Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard K. Skelly was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on August 25, 1999. All rights reserved.
The Days and Nights of Trenton Jazz
Whatever you make of the current status of its
as a cultural center, Trenton was once a center for jazz and blues.
Hammond B-3 blues organist Jimmy McGriff, who lives in south Jersey
near Voorhees, got signed to his first record deal after performing
in a Trenton club in 1960. And you can also ask alto saxophonist
Cole, who grew up there in the 1960s. Cole, born in 1948 in Trenton,
now lives on a yacht in the Florida Keys when he’s not on the road
with his Alto Madness Orchestra. But when this interview was
Cole was standing in the hallway of his mother’s doctor’s office in
Trenton, talking on his cell phone and putting this weekend’s Trenton
Jazz Festival — at which he will perform — in perspective.
"There were always a lot of small jazz clubs in Trenton, and
it was a great hub for jazz," Cole recalls. "A lot of outside
entertainers would come through on their way to Newark and New York.
I remember hearing a lot of the greats — Count Basie, Duke
Earl Bostic, Sonny Stitt, they’d come through here all the time."
Cole recalls frequenting places like the Fantasy Lounge, where he
saw saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Clark Terry, and —
before he was old enough to set foot into the clubs — seeing Count
Basie’s band at the War Memorial and at Princeton’s McCarter Theater.
"There were always a lot of musicians around to learn from and
jam with," he recalls.
Cole, who has recorded 28 albums for a variety of labels, including
Muse, Fantasy, Concord, and other jazz-oriented labels, began playing
guitar when he was five and started on alto saxophone when he was
10. Cole, admired as much for his abilities as a composer as he is
for his saxophone chops, says he took his earliest cues from
Adderly, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins, as well as
composers like Aaron Copeland and Tom Waits.
"I also like Nelson Riddle and Oliver Nelson. Really, I’m
by hundreds of musicians," he says. "I always just listened
to everybody until I learned to do things my own way."
Cole’s stepfather was a factory worker and his mother worked as a
secretary. "My real father was a jazz club owner, and he owned
two clubs in Trenton during World War II," he recalls. Cole
hearing a Count Basie record as an eight-year-old and deciding he
really liked the music. A few months later, he saw Basie’s band
at the War Memorial, and this spurred his interest in the saxophone.
Cole formed his first bands in the Trenton area three decades ago.
He left Trenton in 1966, after receiving a scholarship to the Berklee
College of Music in Boston. He attended Berklee for three years before
being asked by bandleader Buddy Rich to join his band. In 1969, he
went out on the road with the drummer and bandleader.
"It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I played with him for
years," Cole says. "Working with Buddy was a huge education
and he showed me the real music business. I feel really fortunate
that I got in on the tail end of the big band era. He was a real
character, and we became very good friends. I respected him, did my
job, and now, all these years later [Rich died in 1987] I still think
he’s the world’s greatest big band jazz drummer."
In the early 1970s, Cole played for Doc Severinsen, Lionel Hampton,
Eddie Jefferson, and the jazz vocalese group, Manhattan Transfer,
with whom he worked as musical director for several years. Cole worked
with Jefferson until he died in 1979, and then formed his own group.
Since then, he has led various small groups, and has often been called
a favorite in readers’ polls conducted by Downbeat, Swing Journal,
and other magazines.
These days, Cole spends most of his year out on the road playing,
and because costs of traveling with an eight-piece band are
he uses differing groups of musicians in the cities he frequents.
His most recent recordings, which will no doubt be for sale at the
Trenton Jazz Festival, include "West Side Story," his
of the Leonard Bernstein classics, on the Ocean Township-based
label, and "Come Sunday" on his own Alto Madness Records.
And Cole also has two Web sites, http://www.richiecole.com
Cole says he began the Alto Madness Orchestra two years ago, and
his latest project has been well-received by the festival bookings
he’s received all around California, Canada, and Europe.
"The guys I’ll be working with at the Trenton Jazz Festival are
actually many of the players I started out playing with," he says,
noting that band will include Cedric Jackson, drums, bassist Frank
Cook, trumpeter John Ashcraft, pianist Peter Laufer, guitarist Pat
Bradico, "and I use two tenor [sax] players ’cause I like to have
two in the group, Dominic DeFrancesco and Sonny Pete. Trombonist will
be either Gil Toth or Pete Rykland."
Aside from his touring activities with groups of musicians in Florida,
California, New York City, and around the U.S., Cole also makes time
to work with an Alto Madness Junior Orchestra and an Alto Madness
"I’m sponsored by the Selmer Company [makers of saxophones and
clarinets] and I go from school to school, and I do the same with
senior citizens," he explains. "I’m also writing music for
a new adult cartoon series, called `The Hep Squad,’ that’s sponsored
by the same production company that did `The Simpsons.’ So I’m writing
with my Alto Madness Orchestra for that cartoon series."
What can the audience unfamiliar with Cole expect at his show at the
Trenton Jazz Festival?
"I’ve got an hour-long set, so it’ll include a variety of tunes,
but all of them will be played `Trenton-style,’ " he says, "no
matter what we play it’ll fit into Trenton style."
— Richard J. Skelly
Festival , Waterfront Park, Route 29 and Cass Street, 609-394-8326.
Also featuring Patti Austin, Norman Brown, Manny Oquendo and Libre,
and the Yellowjackets. $19.50 to $42.50. Saturday, August 28, 2
p.m. to midnight.
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