Freddy Cole

Freddy Cole performs onstage during the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocals Competition 2015 at Dolby Theatre on Nov. 15, 2015 in Hollywood, California. Cole died June 27, 2020. He was 88.

CHICAGO — It could not have been easy being the kid brother of Nat King Cole, an icon of American music.

But jazz singer-pianist Freddy Cole, who died June 27 in Atlanta at age 88 of complications from a cardiovascular ailment, carried that burden with remarkable grace and individuality.

True, his gauzy voice and speech-song delivery recalled his elder brother’s velvet vocals and easygoing manner (he sang the role of his brother in the Oscar-nominated film “Chico & Rita”). Freddy Cole’s fluidity at the piano similarly echoed Nat King Cole’s seemingly nonchalant keyboard virtuosity.

Yet the younger Cole never sought to imitate his considerably more famous sibling, nor dwelled on it as others did.

“Throughout my whole career, people see my name out there, and they think I’m going to sing ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Nature Boy,’” Freddy Cole told me in 2009, referring to two of Nat King Cole’s many hits.

“But I’m different.”

COMPARISONS TO BIG BROTHER

As if to underscore the point, his sets often included a tune whose title said it all: “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me.” Its beguiling lyrics included this tongue-in-cheek line: “Hey, if Nat sounds like me, well, what can I say?”

That summed up Freddy Cole’s casual dismissal of unwanted comparisons.

“It was never really a big problem with me,” he said during our 2009 conversation. “The problem was with writers and other people, they would conjure up certain things,” added Freddy Cole, who was born in Chicago, growing up on the South Side and in Waukegan.

“But my father had well prepared us for that situation. He would say: Every tub has its own bottom. You sit on yours. Nat sits on his.”

MUSICAL FAMILY

But Freddy and Nat weren’t the only gifted Cole siblings. Singer-pianist Ike Cole (who died in 2001) was in residence in the Pump Room at the Ambassador East hotel for years, applying his own intimately confiding manner to a jazz songbook that Nat King Cole did more than most to popularize around the world.

All grew up immersed in music, thanks to their pianist mother. And though Freddy Cole aspired to be a professional athlete, a high-school injury redirected him to the piano. He pursued music at the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music, where he received a master’s degree in 1956. 

Like many jazz musicians, he gathered respect and recognition with age, earning Grammy nominations for “My Mood Is You” (2018), “Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B” (2010), “Music Maestro Please” (2007) and “Merry Go Round” (2000).

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

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