Monday, May 04, 2020

RIP Richie Cole

The past Saturday afternoon, I was on my break at work, scrolling through the usual media traps on my phone when I saw it. Pittsburgh bassist Mark Perna posted that Richie Cole, the world-renowned alto saxophonist and Pittsburgh resident for about seven years, had passed away. The loss felt really personal.

His family has said Cole died of natural causes. But having spent the early part of that morning reading about a musician friend who is dealing with Covid-19 (even after having tested negative for it) and thinking about another musician friend who is sidelined with something similar, it's hard to wrap my head around Cole not being on the planet anymore. That feeling comes in large part because he was so full of wild energy.

After having heard that he was living in town, I finally met him in 2016. He was tearing it up with a quartet at a bar in Carnegie, PA that didn't look like it was a place to hear jazz. (It looked more like a place where you'd go to watch football.) Yet, there he was blowing through standards like nobody I had ever heard outside of Phil Woods, who had been a mentor and teacher to Cole when he was growing up. And Woods had passed away a year before that, so it really appeared that Richie was the heir apparent to that throne. He was the last of a generation of alto players that came up following the bebop era that could still find a wealth of ideas in those classics. There are great alto saxophonists out there but Cole was the kind that made you hit the bar and yell, "Goddam!" when he cut loose.

Cole was a ham too. That first night I met him, he invited a few younger guys to sit in with him. One asked Cole if he knew "Blue Bossa," trumpeter Kenny Dorham's merging of bossa nova and hard bop, and a song that often gets trotted out at jam sessions. "I hate that song," Cole said, gruffly. There might have been an expletive in there too, but I can't quite recall. A few days later when we reconvened at the bar for a formal talk, he told the bartender, "There's an interview going on. Don't get to yappy."

But he had a way of blurring the line between jokes and seriousness, schmaltz and quality music. He arranged a version of the Frankie Avalon hit "Venus" that started out sounding like "Poinciana" and made you realize that the former song was pretty catchy after all. He quoted "The Candy Man" in the middle of "Pure Imagination," another song that came from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When he started to solo, watch out. There was not clowning going on then.

While the mention of Buddy Rich gets many people thinking about his flashy solos or the controversial tapes recorded stealthily on his tour bus - in which the tough drummer berated the players in his band - Cole had nothing but good things to tell me about Rich. "Buddy used to say, ‘The bus leaves at 12:00, and I don’t mean 12:01.’ He only asked you to be on time and do your job. That’s why Buddy and I got along great. I did my job. I minded my own business and I treated him with the respect that he deserved."

The last time I saw Cole was last summer. He attended an event at the cemetery where my wife worked, checking out a performance by local puppeteer Dave English. The saxophonist was walking with a cane but there was still plenty of fire in him. I had heard earlier this year, pre-pandemic, about a recording that might be involving him. Now I won't get a chance to ask him about that or anything else that's going on, or bond over our mutual wearing of berets

This isn't a proper obit or bio of his work. If you want more details on his life, JazzTimes just posted a real obituary for him which you can find here. At the bottom, there's a link to my feature on him for the magazine.

But I felt that I needed to pay homage to Richie. It's not often that a jazz musician who has already established himself suddenly settles down in Pittsburgh. It was quite a coup. And I think we did something for him. He called Pittsburgh "my own Shangri-La." He also hooked with a number of players who helped him put together his Alto Madness Orchestra, which exemplified Cole's sharp arranging skills, something he considered a bigger priority than playing alto. With the help of the aforementioned Perna, and a cast of players, Cole added to his already-massive discography while living in town. The guy was full of ideas.

So in closing, I'll leave you with the one thing he told me that really summed him up. For once, I don't have to edit this for word count: “I don't play the saxophone. I sing the saxophone. I blow the saxophone as a vocalist. I tell a story. ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ does not have a trumpet solo, a piano solo and a bass solo. It would ruin the whole thing. It’s a story – a short story. You want a novel, listen to John Coltrane! And that’s good too, man!”

Thanks, Richie.


Arlene said...

What a great and realistic piece. Richie would be f***ing proud. (You know he couldn't utter a sentence without cussing at least 3 times!) He has left a vacuum in our town and holes in our hearts. He will be sorely missed for a long time. Thanks for this article.

shanleymusic said...

Thanks, Arlene. I didn't see your message until now. I appreciate the comments. We only talked at length a couple times but I really got a lot of it. He was truly a deep guy.