Richie Cole, Esteemed Alto Saxophonist and a Keeper of the Bebop Flame, Has Died at 72

May 3, 2020

Richie Cole, an alto saxophonist, bandleader and composer with a steadfast commitment to the hard-driving verities of bebop, died on May 2 at his home in Carnegie, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. He was 72.

His daughter Annie Cole said he died in his sleep, of natural causes.

With his tart, gusty alto sound, his unerring rhythmic footing and a broad harmonic fluency, Cole was among the leading straight-ahead saxophonists to emerge in the 1970s — a decade in which bebop, his chosen language, had come to seem outmoded if not obsolete.

He was proud to push against those perceptions, declaring bebop jazz’s “ultimate expression” and giving one of his early albums the title Keeper of the Flame. He made some of his first appearances on record with bebop trumpeter Red Rodney, and developed a close partnership with singer Eddie Jefferson, who appears on Keeper of the Flame and a handful of other Cole albums.

Cole also established a sparring camaraderie with Sonny Stitt, a bebop virtuoso of the highest order, notably on a 1981 album called Battle of the Saxes. That same year Cole was filmed with his band, Alto Madness, at The Village Vanguard. The footage — for a television special called The Jazz Life, produced by Ben Sidran — captures the intensity, velocity and abandon that were Cole hallmarks, then and since.

Richard Thomas Cole was born on Feb. 29, 1948 in Trenton, N.J. His mother, Emily Cole, worked as a secretary, and his stepfather, Thomas Cole, was a factory worker.

He encountered jazz at a tender age through his birth father, who owned two jazz clubs in Trenton: The Harlem Club, a home to visiting bands from New York and Philadelphia, and Hubbie’s Inn, which was more of a showroom. (The clubs catered respectively, and separately, to a black and white clientele.)

Cole received his first alto saxophone, he said, when somebody left it at one of his father’s clubs. He began playing in earnest around age 10, inspired by the likes of Stitt, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. He played in various bands at Ewing High School in Trenton before entering to win a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music from DownBeat magazine.

He spent a few years at Berklee, dropping out to join Buddy Rich’s big band in 1969. The band was at its apex — it had just released its defining live album, Mercy, Mercy — and Cole inherited a lead alto saxophone chair just vacated by Art Pepper. He appears on Buddy & Soul, recorded at the Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, as well as Keep the Customer Satisfied, taking the first solo a minute into the title track.

He appears in this footage of the band from 1970, with a solo that charges out of the gate just before the nine-minute mark.

Following his tenure in Rich’s band, Cole played with Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band, and with the Manhattan Transfer. But from the mid-‘70s on, he worked primarily as a bandleader, releasing a slew of albums with first-rate collaborators like guitarist Vic Juris, who died at the end of last year.

Cole’s first album, borrowing a motto from his hometown, was Trenton Makes, the World Takes. He followed it with New York Afternoon: Alto Madness, which marked the beginning of his collaboration with Jefferson as well as the coining of a catchphrase. “Alto Madness” would become the default moniker for most of Cole’s projects from that point forward; he was still using it as recently several years ago, when he made Have Yourself an Alto Madness Christmas.

Cole lived in Los Angeles for a time, and relocated to Trenton before moving once more in 2015 to Pittsburgh, to be closer to his daughter and her family. In addition to Annie, he is survived by a daughter from a previous relationship, Amanda Marrazzo, and by four grandchildren: Annie’s sons, Ricky Barajas and Julian Barajas; and Amanda’s daughters, Emily Marrazzo and Abby Marrazzo.

Credit Rick Decker

In Pittsburgh, Cole enjoyed the stature of an elder statesman, and connected with an admiring circle of musicians. Among them was his bassist and producer Mark Perna, who tells WBGO he spoke with Cole earlier in the day on Friday. “We talked about the work we done and how proud he was of it,” Perna says, referring in particular to the 2018 album Cannonball, a tribute to Cannonball Adderley.

Perna adds that they were brainstorming Cole’s future releases. “We have 30-40 unreleased, mostly finished tracks that will someday see the light of day,” he says. “There are some in there that were definitely slated for his next album.”

An earlier version of this obituary, based on information provided by Cole’s family, stated that he died on May 1.