One of Ewing’s favorite sons returns home this month to perform a holiday concert at the 1867 Sanctuary.
Alto sax jazz legend and Ewing native Richie Cole and his quartet featuring pianist Peter Lauffer, bassist Frank Cook and drummer Dave Mohn will be playing at the arts and entertainment venue at 8 p.m. on Dec. 23.
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.
“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.
“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,” Cole says.
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 he used to stay up listening to the radio, and was immediately attracted to bebop. “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,” he says.
Cole often says that he was born—on Feb. 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 Harlem Club on Brunswick Avenue featured great black players from New York and Philadelphia. The other, 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. When he went to elementary school and wanted to be in the band, he had the instrument. With years of practice and the help of great teachers, he received the Downbeat Magazine award, which 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, taking the place of famed sax player 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,” Cole says.
He also played in bands led by Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen, played with the Manhattan Transfer and later created his own group, the Alto Madness Orchestra.
What makes a standard his own is something deep in him. “For some reason, I am torn between serious jazz and show business,” he says. “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 from his wife two several 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.
Thinking back to better times, Cole points to his time performing 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.
“That was the greatest gig of my life,” Cole says. “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.”
Cole’s mixture of soul and play is best illustrated in his performance of his big band composition “Trenton Style,” a piece he says is “the sound of my home town.” The musical playfulness makes one forget the serious artistry needed to create the piece.
Cole makes his living through concerts, royalties, and as a guest to university or jazz institution music clinics. He says he has been blessed to be able to do something with his musical gifts.
“It’s been a tough trip. But I’m the luckiest guy I know,” he says.
About Trenton style, Cole says, “It’s a certain sound. When you hear it, you know it. 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 Christmas is being presented by Preservation New Jersey and the New Jersey Jazz Society. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for members of the New Jersey Jazz Society and Friends of the Sanctuary, and $5 for school and college students with ID.
Tickets can be purchased online at 1867sanctuary.org, or reserved at the box office for payment by cash, check or credit card by calling (609) 392-6409 or emailing email@example.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door as space allows.