Alto-sax jazz legend Richie Cole says it loud and clear about his move back to the capital city. “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. “
Cole, who performs with Philadelphia jazz scene saxophonist Vince Lardear at the Bordentown Record Collector on Saturday, March 1, says, “I lived in San Francisco and lived on a yacht in Florida like Ernest Hemingway. I’ve done it all and now it is time to come home. I have a nice little place. I have a room and piano. All I want is a simple life.”
The “done it all” is pretty accurate. Cole has toured the world, dated Hollywood celebrities, and hit high notes with praise from jazz critics. Yet he has also hit the low notes of lonely one-night stands, alcohol abuse, personal loss, and broken relationships.
Despite the wear and tear Cole’s music is bright, buoyant, and playful.
Years ago prominent jazz critic Leonard Feather noted Cole’s lively and informal presentations and “the free-wheeling and sometimes satirical nature of his performances.” The website About Jazz says 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,” says Cole, who is the musical link that runs from bebop’s founder 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,” says Cole about the style that he has mastered and maintains. 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,” says Cole.
Another important thing to recall, he says, 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 says that’s how the style of music came to him. “That’s just the way I heard it. I used to stay up listening to the radio. I used to stay 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.”
Although he has performed with some of the jazz greats — including Buddy Rich — a generation of music lovers remember his four-year partnership with jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson. That great and playful collaboration ended when Jefferson was gunned down during a drive-by shooting after a concert on May 9, 1979. “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about the man. He was the world’s greatest pure jazz singer,” Cole has said.
Cole often says that he was born — on February 29, 1948 — to play jazz, and his family background backs up the claim. His father was the proprietor of two Trenton jazz clubs in the segregated 1940s. The black-patroned Harlem Club on Brunswick Avenue featured great black players from New York and Philadelphia. The other, white Hubbie’s Inn on North Olden Avenue, booked Las Vegas-type acts.
Cole’s decision to play alto sax at 10 years old was a natural. 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,” says Cole of his 1966 Downbeat Magazine award that took the Ewing High graduate to jazz and contemporary music-oriented Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Cole left Berklee for experience, playing lead alto with 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.
“The idea of the orchestra is the concept and sound of an 18-piece big band using only seven instruments, four of which are horns. Not only does this have the big band ensemble sound, it also allows us plenty of room for improvisation as if we were in a quartet setting,” Cole says in an earlier interview.
When asked about his personal musical presence, Cole, self-assured but not self-congratulating, says, “I have a distinctive sound. You hear it and you know it’s Richie Cole. That’s an accomplishment. I go to Russia all the time, and the literary people call me the poet of jazz. 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.”
For Cole the story telling or improvisation comes from places beyond thought. “I do not plan what I’m going to do; it just comes out. I quote (other pieces of music). When you improvise, it just comes out. If you think too much, you’re going to (screw) it up. Don’t think. Just blow, man,” he says.
What makes a standard his own is something deep in him. “For some reason, I am torn between serious jazz and show business. I have a sense of humor. I have to because my life has been a catastrophe.”
That catastrophe, he says, includes the deaths of two wives, a battle with alcoholism, problems with the music business, and a separation with his wife two years ago. “When I was living out in Los Angeles, my wife ran the UCLA autism hospital. I miss her. I miss her terribly,” he says.
My introduction to Cole was at the long-gone Lanzi’s Lounge, now a deserted building on the corner of Liberty Street and Dresden Avenue in Trenton. The year was 1971, but the decor — a long bar, sprinkling of plastic checkered table clothes, oval windows, and a small platform — and mood were 1950s. I had befriended a group of musicians. We were all under age, nursed ginger ales, and sipped on musical history.
When I actually met Cole for the first time on a recent chilly Friday afternoon, he wore black pants, low-cut black jacket, and his signature black beret, and was smoking a cigaret. While both of us showed gray and some physical wear, he seemed the buoyant and playful musician from 40 years ago.
“That was the greatest gig of my life,” says an excited Cole of Lanzi’s. “Every Tuesday night, it was hometown. Pure Trenton style. I loved the owners. They gave me the opportunity to bring in musicians from Philadelphia. I had the greatest musicians in the world. Every weekend I’d bring in guests. I (later) traveled all over the world, and people would come up to me and say, ‘I heard you in Lanzi’s Lounge.’ I was there for two or three years. Then on the weekends I would go to Washington. I was living in my van. Good times. I was in a good place.”
Between that early “good place” and today, Cole has played with the greats, appeared at international festivals, recorded more than 50 albums and CDs, written 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.
“Almost every recording I’ve done is my statement at the moment,” he says. And several recordings and sessions available on YouTube give testament to his artistry and talent.
“Yardbird Suite,” recorded in 1981 by the Richie Cole Quintet at the Village Vanguard in New York City, shows Cole’s exuberance, dexterity, and grounding in style. Clear and bright throughout, he begins with a solid respect to the score before launching into a fast-paced yet masterfully controlled exploration of tonal relations and phrases before returning to the introduction. Throughout Cole makes choices that seem to honor the work’s originator, Parker, and the work’s era while not sacrificing his own sensibility, such as when he uses a rising and playful flourish to end a phrase and introduce another musician.
In the 1978 “Moody’s Mood” Cole’s phrasing is full, smooth, and expressively swelling and retreating, suggesting the sensuous quality of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the great bepop vocalists (and, in this writer’s opinion, one of the greatest singers of all time). And in “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” he merges both bebop and cool jazz into interpretation that clearly delivers the song while imbuing it with his soulfulness and playfulness.
That mixture of soul and play are best illustrated in his performance of his big band composition “Trenton Style,” a piece he says is not sophisticated but “down and out dirty; the other side of the tracks, the sound of my home town.” It starts with a solid slow boogie-woogie rhythm, followed by wailing, and then a move into an alto solo that mixes phrasing from “Stranger in Paradise” with his original lines and then layering and colliding of musical influences. The musical playfulness makes one forget the serious artistry needed to create the piece.
While the music and concerts seem exciting, Cole says that there is a paradox in the life of a musician. One where you are loved for two hours while you perform and then find yourself alone in a strange hotel or moving from one strange place to another the rest of the day.
“I’m really tired of being on the road. It used to be fun. It’s a hard life. Some people think it’s a glamorous life. But it is not. I meet a lot of interesting people. It’s a lonely life. I gotta play. When I’m not playing I am in trouble,” says the father of two grown daughters and four grandchildren.
Cole, who makes his living through concerts, royalties, and as a guest to university or jazz institution music clinics, says “All I’ve got to say is that I have been blessed with a gift. I’m trying to do something with it. It’s been a tough trip. But I’m the luckiest guy I know. I feel just like I’m getting started. I’m back in Trenton. It’s a good place between New York and Philadelphia.”
What makes it good is time to refresh and work. That includes composing for big bands (“I have a big band in my head”), hoping to connect with a “Lanzi’s-like” place in the Princeton area, and currently preparing for a New York musical, “Musician City.” “We’re going into rehearsals. (Actors’ Studio) people are coaching. My character is Mister 609. It’s a great part. I’m playing myself: a saxophone player from New Jersey.” The musical is being produced by Pica Productions. No opening date is set yet.
When asked to explain Trenton style, Cole humors the question and says, “It’s a certain sound. When you hear it, you know it. It is the sound of Trenton, New Jersey. It’s a mood thing. When you hear it, you can picture Trenton. It’s a mellow, sexy sound between Philadelphia and New York. When you hear it, you say ‘that sounds like Trenton.’”
It also sounds like Richie Cole singing with his alto sax.
Richie Cole and Vince Lardear, The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, March 1, 8 p.m. $25. www.the-record-collector.com or 609-324-0880. For more information on Richie Cole, visit www.richiecole.com.