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Nature Boy (1948)

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Origin and Chart Information

The publisher of the Yiddish song on which “Nature Boy” was based sued and settled out of court.

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 115
Words and Music Eden Ahbez

Nat “King” Cole introduced this unusual tune, based on a Yiddish song “Schwieg Mein Hertz” (Be Still My Heart), in 1948, when it leaped to number one in the charts for 18 weeks:

 

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954
 

The composer of “Nature Boy,” eden ahbez (no capitals per his request), was born Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn in 1908. The original sheet music of the song shows a photo of ahbez-long hair and beard, an almost Christ-like figure, highly unusual for the 1940s. In some respects, ahbez was the prototypical hippie twenty years ahead of his time, for in addition to his appearance he lived a simple life, wore a robe and sandals, was a vegetarian, and even was reputed to be living with his wife under the “L” letter of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign.

 

More on Eden Ahbez at JazzBiographies.com
 

Early in his life Aberle and his 12 siblings were orphaned, some sent to a foster home in Kansas. Alexander didn’t stay long and embarked on a wandering life, eventually ending up in Los Angeles. In 1947 he left a tattered manuscript of his composition “Nature Boy” backstage at a Nat “King” Cole performance. Cole liked the tune and subsequently recorded it for Capitol. The label’s executives, however, didn’t know what to think about it and held off releasing the record. Yet Cole believed in the song and its simple message, and live performances proved the song’s appeal to the public. Eventually the Capitol hierarchy released Cole’s recording and the rest is history, as it’s said.

Many in the music biz refer to people like eden as a “one hit wonder,” and, even though he did write a few more songs and recorded an album in the early 1960s, none of his compositions drew much attention. He continued to live in his simple way and died, in 1995 at age 86, after being struck by a car.

His unusual story and life still capture the public’s fancy, and a television special filmed in 2000 dealt with “Nature Boy” and eden’s experience with Nat “King” Cole.

More information on this tune...

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages


(In his encyclopedia Hischak covers the history of the song, its performers, and films in which it has been featured.)

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Music and Lyrics Analysis

”Nature Boy” is a musical self-portrait of eben, a “strange, enchanted boy, who traveled far...over land and sea, but very wise, was he.” Yet the song’s most important message is “just to love and be loved in return.” Chris Tyle

Musical analysis of “Nature Boy”

Original KeyE minor
Form A - B1 - A - B2
TonalityMinor throughout
MovementFollowing initial octave leap upwards, primarily arpeggiated, outlining the “chord of the moment” in both directions. Some descending chromaticism.

Comments     (assumed background)

Although the chord progression is fairly straight-forward (i - iv - i with II7 - V7 turnarounds), the performer should be aware of the numerous altered tones, especially the descending chromatic movement in mm. 5-8 and 21-24 and the altered pitches (b9 of II7, chromatic passing tone and #5 of V7) in mm. 13 and 29-30.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Nature Boy" may be found in:

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.)
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Getting Started
CD Recommendations
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Jazz History Notes

Two jazz violinists feature preeminently in the recorded history of this tune. First, the “Swinging Viking,” Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, made a version in 1948, followed in 1949 by French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli’s rendition, a reunion with guitarist Django Reinhardt, is extremely moving, and this session proved to be their last together.

Fast forward to 1955 and a session with the Miles Davis Quintet featuring heavy-hitters Charlie Mingus on bass and Elvin Jones on drums (who would record the tune with John Coltrane ten years later). Davis’ piano-less group, with Teddy Charles on vibes, is the prototypical cool jazz version and features a sterling solo by Mingus.

And for something completely different, tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec’s treatment from 1961 is a duo with the great bassist, Milt Hinton.

Svend Asmussen: recording out-of-print

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Django Reinhardt
Django in Rome 1949-1950
Jsp Records
Original Recording 1949
iTunes
Miles Davis
Blue Moods
1991 Original Jazz Classics 43
Original recording 1955
iTunes
Ike Quebec
Heavy Soul
Blue Note Records

iTunes
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Nature Boy.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Any exploration of “Nature Boy” must begin with Nat “King” Cole’s classic 1947 recording (The Very Best of Nat King Cole); the jazz relevance of that recording is open to debate, but its significance to the history and interpretation of the song is not. Django Reinhardt’s version with Stephane Grappelli (Django in Rome 1949-1950) is a stellar example of an instrumental ballad interpretation, while John Coltrane’s 1965 exploration (John Coltrane Quartet Plays) is a standout among less traditional versions.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Nat King Cole, Nat King Cole
The Very Best of Nat King Cole
Capitol
Original recording 1956

Though the lush orchestral accompaniment here marked a huge departure from Cole’s piano trio work, along the way he landed upon one of the most iconic pop hits of the era.

iTunes
John Coltrane Quartet
John Coltrane Quartet Plays
Verve
Original recording 1965

In their first session after recording the landmark A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s quartet exploits the minor modality and exoticism of “Nature Boy” with this intense and exploratory performance.

iTunes
Johnny Hartman
For Trane
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1972

Ostensibly a tribute to his former collaborator John Coltrane, this performance with a Japanese rhythm section treats “Nature Boy” to an infectious, hard-swinging interpretation bearing little resemblance to Coltrane’s version.

iTunes
Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass
Fitzgerald and Pass...Again
Ojc
Original recording 1976

Fitzgerald and Pass offer a tender and straightforward reading of “Nature Boy” as a duo ballad.

iTunes
George Benson
The George Benson Collection
Warner Bros UK
Original recording 1976

What do you get when you cross Nat “King” Cole and Stevie Wonder? Probably something like this soulful R&B interpretation by guitarist and vocalist Benson, which raised eyebrows of some jazz purists but also brought extra visibility to this song in 1976.

iTunes
Sun And His Arkestra Ra
Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue (1977)
ATAVISTIC
Original recording 1977

Pianist and bandleader Sun Ra manages to be simultaneously experimental and faithful in his frequently dissonant interpretation of “Nature Boy.” Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore adds a great deal of soul and creativity as well.

iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Kurt Elling
The Messenger
1997 Blue Note 52727
Original recording 1997
Vocalist Elling kicks off the album with a wonderfully melancholic reading of the song, managing to play with both tempo and range without interfering with the sorrow-filled foundation of the song.
iTunes
Art Pepper
Straight Life
1990 Original Jazz Classics 475
Original recording 1979
Wistful, breathy playing from saxophonist Pepper and minimal play from his sidemen strip the song down to its barest bones. It is emotional to the point of heartbreaking beauty.
Jacky Terrasson
Alive
1998 Blue Note Records 59651

Pianist Terrasson’s early trio with Ogonna Okegwo on bass and Leon Parker on drums was something to behold for its energy and creativity. They leave no stone unturned on their excursion through “Nature Boy.”
iTunes
Abbey Lincoln
A Turtle's Dream
1995 Polygram Records 527382

Vocalist Lincoln holds onto each word for its full measure of time, giving weight to the story of “Nature Boy.” Beautiful horn lines from trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Julien Lourau complement the melody.
iTunes
Nnenna Freelon
Shaking Free
2003 Concord 1012
Original recording 1996
An unusually energetic, swinging version of the song is delivered by vocalist Freelon who keeps the tempo moving at a clip as the song threatens to slip into a rumba at times.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Eden Ahbez

Year Rank Title
1948 115 Nature Boy

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