Kevin Cole, 48, is regarded as the world’s foremost interpreter of George Gershwin and the music of the Great American Songbook from that era. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Cole about Gershwin, his Catholic faith, and the meeting with a music scholar that changed his life.
CD: You’ve been playing piano since age 4. What sparked your interest?
COLE: My dad’s sister was getting rid of an old upright piano, and my dad asked, “Who would like piano lessons?” My brothers didn’t, and I did.
CD: Why Gershwin?
COLE: When I was 7, [I saw] a movie called Rhapsody in Blue, an old Warner Brothers film from 1945 starring Robert Alda as Gershwin. It just had such an impact on me. (Then, I went to the library and) I asked the librarian if she had any books on Gershwin, and there was one called The Gershwin Years, co-authored by Edward Jablonski. The librarian said that Jablonski was from Bay City, Michigan, my hometown, so that really got me going.
When I was 15, I made my first trip to New York, pulled out the phone book and called him and basically said, “My name is Kevin Cole, I’m from Bay City, Michigan, I’m a pianist, and I like Gershwin too.” And there was kind of a chuckle on the other end of the line, but (eventually, he) invited me over for dinner.
He had a little upright piano. After dinner, he said, “Would you like to play something?” I played a few songs, like “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” and when I finished, he said something that forever changed my life: he said, “Do you know that when you play, you sound like Gershwin?”
From that surprise meeting, I would go and visit the Jablonski family in the summers, and it was through them that I played for Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen, and some of these great songwriters who were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s when I was a teenager and in my early 20s. It was just meant to be.
CD: Soon after you met Jablonski, you played for the Gershwin family and some of George and Ira’s close friends. How did you feel, knowing you were going to play Gershwin for those who knew him best?
COLE: About halfway through, I noticed that one by one, they were getting up and leaving the room. So I thought, Well, I guess they don’t like it! But they came back with Kleenex, and were very teary-eyed. Kay Swift, who was Gershwin’s right-hand gal — she helped write Porgy and Bess, she worked with him for so many years — she made the statement, “We never thought we’d hear the piano sound like that again. It sounds just like George.”
When I’m playing the music — whether I [was] playing Gershwin for his family, or Jerome Kern for his daughter, or Irving Berlin for Irving Berlin — I feel like this is my way that I can say thank you for the music that they created or that they were associated with. How do you thank these people whose music lives on and is a part of the fiber and fabric of this country? It’s helped us through good times and bad times, it will stay with us — they left us such a legacy of music that touches the heart and soul — and it’s universal. That I’m able, because of a God-given talent, to nurture that and keep it going, is an honor.
CD: What role does faith play in your music?
COLE: In church, I was always involved in choirs but I also, as a pianist and organist, started subbing out to not only other Catholic churches besides my own, but also to every denomination in Bay City. Had it not been for music and faith together, I wouldn’t have had my eyes open to [the idea] that we are more similar than dissimilar in believing.
I also write sacred music. Now, especially, with the Catholic Church going through ups and downs, I want to heal people as fast as possible, and music heals a lot of ills. I don’t have a solution to what goes on in any denomination, but what I can do is help bring people together and figure out how to get through this. I think [music] creates a common ground.
CD: Does playing or listening to music help you pray?
COLE: Well, I pray a lot; my mom instilled that in me. She’s this little Polish woman who prays for everybody. I swear she’s one of those for whom God puts everyone else on hold and listens to.
(As far as) music as prayer, when I’m playing — and especially if I’m playing sacred music — I guess the music is my offering.
What I’ve learned is that in my prayer — and I think this does connect to my music — is that I stopped asking. [When I’m playing piano,] I don’t ask the audience for anything other than to enjoy it, and just open their ears and their hearts. [So] I thought to myself, What am I doing to God? I’m going through a grocery story, and I’m saying, ‘I need a can of this, and a can of that, and will You give it to me?’
Now, I’ve realized the most important prayer is just “You’ve given me everything, but I don’t know how to use it properly. So keep my eyes and my heart and my ears open to the opportunities to give and to help every day.”
[Once I realized this,] I thought, Why didn’t I say this prayer sooner in my life? because, you know, maybe you’re dealing with the business and you’re not getting the jobs you want, you’re not getting ahead, and (you think,) Oh please God, if I was only on TV, or if I only had this, it would happen for me, instead of realizing it’s always been happening to me. I’m giving of myself whether I’m playing for two people or 20,000; it’s the same thing. It’s the same ministry, it’s the same healing.
CD: How has music has changed your life?
COLE: It’s allowed me to give totally of myself in a way that I don’t know anything else could. It also has given back to me so much in the people that I’ve met because of music. The doors that have opened, the attitudes that have changed — I’ve seen so many people who were blocked and rigid be softened and open up because of the power of music. CD
A closer look at Kevin Cole
- Do you have a favorite Gershwin piece?
- “Of the classical pieces, I guess ‘Concerto in F.’ As far as Gershwin songs, one of my absolute favorites is ‘But Not for Me.’”
- If you could meet George Gershwin and tell him or ask him one thing, what would it be? “Sit down and play the piano for me.”
- What’s your favorite thing to do with your family? “Play Scrabble.”
- Do you have a favorite contemporary Catholic hymn?
- “‘On Eagle’s Wings.’ I’ve played that at more weddings and funerals than I can remember, and it still touches so many people.”
- Do you have anything special you “must” do before a performance? “Before I step on stage, the last thing that I say in my head, or I whisper out loud, is, ‘Holy Spirit, give me the fire.’ I get excited before a concert, I love being out on stage, but I also realize that I have to connect to God.”
Listen to Gershwin online
To learn more about George and Ira Gershwin, and to hear some of their music, visit www.gershwin.com.
How Cole plays Gershwin
“I play his note-for-note arrangements of ‘The Rhapsody (in Blue)’ and the serious pieces, but with all the songs, I do my own improvisations. I think that’s what’s set me apart from a lot of pianists who have played Gershwin; they play note-for-note what he played. His music made such an impression on me, I understood it in my head and through my fingers in such a way that I knew I could create my own arrangements but be true to Gershwin.”
Hear Kevin Cole play
Kevin Cole currently has several CDs for sale — Cole Plays Gershwin and A Cole Christmas. For more information, or to buy, click HERE.