“And now we’re going to play something by a great jazz artist—Frankie Avalon.” The audience in the upstairs room of the James Street Gastropub, on Pittsburgh’s North Side, laughs easily at Richie Cole’s introduction. His Pittsburgh Alto Madness Orchestra—an octet with alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet, trombone and a four-piece rhythm section—launches into an intro that sounds undeniably like “Poinciana.” But just beyond the opening section, sure enough, they dig into a bossa-nova revision of “Venus,” the song Avalon immortalized in 1959. Cole wasn’t kidding. Furthermore, this isn’t just a novelty number or a crossover attempt. It swings with utmost sincerity, making cynics in the audience appreciate the melodic potential of the wistful song. Cole has a knack for putting a shine on music that might be overlooked otherwise.
From Billy Strayhorn and Art Blakey to Stanley Turrentine and Ahmad Jamal, jazz legends have historically had to leave Pittsburgh to make their careers and find creative fulfillment. Other than pianist Geri Allen, the University of Pittsburgh alum who returned to run the school’s jazz studies program, it’s rare that an established name settles in the city. But Cole, who has released more than 50 albums since the 1970s, both as a leader and a coleader alongside the likes of Phil Woods and Sonny Stitt, moved here to be with family three years ago. Since that time, he’s ingratiated himself with a wealth of local players. And having penned compositions with titles like “I Have a Home in Pittsburgh,” Cole won’t be leaving any time soon. “After 68 years, I have come to my Shangri-La,” he says.