CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Richie Cole 1948–2020

The revered alto saxophonist kept the spirit of bebop alive through challenging times

Richie Cole
Richie Cole

Richie Cole, an alto saxophonist whose rise to jazz prominence in the 1970s augured the following decade’s bebop revival, died May 2 in his sleep at his home in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. He was 72.

Cole’s death was announced on May 2 on his Facebook page. His daughter, Annie Cole, told WBGO that her father passed away of natural causes.

In an era when fusion represented the mainstream of jazz and a new urgency had entered the experimental underground, Cole was proudly anachronistic. He began his career in swing big bands, then broke through with bebop, keeping company with members of the old guard like Red Rodney, Sonny Stitt, and Eddie Jefferson and adapting a classic Sonny Rollins/John Coltrane session title to name his own band, Alto Madness.

By the ’80s Cole was seen less as a throwback than as a torchbearer, and ultimately he became regarded as a revered elder statesman. Through it all, he saw his dyed-in-the-wool bebop credentials simply as a reflection of who he was. “I had many offers to do fusion, or smooth jazz, or whatever they would be doing,” he told writer George W. Harris in a 2018 interview. “It just didn’t interest me. I followed my beliefs.”

Richard Thomas Cole was born February 29, 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey. His father owned two nightclubs in the city, a showroom called Hubby’s Inn and a jazz venue called the Harlem Club. Cole grew up hearing music at both clubs—meeting the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey as they passed through—and, when he was 10, discovered a saxophone that had been left behind at the Harlem Club. He was fascinated by how it worked and soon began learning to play it. At 16, he attended a music camp directed by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, who would go on to be a lifelong mentor.

By the time he finished Ewing High School, Cole had gained such proficiency that he was awarded a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Before he could finish, however, Cole joined Buddy Rich’s big band in 1969, replacing Art Pepper on alto. He then spent time in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and the Doc Severinsen Big Band until the mid-1970s, when he began freelancing at bebop gigs around New York and planning for his own band. Cole also found frequent work in Washington, D.C., becoming something of a house saxophonist at the club Harold’s Rogue and Jar; his composition “Harold’s House of Jazz” became one of his theme songs.

In the process, Cole formed an important partnership with vocalist Eddie Jefferson, with whom he began playing, touring, and recording regularly. The two often appeared on each other’s bills, and Jefferson sang on Cole’s 1977 sextet album New York Afternoon: Alto Madness, whose subtitle would serve as Cole’s motto, brand name, and basic musical description for the remainder of his career.

With the younger generation of musicians mainly pursuing fusion, or playing avant-garde in the downtown lofts, Cole was something of a rarity as a young player who specialized in bebop. (Guitarist Vic Juris was another, and he and Cole became fast friends and collaborators.) He soon became a favorite of older stalwarts such as Rodney, Harold Mabern, and Barry Harris. But his relationship with Jefferson was his primary outlet—until it was cut short by the singer’s murder in Detroit in May 1979 (which Cole witnessed).

For Cole, Jefferson’s death touched off a long battle with alcoholism. Professionally, he rebounded in the early 1980s with Side by Side, a recording with his mentor Woods; a long association with the vocal jazz ensemble Manhattan Transfer; and short but electric bouts of collaboration with Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper in their final years. (Both alto players died in 1982.) But personally, he was adrift. He spent much of the ’80s and early 1990s living a nomadic existence, stopping off for periods in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Chicago. In the late ’90s, he returned to the East Coast, where he formed a new seven-piece band, the Alto Madness Orchestra.

In the 2010s, Cole made his final move: to Pittsburgh, where his daughter lived. He quickly became an evangelist for the city’s jazz scene, working and recording with local musicians and advocating them tirelessly in his interviews and album notes. (His first album for his self-formed label, Richie Cole Presents, was titled Pittsburgh.) The Pittsburgh iteration of his Alto Madness Orchestra accompanied Cole on all of his final six albums, the last of which was 2018’s Cannonball.

Cole is survived by his two daughters, Annie Cole and Amanda (“Amy”) Marrazzo, and by four grandchildren: Ricky and Julian Barajas and Emily and Abby Marrazzo.

Read a 2017 JazzTimes feature on Richie Cole. 

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.