Richie Cole

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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.

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Richie Cole

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,


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

Senior Orchestra.

"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

Richie Cole & the Alto Madness Orchestra, Trenton Jazz

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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