King" Cole. He's also the uncle of the late Natalie Cole, but he certainly isn't standing in the shadow of any relative - or peer for that matter.

The 85-year-old entertainer has called Atlanta home since 1971 and he still tours internationally with a physically demanding schedule that closes out this calendar year at Birdland in New York City. Local gigs have always been few and far between for Cole but he's planning a grand return with his combo to play, quite appropriately, the Legends Stage at this year's Atlanta Jazz Festival.

Recently while feeling a little bit under the weather, yet still offering flashes of his trademark wit, he rallied to speak with INsite by phone.

The last time we talked was just before your previous jazz festival appearance three years ago now. I'm excited you're coming back.

I am too. I'm glad to be somewhere!

You're returning to the festival in support of a really good album called "He Was The King".

That's right.

And obviously it's a tribute to your brother Nat "King" Cole. How did it come about?

Well it seems like everybody else has recorded songs from Nat Cole's songbook and I really haven't. So a friend of mine said, "Well why don't you? Everybody else has done it, you might as well throw your hat in the ring." So that's really how it came about. I think it's a good CD and we had fun doing it.

With a catalog as expansive as his, how do you select the songs? Just the tunes you particularly like the most?

That's the only way to do it. And definitely don't do the regular ones you hear every day. You've got to get some different ones on there because he had such a songbook. So we mulled it over for a while and we came up with some songs.

Of all of them, can you pick one or two that are your absolute favorites?

That's very difficult to do. But if I had to pick one, I guess I would say "Sweet Lorraine." That would be one of them but I don't know about the others. We did some of the obscure ones like "Maybe It's Because."

When the songs were originally issued, you both were on very different paths - especially with the age difference.

Of course, his albums came out long before mine did. I was a teenager when the bulk of his stuff came out.

What did you think when you first heard them?

Oh I liked it, with him being my brother and all. The music was really good.

He's been such an influence on so many people. Ray Charles once told me that when he first started to play, he was trying to learn to copy "those little tasty things on the piano" by Nat Cole. He loved his style.

Yeah he was he was a big follower and so many other people were, too. Not a day goes by that I don't hear about him from somebody.

When you were a teenager hearing these records, you were already playing the piano too. Did you feel any kind of good-natured family competition between the two of you?

Oh no, no way! (Laughs) I never thought that at anytime. He was just such a fantastic musician, piano player, singer. The only thing you could do was to be happy about it.

After you relocated from Chicago to Philadelphia, your first solo record was finally released. Would that have been Waiter Ask The Man To Play The Blues?

Hmm. Yeah, I think it was on Dot Records.

Right, from 1964. That's a cool album. I have one.

Yeah? You know they still play that record an awful lot over in Europe.

There are some legendary people on it. Sam "The Man" Taylor's on sax on that one.

He was on there and Milt Hilton (bass) was on there and Osie Johnson (drums). Barry Galbraith (guitar) was on it, too.

Since we're talking about your brother, we should definitely talk about your great song "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me" which is a sly declaration of independence.

Oh yeah. Man, I did that in the '70s. I think people made more out of it than what it was. It was done in humor. Some people might want to make something else out of it but that's what it was. It gets a laugh out of the crowd. You know, you do it and then you move on.

Will you do that song at the festival?

I don't know. I don't do it all the time. I just have to kinda judge when the crowd's ready for it, then we'll do it.

You never prepare a setlist, do you?

Oh no, I don't do that. When we hit the bandstand, we're all music and that's what it is. I watch the crowd and we keep adding a piece here, a pinch there - and then we got something. And hopefully they'll like it.

Freddy Cole plays the Legends Stage at 9 p.m. on May 28 at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

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