Alto Sax Master Richie Cole Has Died At The Age of 72

(Photo Credits: Jack Zuff from October, 2017 JazzBuffalo Presents Concert at Musical Fare Theatre.)

Alto saxophone great Richie Cole once referred to in Downbeat magazine as “the sax machine,” has died at the age of 72. Cole died on May 1 at his home in Carnegie, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. His daughter Annie Cole said he died in his sleep, of natural causes.

Richie Cole was a prolific composer who has recorded over 50 albums with the likes of Eddie Jefferson, the Manhattan Transfer, Bobby Enriquez, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Tom Waits, Boots Randolph, and Nancy Wilson. He performed at the historic Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall. Cole even gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II.

Years ago, the prominent jazz critic Leonard Feather noted Cole’s lively and informal presentations and “the free-wheeling and sometimes satirical nature of his performances.” The website About Jazz says Cole “is the last of a breed — a fast and competitive musical gunslinger acquiring legendary status for his willingness to demonstrate his command of Charlie Parker’s bebop language by taking on all comers at any speed.”

“I like to trick people into liking jazz by keeping things friendly, upbeat, and familiar,” stated Cole, who represented a musical link that runs from bebop’s founder Charlie Parker and innovator Phil Woods to the present. Woods — who married Parker’s widow — taught at a summer performing arts camp in New Hope, where he met the young Cole and became his mentor. The two eventually joined in recording an album, “Side by Side.”

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“(Bebop) to me is the ultimate expression of jazz,” Cole said about the style that he mastered. It is a style that followed swing in the late 1940s, employed both traditional and untraditional harmonic and rhythm constructions (with an emphasis on the untraditional), and stressed playful, fast, and intricate solos that let musicians soar as they explored both sound and emotion. In addition to Parker, other masters of the style that took its name from sounds related to scat or sound singing include Dizzy Gillespie and Theolonius Monk. “If serious jazz musicians study their music, they’ll see that it starts with bebop. You must master your instrument. Anything that comes into your head you can play, because you have mastered your instrument. Bebop musicians are like classically trained musicians,” Coe had stated.

Another important thing to recall, he expressed, is that bebop performers are not just playing music. “They’re telling a story off the top of your head; you’re not reading the story. (Saxophonist) Sonny Rollins is a poet. He’s telling a story. I understand it. Every paragraph he’s talking about. That’s the core of my thing.”

Cole shared that’s how the style of music came to him. “That’s just the way I heard it. I used to stay up listening to the radio. I used to stay up all night listening to the jazz stations. I was attracted to bebop. I understood it. When I was growing up in the ’70s, the avant-garde was out, and it looked like I was playing old folks’ music. But I heard it, and I based my career on it. It wasn’t easy. I was a young white guy playing black bebop music. It was like a contradiction.”

Although he has performed with some of the jazz greats — including Buddy Rich — a generation of music lovers remembers his four-year partnership with jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson. That great and playful collaboration ended when Jefferson was gunned down during a drive-by shooting after a concert on May 9, 1979. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about the man. He was the world’s greatest pure jazz singer,” Cole has said.

Here is a classic recording featuring Eddie Jefferson and Richie Cole:

Cole often says that he was born to play jazz, and his family background backs up the claim. His father was the proprietor of two Trenton jazz clubs in the segregated 1940s. The black-patrons Harlem Club featured great black players from New York and Philadelphia. The other, white Hubbie’s Inn, booked Las Vegas-type acts.

Cole’s decision to play alto sax at 10 years old was a natural. A pawned alto sax ended up in his house. “I grew up with a sax and smelled the metal and played with the keys. When I went to elementary school and wanted to be in the band, I had the instrument. I was blessed to be in an era when the public-school systems had great music departments. I had great teachers who really helped me a lot. I was one of the two people in the world who got a full scholarship,” stated Cole of his 1966 Downbeat Magazine award that took the Ewing High graduate to jazz and contemporary music-oriented Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Cole left Berklee for experience, playing lead alto with Buddy Rich’s band in 1969. “I took the place of famed alto-saxophonist Art Pepper. It was the dream job. I went around the world. I was with him for two-and-a-half years. I have been very lucky with my career and had a lot of good breaks.” Other experiences included joining bands led by Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen, playing with the Manhattan Transfer, and then creating his own group, the Alto Madness Orchestra.

“The idea of the orchestra is the concept and sound of an 18-piece big band using only seven instruments, four of which are horns. Not only does this have the big band ensemble sound, it also allows us plenty of room for improvisation as if we were in a quartet setting,” Cole shared in an earlier interview.

When asked about his personal musical presence, Cole, self-assured but not self-congratulating, says, “I have a distinctive sound. You hear it and you know it’s Richie Cole. That’s an accomplishment. I go to Russia all the time, and the literary people call me the poet of jazz. I do not play the saxophone; I sing the saxophone. I approach it like a (vocal) soloist. I sing it. I play the melody straight, then I do what I want and improvise, tell the story, and then come back to the melody. And there’s the creation.”

For Cole, the storytelling or improvisation comes from places beyond thought. “I do not plan what I’m going to do; it just comes out. I quote (other pieces of music). When you improvise, it just comes out. If you think too much, you’re going to (screw) it up. Don’t think. Just blow, man,” he was quoted as saying.

What made a standard his own related to deeply felt life experiences. “For some reason, I am torn between serious jazz and show business. I have a sense of humor. I have to because my life has been a catastrophe.”  That catastrophe, he says, includes the deaths of two wives, a battle with alcoholism, and problems with the music business.

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Cole has played with the greats, appeared at international festivals, recorded more than 50 albums and CDs, written more than 3,000 compositions (including symphonies for 80-piece orchestras), and served on the boards of the National Jazz Service Organization and the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was chairman for one year.

“Almost every recording I’ve done is my statement at the moment,” he says. And several recordings and sessions available on YouTube give testament to his artistry and talent.

“Yardbird Suite,” recorded in 1981 by the Richie Cole Quintet at the Village Vanguard in New York City, shows Cole’s exuberance, dexterity, and grounding in style. Clear and bright throughout, he begins with a solid respect to the score before launching into a fast-paced yet masterfully controlled exploration of tonal relations and phrases before returning to the introduction. Throughout Cole makes choices that seem to honor the work’s originator, Parker, and the work’s era while not sacrificing his own sensibility, such as when he uses a rising and playful flourish to end a phrase and introduce another musician.

Here is a vintage video of Richie Coe performing Yardbird Suite at the Village Vanguard in 1981:

In the 1978 “Moody’s Mood,” Cole’s phrasing is full, smooth, and expressively swelling and retreating, suggesting the sensuous quality of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the great bebop vocalists. And, in “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” he merges both bebop and cool jazz into an interpretation that clearly delivers the song while imbuing it with his soulfulness and playfulness.

Here is the 1978 recording of “Moody’s Mood” in the classic Cole style:

Cole is also known for his playful rendition of the “I Love Lucy” theme song for one of television’s landmark shows.  Recording and performing this tune in varietal ways. 

Here is a recent rendition of Cole’s take on I Love Lucy that features the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet:

In the past decade, Riche Cole had been living in Pittsburgh and benefited from the generous stewardship of bassist and jazz musician Mark Perna.  Recording several albums in the past few years. These albums continued to showcase his legendary stature as one of the trailblazers and unique sounds in jazz.  The latest albums the past few years include Richie Cole Plays Ballads and Love SongsThe Many Minds of Richie ColeHave Yourself an Alto Madness ChristmasRichie Cole: Pittsburgh, Latin Lover, and Cannonball. 

In a 2019 interview, Perna and Cole along with Vince Taglieri talked about Cole’s resurgence in jazz recordings and in the jazz scene:

The interview was at the time of the release of Cannonball, where Cole paid tribute to his longtime hero, jazz legend Cannonball Adderley.

Cole certainly did enjoy a resurgence in the past five years. Thanks to the help of bassist and producer Mark Perna. Here is an example of this collaboration that features Richie Cole in a recording of The Girl From Carnegie from his album Latin Lover:

No doubt, Richie Cole will be remembered as one of the most enigmatic and revered figures in jazz history.  His music, interviews, and appearances were a source of jazz electricity to be reckoned with. Cole leaves behind a catalog of music that will always be remembered for its bebop energy. A significant sound that carried on the legacy of Charlie Parker and bebop jazz.

21 thoughts on “Alto Sax Master Richie Cole Has Died At The Age of 72

  1. Richie will be sorley missed as one by one we lose so many great Jazz Artists. Rest Easy Richie!

    1. Oh Richie, you are gone way too soon! Miss you so much my friend. You live on in sweet memories of hot nights of music with you and Luis Gasca, Janice and I in magical Mexico and you blowing the roof off the Teatro Angela Peralta and Bella Italia Ristorante! Sleep well my friend, you are loved.

  2. I went to Berklee with Richie…What a musician!!!! You could listen to him all day long…What a loss in the music world… RIP Richie….

  3. I had him play with the jazz band at the school where I taught, back in 2007. He came down and a spent the day. It was a life-changing experience for everyone. RIP, Richie. You’ve been an inspiration to so many.

  4. Saw him once at Lanzi’s….. multiple times at John and Peters/Havana’s and will always be grateful for his support of the “Dump the Pump” fight on the Delaware….RIP Richie….

  5. Wow, this has been a bad spell for jazz players. Richie had a very personal sound. As I type this I am thinking about all those ledger line high notes he effortlessly made happen. RIP Richie.

  6. I feel so fortunate to be able to call Richie a friend. I got him some gigs in Charleston and Savannah and he stayed with us. He charmed my wife and me. I had loved his music since I was in my 30s (Richie and I are the same age). We were hoping to work on a project this summer and he was looking forward to a new CD and a Bird with Strings Strings concert in California. What a wonderful experience hearing him up close! Whenever I called him at home or he called me he out a smile on his face. I will so miss you Richie.

  7. Met Richie in D.C. He played at Harolds Rogue and Jar Jazz Pub. Just making a name for his talent was still to be heard by many.
    He loved and admired so many of the great Jazz players.
    Richie Cole you “Are” one of those greats!
    Sincerely, Rena

  8. My wife and I were huge fans of Richie. She was disabled but we loved to go to his Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Village Tavern in Pittsburgh. She passed away in February and I asked Richie if he would play at her memorial service. He said without hesitation, ” Sure I’d be honored.” He played beautiful renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Somewhere”. He was a sweet gentleman as well as a lot of fun. I hope my wife can now hear him play in heaven.

  9. I met Richie in Denver. He came to Clyde’s Pub with Eddie Jefferson. They both blew me away and brought me deeper into Jazz. Richie came back to Denver 3 months after Eddie’s murder. I gave him a poem I had written that day dedicated to Eddie. He stood there and read it and then said, “Eddie would have liked it.” Blew me away again. I met Richie one more time in Baltimore. He had a gig with a vocal group. His facility and lack of extraneous movement on the horn was like a master class of Jazz saxophone.

  10. Thanks, everyone for the response and the comments. Richie was a great musician and guy as is evident by these shared stories. Please keep them coming! They add to the legacy of Richie Cole.

  11. I knew Richie from elementary school and had not seen him for many years. My husband and I got to see him a couple of times at Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton (maybe 20 years ago?), and again a few times recently in Ewing, NJ, where he and I grew up and went to school. A historic Presbyterian church in Ewing has become an arts and music venue and whenever Richie could get here, he enjoyed playing there for the locals — and renewing old, very old, friendships. We are all saddened by his death.

  12. I met Richie when I moved to Carnegie some years ago. He and the boys were playing at PaPa J’s and I had to meet this amazingly talented man! We clicked immediately and became friends. Richie had such a quirky sense of humor (as you who knew him would agree). I took a selfie with him at his birthday party and he said “don’t put that on the internet. I don’t want to be on the internet.” I said “Richie did you ever Google yourself?” (Meaning he is everywhere on the internet) He said, with that sly smile and looking over his glasses, “not in front of anyone!” We laughed about that and laughed everytime we were together.. I’m so glad so many attended his birthday party. He told me that he was surprised that so many people came! He had a great time and talked about it for weeks later. Rest in peace Richie. You will be missed!

  13. I met Richie in Carnegie and instantly fell in love with his music, he was humble person. People met amazing friends through Richie. He wrote me a song, Beautiful Leesa, and the music will forever live on in my memory. Richie, you called me your Angel, now you are mine!

  14. On behalf of the Sunshine Jazz Organization, we send our love, gratitude and condolences to Annie and the family. Agreed that he left us way too soon. Richie was such a great friend of the SJO and China Valles, they had a very long history together. He even inspired China in creating the organization and was considered an honorary co-founder. We were thrilled to have Richie with Alto Madness with us for the SJO’s 31st Anniversary here in Miami in 2018. What a blast we had. May his star shine brightly over all of us and especially for all of the aspiring young (and old) musicians he touched. Well done dear Richie Cole! With much love, Holly & The SJO

  15. Richie is the greatest alto-sax player of his time !
    A lyrical and melodious genius in a space race to uncover the heart of all musical madness. NOBODY COULD “FLY (as) HIGH” as he, and, NOBODY COULD BLOW A BALLAD like Richie Cole. He didn’t play, HE ‘SANG’ THROUGH THE INSTRUMENT – and his tone was always ‘the’ perfect messenger … HE WAS NEVER GIVEN PROPER CREDIT IN THE JAZZ WORLD FOR HIS ALL-AROUND VIRTUOSIC GREATNESS…

    Our friendship has lasted over 40 years – he used to stay in my home – and brought his Alto-Madness to my famous Taverna on many special occasions. We recorded 3 songs together for my “MY LIFE” CD, released 2/1/20 at my concert in Hollywood at Feinstein’s at Vitellos . Two of them are his original tunes, that I wrote the lyrics for. I HAVE A HOME IN PITTSBURGH, and ECLIPSE OF THE MOON – the third was a swinging cover of THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES. I cherish those tunes, and the experience of creating with him …

    We were working on more to come . We were supposed to collaborate on a couple of concerts at the Jazz Institute event in Los Angeles and another big concert in Hollywood this Fall – I will now sing to his powerful musical memory and, someday, catch up with him, way ? up there where the air is rarified ?

    Believe me, he is now, clearly heard ✝️

  16. A litany of sentimental comments for Richie Cole. This is a wonderful tribute to a soul we will miss dearly. Please keep them coming if it is on your mind and heart to express yourself out of love for Richie Cole. Tony Zambito, JazzBuffalo

  17. Richie, we had many good times from elementary thru high school. I remember in fourth grade the day you changed your name to Cole from Hubbard, the teacher announced to the class when you arrived for school. Our several detentions in junior high, walking home after school when you didn’t have music practice. We lost touch after high school, but I followed your career online. Bless you, Frank

  18. Met him when he lived in Rockford IL for a short time. He would play at the neighborhood bar, it was great! . Not being a jazz fan I had no idea who he was. Looked him up on Google and realized a gem is in my neighborhood. RIP Ritchie, truly one of a kind.

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