You can’t go wrong spending a couple hours watching Jimi Ray Malory’s interpretation of “King of Cool–The Life and Music of Nat King Cole” at MetroStage in Alexandria. Backed by a trio with William Knowles on keyboard, Malory sings Cole’s songs woven together with chronological sing song patter of the story of the crooner’s life in the third person.
Although colorful anecdotes of King’s personal and professional life are informative and preserve his legacy–the crooner died of lung cancer 41 years ago–the music is the highlight of this production. It’s easy listening in an intimate setting, perfect for a holiday “date” night. Highlights include “Around The World,” “More,” and the very upbeat, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.”
Malory, who traveled from Seattle to play Duke Ellington on the same stage last summer, told me following the opening performance that he doesn’t identify with Duke or Nat. But he admires Cole for breaking the color barrier in radio and then in TV in 1956 with his own show on NBC. “He did it quietly with dignity,” Malory said. Cole fought racism throughout his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. He was the first man of color to purchase a house (in 1948) in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood in Los Angeles.
A former opera singer, Malory insists he’s not trying to imitate Cole, who began as a jazz pianist, but rather show the “essence” of Cole. “On stage my challenge is to paint a picture with color and words,” he said about the book that he commissioned David Scully to write for him. “Cole was so calm and sophisticated,” said Malory, 58. “It’s part of my memory- – the music, his TV show and his suaveness.”
It seemed incongruous that Malory pulled his locks back in a ponytail for this production rather than styling his hair a la Cole, whose photo hung on the set behind him. He told me: “Locks are how I express myself. My hair is a way of expressing my blackness.” And he makes the distinction between locks and dreadlocks, which he calls “political.” He’s let his hair grow for two years, and isn’t about to cut it since it grew very slowly before it started locking itself. Even the much-desired Nat King Cole role couldn’t tempt him to restyle it. “I wasn’t about to cut it. I was an opera singer. I don’t want to fit into a mold any longer,” Malory said. “This is how I choose to express myself.” Malory added as if to justify his position or perhaps to transport Cole into the present, “Cole had processed hair. It was straightened.” Perhaps if he were alive today, Cole would have worn his hair in locks as well.
“I try to be true to the material,” said Malory. “I never attempt to transform but to present the essence. No one could be Nat.”
He’s right about that –for those of us who are of the age to remember the original Cole–but with his smooth voice and relaxed style, Malory as Cole had the audience in the palm of his hand, especially when he invited them to join in singing “Ramblin’ Rose.” And he got a well-deserved standing ovation after his rendition of “Unforgettable.”
Cole never abandoned his jazz roots. His daughter, Natalie Cole, has re-released some of her dad’s music for a new generation, who will find MetroStage’s contribution to the Cole legacy a must-see during this holiday season as well.