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Richie Cole is known primarily as a hard-blowing bebopper. But the 68-year-old alto saxophonist knows his appeal is in fact much larger.
“The word jazz is a four-letter word—like food,” Cole said during a phone call from his home in Pittsburgh. “There are many different varieties and not every variety is for everyone. So when some people hear a certain style of jazz that may not be for them, it could turn them off to jazz altogether. I like to show them that jazz can be swinging, beautiful and easy to relate to, all without compromising the music.”
It wasn’t exactly the ideal time for Cole to talk, since within days of his scheduled interview the alto saxophonist had fallen after alighting from a bus en route to a gig in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey.
While waiting for a friend to come by and give him a ride, he suddenly collapsed in a heap and experienced great pain. He had broken his femur. The freakish incident meant surgery, a cast, a hospital stay, a walker and eventually a wheelchair. But like any tough jazz musician, Cole convalesced after a few days and plotted his return to the road.
The first thing Cole wanted to convey to DownBeat was his tremendous respect for an alto sax colleague, the great Phil Woods, who passed away Sept. 29. Woods’ death hit Cole hard.
“Phil was a major influence on me,” Cole said. “He kind of took me under his wing. I will always be grateful for his presence in my life. Such a wonderful and talented man.”
A jazz musician who loves and lives to play, Cole moved to Pittsburgh in June 2014. Although he appreciates the city for its proximity to jazz epicenters (New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia), he has great admiration for Pittsburgh’s own notable music history.
All the musicians appearing on Cole’s latest album, the self-released Pittsburgh, are natives of the area.
“From the long list of jazz greats from Pittsburgh, I knew there wouldn’t be any problem finding plenty of good musicians,” Cole said.
Cole, whose father owned nightclubs in New Jersey, was exposed to jazz from a very early age.
“One of my earliest musical memories was being rolled around in a stroller listening to saxophonist Sonny Stitt, ” he recalled. “I got my first saxophone at 5 when somebody left one at [my father’s club].”
Cole took to the sound of the alto and at 10 years old began learning how to play it.
“I know some say the tenor is king of saxophones, and I’ve played tenor and baritone, but I always come back to the alto,” he said.
Cole attended music camps for several years, and in 1966 applied for and won a scholarship from DownBeat magazine to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I’ll always be grateful to DownBeat for helping to start my career,” Cole said.
In 1969, Cole joined the comeback band of drummer Buddy Rich, appearing on two terrific albums recorded live: Buddy And Soul (1969) and Keep The Customer Satisfied (1970).
Those who have played for Rich often tell tales of how tough he was as a boss. But Cole never ran afoul of the mercurial drummer.
“Because I did my job, minded my own business and treated Buddy with the respect he deserved,” said Cole, “Buddy was great.”
Cole went on to play in two more large ensembles—the Lionel Hampton band and Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show orchestra. In those bands, he exercised his compositional muscles.
“Your creativity as a soloist is very limited, and I had my own ideas of what my music should be, so I wrote a lot of original songs,” Cole said.
After hearing some of his original compositions being played by combos around town, he formed his first group.
“I found myself immediately bombarded with musical ideas,” he said. “That is why I needed my own band.”
Ever since, it’s been a great ride for Cole. He dubbed himself and whatever band he was leading “Alto Madnness,” and the moniker caught on.
“I play the alto saxophone, and frankly, I am a little crazy,” Cole explained. “The word madness usually comes with a negative connotation. However, in my life, madness is everything that encompasses my style, passion and outlook on jazz. Because after all, it is a mad, mad, mad, mad world. The only thing that genuinely brings the people of the world together is music.”
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