April is Jazz Appreciation Month, a time to honor the musicians of one of America’s most iconic art forms. Developed at the beginning of the 20th century, in the city of New Orleans, jazz has been described as, “America’s classical music.” With influence from ragtime and blues it has become a genre like no other. Many may not know that several of their favorite jazz musicians were actually Freemasons. Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Count Basie being among the most popular. Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month with us by recognizing the connection between some of the best names in jazz and Freemasonry.
Born in Washington D.C., at the turn of the 20th century, Duke Ellington was by far one of the most well-known jazz musicians and composers to date. Encouraged by his parents to pursue the fine arts, he began performing professionally at the age of 17. In 1923, he moved to New York City and performed with a 10-piece ensemble in various Broadway nightclubs. Ellington’s early “jungle style” was developed throughout this time period and would later appear on his famous tracks like “East of St. Louis Toodle-oo” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Ellington extended his 10-piece ensemble to 14 musicians and created hundreds of recordings, appeared in films, on television, radio and toured Europe for most of the 1930s. As his career soared throughout the 1940s and 50s Ellington refined his sound for orchestras, swinging solos, and emotional melodies.
Ellington’s relationship with Freemasonry began in 1932 at Social Lodge No. 1 in his hometown of Washington D.C. He later became a Prince Hall Freemason. Before Ellington passed in 1974 his career had spanned for over 50 years – this time period aligning with a majority of the recorded history of jazz. Ellington’s impressive repertoire, work ethic, and influence on the world of jazz will never be forgotten.
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole, born Nathaniel Adams Cole, is remembered as one of America’s most influential pianists and band leaders of the swing era. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois his musical career began at age 12 as a church organist. After graduating from the church ensemble to the Royal Dukes, his first jazz group, he moved to the West Coast and performed in clubs around Los Angeles. In the city of angels he formed the King Cole Trio specializing in light and joyful swing music. Cole’s career skyrocketed when he doubled as a singer for the trio and began recording hits like “Sweet Loraine” and “Unforgettable.” Charming and gregarious, his personality landed him a television gig in Studio City, hosting his own network variety show in 1956. This role made him the first African American to host a network variety program. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after one season. This upset didn’t stop Cole as he continued to record, release, and compose swing music – always adapting his style hit after hit. Cole released famous hits like, “L-O-V-E,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “For Sentimental Reasons.” Over the course of his life he accrued 7 Grammy nominations and won Record of the Year in 1962.
Nat King Cole joined our Masonic fraternity in 1944 when he joined Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49, Prince Hall Affiliation, in California with a few of his bandmates. Thomas Waller Lodge was named after the famous Prince Hall Mason and jazz musician, Fats Waller. As a Master Mason, Cole later became a Scottish Rite Freemason. Following his death in 1965, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and Jack Benny all attended his funeral to pay their respects to the revolutionary jazz musician, television host, and prolific composer.
William James ‘Count’ Basie, is one of the best jazz pianists and band leaders of the American jazz and swing era. Influenced by his mothers love for music, Count Basie studied the organ under famous musician and Freemason Fats Waller and began his career in the vaudeville circuit. In 1927, Basie found himself in Kansas City, Missouri and joined a 9-piece band, which he later led, and began performing in the midwest region of America. The “Basie band” was well-known for their “head arrangements,” as they generally memorized all of their music collectively in lieu of using sheet music. From the early 1930s through the 1950s Basie toured the United States creating music with his ever-growing ensemble and fine-tuning his sound. The troupe became a reliable, smart, and professional band releasing hits like, “Shorty George,” and “One O’Clock Jump,” the latter becoming a theme song for the ensemble. Basie’s music gained various Grammy nominations and in 2010 he was inducted into the Grammy’s Hall of Fame.
Count Basie was a member of Wisdom Lodge No. 102 and Medina Lodge No. 19, a Prince Hall Lodge in New York City. A Freemason, musician, and leader, Count Basie memorialized his place in the jazz world and was known by many as “The King of Swing.”
Interested to read about other Freemasons with a knack for the fine arts? Read our blogs on Irving Berlin, Mark Twain, and Thomas Cole!