Many years later, almost at the end of his life, the great Cuban chef Gilberto Smith recalled his contacts with Nat King Cole who frequently, before his presentations at the Tropicana cabaret, passed by the Normandie restaurant, at kilometer ten of the road to Pinar del Río, in order to taste the cuisine of who, over time, would be described as “the wizard of sauces”, especially a rabbit of very complicated elaboration that after marinating had to be kept, covered, for two days in strong cold, but taking care not to freeze the marinade.
From the kitchen of that establishment that specialized in regional French dishes, Smith noticed the carefree elegance of the American singer, the irreproachable cut of his suits, his kindness, his simplicity, the almost confidential way in which he conversed with his interlocutors. His perennial smile. He smoked a lot and had a favorite drink: coffee.
The interpreter of Unforgettable and Mona Lisa He came to Havana in 1956, 1957 and 1958 to perform, always under juicy contracts, in Tropicana. Earlier, when he was told about the possibility of performing at that famous nightclub, he made a private visit to see for himself the setting that would host him. He was dazzled. Even though she was already the biggest record star in her country, the Cuban capital made her very excited, and the contract that would allow her to come caused her enormous joy. I would say in the interview that in those days he granted Germinal Barral, that indefatigable journalist who in Bohemia magazine signed his notes with the pseudonym Don Galaor: “Havana, in general, is very beautiful. One is surprised as soon as he leaves the plane: its avenues, its gardens, its shops. And in the natural, it is paradisiacal ». “I was happy that they told me about working in Havana … Now that I know it, imagine!”, He added and described Tropicana with two resounding adjectives: “wonderful” and “surprising.”
Part and part
There was expectation for Cole’s presence on Cuban stages, writes musicologist Rosa Marquetti Torres. For Martín Fox, the owner of Tropicana, having managed to hire who was then the most popular singer in the United States, consolidated his establishment in a position far ahead of the rest of the nightclubs, regardless of the fees he had to pay. Cuban jazz-loving musicians, who had been admiring and following him from afar for a decade, would have the opportunity — some — to see him perform and others to find out in their own city. At least for a few days.
The aforementioned researcher points out: «No one denied the influence that made them indebted to Cole, in the first place that exerted on the feeling singers, such as Leonel Bravet – who was called the Cuban Nat King Cole – and José Antonio Méndez, and on pianists such as Samuel Téllez and Virgilio “Yiyo” López, among others. But not only Cole, but also his musicians impacted their Cuban colleagues with their respective styles.
So for everyone, Rosa Marquetti concludes, that visit would be important. Cole was, for a long time, a heavyweight in jazz. Although many consider him today just an extraordinary singer, he was also a brilliant pianist who made an undeniable contribution to jazz with the trio – piano, guitar and bass – that he created at the height of the great bands, and in which, at such a time As early as 1949, he introduced the bongo and experimented with Cuban percussion.
The night of Nat King Cole’s debut in Tropicana finally arrived, on March 2, 1956. He came to Havana in the company of his wife and six-year-old daughter Natalie, the musicians of his trio and his technicians. lights and sound. The chronicler Rafael Lam reports that that afternoon there was a rehearsal behind closed doors with the cabaret orchestra conducted by Armando Romeu and reinforced with symphonic violins. Certain technical adjustments were imposed on the usual routine of the cabaret: very dim indirect lights were installed, rugs were placed on the floor to muffle the noise of the place and reinforce the intimate tone of the crooner’s songs.
Nat King Cole would be inserted in the Mexican Fantasy show that the cabaret presented with a cast led by Xiomara Alfaro, and of which the D’Aida quartet — Elena Burke, Moraima Secada and Haydée and Omara Portuondo— were part of the singers Miguel Ángel Ortiz and Dandy Crawford, and the dancers Leonela González and Henry Boyer, among others.
As was his custom, the 37-year-old singer drank a cup of coffee before going on stage. He entered the dance floor dressed in an impeccable white tuxedo with black lapels and preceded by 11 models who each carried a huge album that read “Capitol Records”, the label that exclusively recorded the artist, while in on the reverse the letters of his name were noted one by one: NAT — KING — COLE. The girls stepped aside to make way for the star, while the host said at the top of his lungs into the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Tropicana cabaret is honored by introducing the only one, the greatest, Nat King Cole.”
Don Galaor, who saw him perform in a cabaret in Miami and in the Cuban capital, points out that he was capable of non-stop performing 16 songs in 40 minutes and in the middle of them undertake a piano solo that drew more thunderous applause than his songs. He did so that night in Tropicana. In the end, he walked to the back of the stage and there he turned to say goodbye to the audience with a slight nod and a smile before disappearing. The applause did not stop and the crooner appeared again. He saluted again and disappeared again.
It was, said Show magazine, an “unforgettable” show and “of unprecedented impact.”
To be black
There was only one drawback in that visit to Havana by the legendary jazzman. She pretended to stay at the Hotel Nacional, and Rodney, the cabaret choreographer, told her what four years earlier had happened to Josephine Baker in that hotel establishment: due to the color of her skin, she was denied accommodation after the artist’s representative He reserved four rooms for the star and his entourage and the Baker, with the ensuing scandal, had to stay at the Hotel Sevilla. Rodney asked Cole not to force the situation and discussed the matter with the manager of the Nacional gambling casino, the man of Meyer Lansky, head of the North American mafia in Cuba. It was not convenient for the newly opened hotel management to go through such a situation, especially in those days when the main North American newspapers repudiated the attack that the artist was subjected to while singing in a theater in Birmingham, Alabama, by members of a Council of White Citizens. Casino management assured Rodney that Cole would stay at the Nacional when he returned to Havana.
So it was. The artist returned two more times. He appeared again at Tropicana in February 1957. Two Rodney shows —Tambó and Copacabana— were on the “paradise under the stars” billboard on that date, and the North American joined them to share honors with Celia Cruz; Paulina Álvarez, the so-called «Empress of the Danzonete»; Merceditas Valdés and Adriano Rodríguez; the group of Paquito Godino, the dancer Leonela González and the dance partner of Ana Gloria and Rolando. Said the magazine Show: “They are not remembered full as those who scored the cabaret with the performances of Nat King Cole, which proves the sympathy that the wonderful singer enjoys.”
It was then that the Sans Souci cabaret, in fierce competition with Tropicana, opposed him, without succeeding in overshadowing it, against Sarah Vaugham, who, incidentally, at the Las Vegas cabaret offered a stellar discharge that marked a milestone in the annals of jazz in Cuba. It was attended by Bebo Valdés and Guillermo Barreto, as well as Omara, la Burke and José Antonio Méndez.
On this occasion, Cole visited the Panart record label, the Record’s concessionaire, in San Miguel and Campanario. For that label Cole recorded in Spanish, a language that the crooner did not know. By learning the song lyrics word by word, the album in question was able to include Mona Lisa, from Mérido Gutiérrez Rippe from Holguin; The winemaker, by Richard Egües, and Come closer, by Osvaldo Farrés, among other melodies that gained space in radio programming and on victrolas. During that visit, Tropicana entertained him with a gala dinner, which was attended by Alberto Ardura, from the cabaret’s board of directors, and another meal presided over by Martín Fox himself, the owner, and his wife Ofelia; This dinner took place at the superclub La Rue 19, specialized in international cuisine and which opened its doors, from “twilight to dawn” at the corner of 19 and H, in Vedado, and which, not to change, was turned into an office for years.
He returned to Tropicana on February 7, 1958 and appeared for two weeks, in the shows Voodooritual and This is Cuba, Mister, scheduled for 11:30 and 1:30, with the Haitian singer Martha Jean Claude, the Los Rivero quartet, the Italian Katina Ranieri and the dancer Maricusa Cabrera, among others. The dances between the shows and the end of the night are performed by the cabaret orchestra, directed by Armando Romeu and the popular Riverside and Fajardo y sus Estrellas orchestras. He finished. Like to leave the shoes on the track.
Nathaniel Cole, Nat King Cole’s real name, was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. The son of a Baptist pastor. His mother was his only piano teacher. He died in a hospital in Santa Monica, California, on February 15, 1965, a victim of lung cancer. He smoked a lot.
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Nat King Cole in Havana – Juventud Rebelde