Richie Cole
Richie Cole

Richie Cole

About Richie Cole

An ebullient jazz alto-saxophonist, Richie Cole gained acclaim as torchbearer for the bebop tradition. Influenced by his mentor Phil Woods, and building upon the iconic work of Charlie Parker, Cole rose to prominence on the East Coast in the '70s and '80s. He earned plaudits during the electrified fusion era, working alongside legends like vocalist Eddie Jefferson, and releasing straight-ahead acoustic albums like 1976's New York Afternoon: Alto Madness, 1979's Hollywood Madness, and 1986's Pure Imagination. With his wry sense of humor, and adage that he could turn any song into bebop, he tackled a cross-section of material, as on 1992's Popbop, which featured songs like "La Bamba" and the "Star Trek Theme." Along with collaborations with fellow sax luminaries like Hank Crawford, Sonny Stitt, and Art Pepper, Cole founded his own explosive Alto Madness Orchestra, and spent the last half of his career finding ever-inventive ways to explore his love of bebop, as on 2000's gospel-inspired Come Sunday: My Kind of Religion, 2017's Latin Lover, and 2018's Cannonball Adderly tribute Cannonball.

Born Richard Thomas Cole in 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, he grew up surrounded by jazz. His father owned two local nightclubs, Hubby's Inn and the Harlem Club, and Cole was able to meet a number of legendary performers, including Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Around age ten, he discovered an alto saxophone that had been left in one of his father's clubs and soon began playing the instrument. He excelled quickly and at age 16 attended a jazz camp where he met saxophonist Phil Woods. Woods became Cole's mentor and, along with Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, would remain a major influence on him for the rest of his life. After high school, Cole won a full scholarship from DownBeat Magazine to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, he left school in 1969 to join Buddy Rich's big band, where he replaced alto icon Art Pepper.

Following stints with Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen, Cole landed in New York City, where he formed his own group and freelanced gigs. He gained a reputation as a strong bop-oriented player, eventually catching the attention of legendary vocalese singer Eddie Jefferson. They struck up a friendship and were soon leading a group together. Jefferson was on board for Cole's debut album as leader, 1976's New York Afternoon: Alto Madness, on Muse. More records followed with Jefferson, including 1978's Alto Madness, 1979's Keeper of the Flame, and 1979's Hollywood Madness, the latter of which also featured a guest appearance by Tom Waits. Tragically, Cole was also with Jefferson when the singer was gunned down after a gig at Detroit's Baker's Keyboard Lounge in May 1979.

Cole's reputation as a standard-bearer for straight-ahead jazz and bebop thrived throughout the '80s. He joined his mentor Phil Woods for 1980's Side by Side, and paired for albums with other saxophonists, including Art Pepper, Sonny Stitt, and Boots Randolph. There were also dates with Manhattan Transfer, Freddie Hubbard, and others. In 1986, Cole made his Concord Records debut with the swinging standards album Pure Imagination, playing with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Victor Jones. He then moved to the Milestone label for 1987's Ben Sidran-produced Popbop, which found him offering inventive bebop reworkings of songs like "La Bamba," "Spanish Harlem," and the "Theme from Star Trek." Another Sidran-produced effort, Signature, arrived the following year and included a guest spot by famed African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.

By the late '80s, Cole was living on the West Coast and enduring an exhaustive grind of gigs and travel. He was also struggling with alcoholism. Looking to rejuvenate his career and creativity, he moved to the Midwest, settling in Milwaukee to be close to one of his grown daughters. In 1993, he returned with the vibrant quartet date Profile, featuring pianist Dick Hindman, guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Frank Passantino, and drummer Scott Morris. He followed with two tribute albums in 1996: Kush: The Music of Dizzy Gillespie and the Leonard Bernstein-themed West Side Story. It was also during this period that he formed the seven-piece Alto Madness Orchestra.

In 2000, Cole resurfaced with the gospel-tinged Come Sunday: My Kind of Religion with keyboardist Joe Bonner, bassist Artie Moore, and drummer Charles Ayash. The Alto Madness date Back on Top arrived in 2005. The following year, Cole was again back with his Alto Madness Orchestra for Rise's Rose Garden, featuring trumpeter Jack Walrath, trombonist Rick Stepton, guitarist Vic Juris, and pianist Don Friedman. He then joined pianist Bobby Enriquez, guitarist Bruce Forman, bassist Marshall Hawkins, and drummer Scott Morris for The Man with the Horn. In 2012, he moved to Delmark for the one-off Explosion! with Jim Holman and Frank Catalano, and in 2014 he was the featured soloist with the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet on Vocal Madness for HouseKat Records.

By 2015, Cole had relocated again, following his family to Pittsburgh. There, he formed his own Richie Cole Presents label and debuted alongside his Alto Madness Orchestra with Pittsburgh. The romantic Plays Ballads & Love Songs arrived a year later, as did the holiday-themed Have Yourself an Alto Madness Christmas. More albums followed on the label with 2017's Latin Lover and 2018's tribute to Cannonball Adderley Cannonball. In 2019, he paired with pianist Tony Monaco for Keys of Cool. Cole died in his home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, on May 2, 2020; he was 72 years old.

  • HOMETOWN
    Trenton, NJ
  • BORN
    February 29, 1948

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