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Richie Cole: Blue Collar Bebopper

Rob Rosenblum By

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You don't have to understand anything to enjoy my music. All you have to do is feel it. —Richie Cole
Jazz alto saxophonist Richie Cole wants to reach out to you, whether you are the mayor of a highly popular tourist city or just a guy dropping over for a couple of beers.

"I play for people," says Cole. "People are all the same. If they understand or want to understand jazz, I welcome them."

Recently, Richie Cole spent a few days in Charleston, South Carolina, winning over hundreds of new friends, with his friendly banter, off color jokes and high intensity alto solos. Among them was Charleston Mayor and occasional jazz pianist, John Tecklenburg, who presented Cole with the keys to the city and then dropped down to the club to sit in with the band.

But Cole seemed more at ease with the many curious locals, only marginally familiar with jazz, but attracted to his goodhearted humor and passionate music. To Cole, jazz is everyone's music.

"You don't have to understand anything to enjoy my music," says Cole. "All you have to do is feel it. People who never heard jazz before may like it, but not know the reason. If you like it, you like it."

Cole grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, where he first discovered his love for the alto and for jazz. Down Beat magazine offered him a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music in 1966. He replaced Art Pepper on the Buddy Rich band in 1969 and became one of its featured soloists.

Soon after leaving Rich's band, he set out on his own to launch a highly successful reputation as a searing alto soloist in the Phil Woods mold.

For several years he co-led a band with legendary vocalist, Eddie Jefferson until the singer was tragically murdered in Chicago.

Cole continued to record prodigiously and began to focus more on writing and arranging for a group that he calls the Alto Madness Orchestra (AMO) -a kind of informal franchise of bands and arrangements spread around the country.

Although indelibly identified with Trenton, New Jersey, he has since happily settled down in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

While Cole may be easily characterized as a straight ahead player, a closer look reveals a more fleshed out identity. Where a lot of jazz musicians survive on the financial support of the rich and famous, Cole has been there and done that and he has no desire to go back. He is best described as a mischievous, blue collar bebopper.

Cole will throw out some salty language in that gravelly, cigarette stained voice of his, play songs that would suit the folks at the bar more than the tuxedo and gown crowd. He offhandedly creates a kinship with his audience that would convince a Johnny Cash fan to embrace Charlie Parker.

"Most people are ignorant about jazz," explained Cole. "That's why I like to play stuff they will understand and then sneak in something to educate them. I will play something simple like 'Somewhere Under The Rainbow' or 'Danny Boy' and that catches their ear."

"I try not to be too technical all at once," he continued, "because that can confuse people. But I play what I really want to play—I don't compromise at all. Sometimes I'll play something really corny—because I consider myself the great white man of corn! That's part of the many minds of Richie Cole." The Many Minds of Richie Cole is also his latest CD, and it includes, of all things, "YMCA," with his Alto Madness Orchestra (AMO).

"YMCA"? Really?

"It's one of my many minds," affirms Cole. "All my life I've been navigating between serious jazz and show biz. I like humor. I like the feeling. I like disco. Not everything has to be centered around jazz. My life isn't geared around everything jazz."

"Sonny Rollins, who has been a big influence on me, will take the corniest thing and make it beautiful. That whole Way Out West album was him saying let me show you how I can do something no one else thought of. And it is one of the greatest jazz albums."

"I did the same thing with Frankie Avalon's "Venus." It's a beautiful song and the chart came out pretty good and I played my heart out. Even when I play something corny, I'm playing serious."

That doesn't mean that he doesn't want to be accepted as a jazz musician.

"I'm proud of it. I love the music and I work very hard to do this. I studied my trade. I started when I was 10 and immediately started taking lessons. I used to practice eight hours a day. I am as serious as a heart attack when it comes to playing."

AMO has been Cole's treasured invention. It is a culmination of years of experience in big bands combined with a real joy for extended romping solos. It is a small group with a big band sound. For Cole, it is the best of both worlds.

"I grew up in the big band era you know?" explained Cole. "I always liked the sound of the big band, but I didn't want to deal with all those musicians, so I figured out a way to get the sound with one trumpet, one trombone and two saxophones and I create voicings that get very close to a big band sound."

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