CHICAGO (CBS) — When Freddy Cole takes to the stage Thursday night at the 41st annual Chicago Jazz Festival, he’ll bring with him memories of previous festivals and coming up through Chicago’s music scene on the South Side.
“It’s quite a thrill. It’s quite a thrill. You remember the festivals from the years back when we used to go out in the park and listen to everybody. I’m quite excited about it,” Cole said.
The pianist is headlining the festival’s opening night at Pritzker Pavilion with a “Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole.” The Chicagoan said his older brother would come home often to play after leaving Chicago for Los Angeles where his recording career took off in the 1940s.
“He was a nice man, a very helpful man,” remembered Cole. “He just loved to play music, (and) everybody loved him. His records were big. I would say everybody was excited about it in Chicago.”
Cole said watching his brother Nat perform served as an inspiration.
“It was very exciting. It would make you very proud to see your brother up there in front of all those people. It’s nice at the Regal Theater, the Oriental Theatre. He loved places like that.”
The Cole family grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the Bronzeville neighborhood and it was on the South Side where many nightclubs allowed him and his contemporaries to play music non-stop. There was never a shortage of clubs or gigs to play. Cole, who’ll turn 88 in October, remembers that time very well, when music was everywhere.
“On the same block you would have two or three taverns with music in them. Especially up and down 63rd Street. They had every block between South Park and Cottage Grove. They had some type of music. Trios, quartets, quintets, just different things,” Cole said.
That time and space inspired Cole to record one of his most famous songs “On the South Side of Chicago.”
Does he feel that he has to perform it every time he’s in town?
“It doesn’t require, but I’m going to do it,” Cole laughed.
Another one of Cole’s signature songs is “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me” which is a reference to comparisons made about his famous brother, Nat. When Cole was starting out, people would often compare him to his older brother.
“You go through a lot to get to be the musician that I am right now. But I made it through,” Cole said. “With the help of a lot of great musicians, the guys that I played with over the years. And I’ll leave it at that.”
Some of the musicians and friends he played with included the late legendary saxophonist Von Freeman. Despite performing at festivals around the world, he laments the fact that there are few music venues today compared to when he was coming up.
“Yeah, that is very disheartening. Because a lot of cities that we used to go to, when we got off of work, we could go down the street and hear somebody or see this person sing,” Cole said. “That no longer exists. We’re doing more concerts than we are playing in nightclubs.”
Cole has been nominated for a Grammy Award four times, including this past year for Best Jazz Vocal Album for his 2018 release “My Mood is You,” but he lost to Cécile McLorin Salvant (who will also perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival Saturday night). His concert at Millennium Park will primarily feature songs made famous by Nat as well as some of his own favorites.
“Every song won’t be a Nat Cole song. But the way I present it, a lot of people will understand that’s where I’m coming from,” Cole said. “It will be done from the heart.”