Trenton’s alto-sax jazz legend Richie Cole, who died of natural causes on May 2 at the age 72, told U.S. 1 in 2014 U.S.1, “I am not from Trenton; I am Trenton. I was born here. The only place I feel comfortable is back in my hometown: in Trenton.”
His personal and artistic histories support the claim.
Cole was born in Trenton on February 29, 1948. His father was the proprietor of two Trenton jazz clubs in the segregated 1940s.
One was the black-patroned Harlem Club on Brunswick Avenue, where noted black musicians from New York and Philadelphia played. The other, Hubby’s Inn on North Olden Avenue, was where Las Vegas-type acts performed for white audiences.
Cole, who was raised by his secretary mother, Emily, and factory worker stepfather, Thomas Cole, said his decision to play alto sax at 10 years old was a natural one. A hocked alto sax ended up in his house. “I grew up with a sax and smelled the metal and played with the keys. When I went to elementary school and wanted to be in the band, I had the instrument. I was blessed to be in an era when the public school systems had great music departments. I had great teachers who really helped me a lot. I was one of the two people in the world who got a full scholarship,” said Cole of his 1966 Downbeat Magazine award that took the Ewing High graduate to jazz-focused Berklee College of Music in Boston.
His college years ended when he got an offer to play with famed drummer Buddy Rich’s band in 1969. “I took the place of famed alto-saxophonist Art Pepper. It was the dream job. I went around the world. I was with him for two-and-a-half years. I have been very lucky with my career and had a lot of good breaks.”
Other experiences included joining bands led by Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen, playing with the Manhattan Transfer, and then creating his own group, the Alto Madness Orchestra.
Despite an international reputation and living outside the region, Cole found and created opportunities to return to Trenton to play. One of his first musical homes was Lanzi’s Lounge on Liberty and Dresden Avenue. His last was the Candle Light Lounge on Passaic Street.
Cole said his musical success was connected to his approach. “I do not play the saxophone; I sing the saxophone. I approach it like a (vocal) soloist. I sing it. I play the melody straight, then I do what I want and improvise, tell the story, and then come back to the melody. And there’s the creation,” he said in 2014.
That success, however, did not shield him from personal pain. He saw two wives die, was involved in a failed relationship with actress Brenda Vaccaro, witnessed the murder of his friend and collaborator, jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson, and struggled with alcoholism.
Despite the wear and tear Cole’s music is bright, buoyant, and playful.
Prominent jazz critic Leonard Feather noted Cole’s lively and informal presentations had a “free-wheeling and sometimes satirical nature” and the website About Jazz said Cole “is the last of a breed — a fast and competitive musical gunslinger acquiring legendary status for his willingness to demonstrate his command of Charlie Parker’s bebop language by taking on all comers at any speed.”
“I like to trick people into liking jazz by keeping things friendly, upbeat, and familiar,” said Cole, who is the musical link that runs from bebop’s founder Charlie Parker and innovator Phil Woods to the present. Woods — who married Parker’s widow — taught at a summer performing arts camp in New Hope, where he met the young Cole and became his mentor. The two eventually joined in recording an album, “Side by Side.”
“(Bebop) to me is the ultimate expression of jazz,” Cole said about the style that he had mastered. It is a style that followed swing in the late 1940s, employed both traditional and untraditional harmonic and rhythm constructions (with an emphasis on the untraditional), and stressed playful, fast, and intricate solos that let musicians soar as they explored both sound and emotion. In addition to Parker, other masters of the style that took its name from nonsense sounds related to scat or sound singing include Dizzy Gillespie and Theolonius Monk.
“If serious jazz musicians study their music, they’ll see that it starts with bebop. You have to master your instrument. Anything that comes into your head you can play, because you have mastered your instrument. Bebop musicians are like classically trained musicians,” said Cole.
Another important thing to recall, he said, is that bebop performers are not just playing music. “They’re telling a story off the top of your head; you’re not reading the story. (Saxophonist) Sonny Rollins is a poet. He’s telling a story. I understand it. Every paragraph he’s talking about. That’s the core of my thing.”
Cole said he got his taste for bebop by staying “up all night listening to the jazz stations. I was attracted to bebop. I understood it. When I was growing up in the ’70s, avant-garde was out, and it looked like I was playing old folks’ music. But I heard it, and I based my career on it. It wasn’t easy. I was a young white guy playing black bebop music. It was like a contradiction.”
A professional who made his living through concerts, royalties, and as a visiting artist at various jazz institutes, Cole recorded more than 50 albums and CDs, wrote more than 3,000 compositions (including symphonies for 80-piece orchestras), and served on the boards of the National Jazz Service Organization and the National Endowment for the Arts, where he was chairman for one year.
Cole, who had based himself in Los Angeles for a time relocated to Trenton in 2014. He moved to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, region in 2015 to be closer to his daughter, Annie Cole, who reported his death by natural causes.
Cole is also survived a daughter from his previous relationship, Amanda Marrazzo, and four grandchildren: Annie’s sons, Ricky and Julian Barajas, and Emily and Abby Marrazzo.
Other survivors also include a great number of Trenton-area musicians whom he influenced.
As area jazz pianist and Princeton Public School music instructor Steve Kramer noted on social media, “He was always kind and helpful to all of us young cats coming up in the music business. Sensing we needed the experience Richie would ask us up to the stage to sit in with him. This became a tradition with him, and he always welcomed us as we nervously approached the bandstand. He gave us the right amount of encouragement that we needed in our development as budding jazz musicians. What else can I say about a guy I loved and had the good fortune to make music with?”
“Richie Cole lived an amazing life and left this world peacefully in his sleep,” his daughters said in a social media posting to his fans. “The world may not have more time with him, but his legacy is here to be enjoyed for generations to come. In true Richie Cole fashion, put your favorite RC song on, grab your favorite drink and raise your glasses (or beer cans) to keeping Jazz music alive.”
One choice would be Cole’s first album, “Trenton Makes the World Takes.”
A memorial is being planned after the pandemic passes.
Thomas Sokolowski, 70, on May 6. He had been the director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers since October, 2017. He had previously spent 14 years at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. For more on Sokolowski, see U.S. 1, February 7, 2018.
Barbara R. Delafield, 83, on May 1. She was a past president of the Stony Brook Garden Club of Princeton and in 1982 helped to start the Princeton Flower Shop. She also served on the board of the Historical Society of Princeton.
Thomas Patrick Roche Jr., 89, on May 3. He was a professor of English literature at Princeton University for 43 years. He was an expert on epic poetry and wrote several books on the topic.
Larry Richard Grisham, 71, on May 4. After earning his PhD in physics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he worked for many years at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.
Dorothy D. Molnar, 87, on May 3. She was the circulation manager for the Times of Trenton for 35 years.
Robert Jeyaseelan, 66, on May 1. He was a research scientist in oncology at Bristol Myers-Squibb until his retirement in 2014.
William David McCloskey, 88, on May 2. The lifelong Princetonian worked for more than 30 years in the housing department at Princeton University.
Joyce Hughes, 78, on May 3. She was a secretary for New Jersey Bell Atlantic, Trenton, for 42 years.
John Babanecz, 57, on April 21. He was a building manager and security guard for Capital Health/ Allied Universal Services for more than 30 years.
Albert L. Hanyecz, 90, on May 4. He was the owner of Albert L. Hanyecz Plumbing and Heating in Hamilton for 60 years.
Shawn Scaccetti, 61, on May 5. She worked for the Mercer County Board of Social Services for more than 35 years.
Frederick Leo Born, 83, on May 8. He was a master plumber and co-founder of Born Bros. Plumbing and Heating in Trenton.
Naomi Jury Chandler-Reik, 99, on May 9. A Princeton resident since 1951, she was a long-time piano teacher. She was also a member of the Present Day Club for more than 50 years and served for 10 years as a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum.