In the midst of the world’s trials and troubles, word comes that alto saxophone player Richie Cole died recently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at age 72. In the 1980s, Richie played the Russian River Jazz Festival several times with his bee bop group called Alto Madness. They
always took the crowd along with them with charging rhythms and enthusiastic sounds.
Bruce Forman, the band’s guitar player, went on to hundreds of important gigs with his own band and also taught at USC’s prestigious Thornton School of Music. The band’s piano player often hit chords with his elbows and forearms, but somehow it seemed to work. It was a high energy group, to say the least.
At one of our Jazz Festivals, tenor sax player Stan Getz was supposed to headline the Sunday program, but he called in sick from Los Angeles. Both Richie and world renowned pianist Dave Brubeck were still in town from the day before, and they agreed to fill in. I think it was the first and last time these two played together. I’ll never forget them taking off on “Caravan,” an exotic jazz standard by John Tizol and Duke Ellington that has been featured in several big movies, including Ocean’s Eleven starring Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Cole and Brubeck traded solos back and forth for half an hour, getting everything out of “Caravan” they could. It had to be one of the best jazz moments ever, and it happened only that one time at Johnson’s Beach on the banks of the Russian River.
Strongly encouraged by his father, the proprietor of a jazz club in Trenton, New Jersey, Richie started playing the saxophone at age ten. DoownBeat magazine gave him a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, which Richie left after two years to go on the road with esteemed drummer Buddy Rich.
Over a lifetime, Richie played all the important jazz clubs, was leader or player on fifty albums, and was part of Doc Sevrenson’s Tonight Show Band, Lionel Hampton’s band, and the Manhattan Transfer, just to name three.
A good many years ago, on a hot afternoon in the hills west of Monte Rio, I officiated at Richie’s marriage to Yolanda Nichols, also a fine alto sax player. From this union came a little girl called Alto Annie who could be seen playing around the seats at one gig or another where mother or father was on the stage. That marriage broke up, people moved away, and I lost track of this family. All I know is that during the last years of his life, Rickie lived in Pittsburgh in order to be near Alto Annie. Richie became the dean of straight ahead jazz there and a mentor to youngsters taking up the difficult and demanding jazz life.
In one of his obituaries, there is a picture of a heavily coated Richie Cole wearing a black beret with scraggly white hair sticking out from under it. With closed eyes and furrowed brow, he is playing a tune at the memorial after the shooting that left eleven people dead and six wounded at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life synagogue in the fall of 2018. Clearly, the years had taken their toll on Richie, but for sure he cared so very much about what he was playing and why he was playing it. The passion for his musical calling that Richie Cole exhibited as a young man among us here along the River was evident right to the end.