MONTGOMERY—The college kid at Alabama State University’s front gate is greeting cars and giving directions to new incoming students.
“Hi!” she says to me. “Are you moving into the dorms?”
Moving in? I’m flattered she would say such a thing. But I’m a little long in the tooth to be moving into any dorms. I have tennis shoes older than this kid.
“No,” I say. “Just here to look around campus.”
“Okay, have a good one! Go Hornets!”
“Go Hornets,” says her friend.
It’s move-in day at the university. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic these students are excited for the new semester. Their modern music blares from car stereos all over campus and sounds like a choir of tone deaf chainsaws.
You have to worry about America’s youth.
Classes begin Monday. Hundreds of freshmen in surgical masks are buzzing around this place like… Well. Hornets.
On the opposite side of ASU’s campus, over by Hornet Stadium, is the historic clapboard house I came to see. The university relocated the structure here from its original location on Saint Johns Street years ago, then renovated it. It looks roughly the same as it did in 1919 when Nathaniel Adams Coles was born here.
It’s a plain-looking home, painted lead-white, with a tiny porch, and a piano in the front room. Ironically, it looks like my grandmother’s house. Except, her den had a record player as its main centerpiece, not a piano.
Goodness knows that woman loved her music. She would smoke endless chains of Winstons, listening to Nat King Cole records, singing along in her hoarse voice until it was time to start supper.
I peek into the back bedrooms of the home. A great man was born in one of these rooms.
Nat “King” Cole was an easy going boy, an ardent baseball fan, and he had a great personality. He was the son of a Baptist preacher, and an all-around good kid.
Which is really exceptional because many preachers’ kids aren’t good. The preachers’ kids I grew up with were mainly good at doing two things: (a) knowing which adult Bible studies had pastries, and (b) smuggling illegal contraband.
Nat’s father was in charge of Beulah Baptist Church, on the other side of town. It was a groundbreaking church, and ahead of its time. The back rooms once served as college classrooms for one of Alabama’s first black universities. A school which later became State Normal College. Which eventually became the campus I’m on right now.
Nat’s mother sang in the church choir and played accompaniment for services. Her son was only four when she started teaching him to play scales on the church organ. By age 12 he was playing Rachmaninoff.
The family left Montgomery for Chicago when Nat was a toddler. The big city was a shock to the system, but a good one. Chicago was loud, fast, unruly, and people spoke with weird accents. There were Germans, Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants on every corner, hanging from every apartment window.
The official soundstripe of Chicago’s heyday was a new music called “jazz.” And it was everywhere. Across the booming city were seedy nightclubs where young boys could get lost in the bebop melodies of a genre that was still wet behind its ears.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, or Earl Hines performing in some poorly lit tavern to a rowdy crowd.
In the middle of the night, teenage Nat would sneak out of the house, hike through the neon city, and sit outside the speakeasies to listen. He would hear stabbing trumpet calls, licorice-stick clarinets, and thumping rhythms from the best musicians on the American landscape.
One of his favorite acts was a coronet player from New Orleans named Louis.
When Nat turned 15 he dropped out of school to play music full time. His decision was irrational, impulsive, and shortsighted. But it worked. He took gigs wherever he could find them, lived on highways, and he played for mere peanuts. He performed in every alehouse, barroom, drinkery, juke joint, gin joint, beer joint, after-hours-joint, and whiskey mill from Des Moines, to L.A.
His name became a household name. A name everyone’s Winston-smoking granny loved.
Some don’t realize what a remarkable pianist he was. I once knew an elderly university music professor who said Nat was so good that Hollywood studio players would congregate outside his recording sessions, puffing cigarettes, just to hear him tear the keys off a Steinway.
He didn’t play the piano like a piano at all. His right hand played like a Tommy gun, his left hand was Debussy. And don’t even get me started on his singing.
When he sings “The Very Thought of You,” I turn into a bucket of saltwater.
He was 45 years old when he died. And you’ve never met a bigger Nat Cole fan than my granny.
Except for me of course.
Two university students pull into a parking space behind my vehicle. The young men tour the antique home along with me. And something tells me they are freshmen. I would bet money on it.
Their old model Toyota is filled with cardboard boxes and furniture. Their windows are rolled down. Electronic pop music plays on their stereo. Beneath their medical masks are the faces of pure adolescent excitement.
“Hey!” says one kid, peering into a bedroom. “Nat King Cole was born here!”
“No way!” says the other kid. “Man, he was SO GOOD!”
Then one kid sprints to his Toyota, fiddles with the radio, and in a few moments Nat King Cole’s voice is blasting from the car stereo for anyone who happens to be within earshot. And I can’t help but feel a little warm inside.
America’s youth is going to be just fine here at ASU.