Editor’s note: Alto-sax jazz legend Richie Cole, who was born and raised in the Trenton area, died of natural causes on May 2 at the age 72.
A graduate of Ewing High School, Cole first left the area to attend jazz-focused Berklee College of Music in Boston. His college years ended when he got an offer to play with famed drummer Buddy Rich’s band in 1969. He later joined bands led by Lionel Hampton and Doc Severinsen, playing with the Manhattan Transfer, and then creating his own group, the Alto Madness Orchestra. He grew up in the local music scene and ended his career here, playing regular shows at Trenton’s Candle Light Lounge.
Peter Lauffer, a pianist and music educator, grew up with Cole, and played music with him regularly. Lauffer’s words follow:
It was the summer of 1961 when my father, James Lauffer, came to Trenton to begin his tenure as choral music director at Ewing High School. I remember him coming home quite excited from a get-acquainted meeting at Fischer Junior High.
“I heard a couple of 8th graders who were absolutely tearing up Dave Brubeck’s Take Five! Unbelievable!” he said.
That was, of course, burgeoning saxophone great, Richie Cole, and a most talented pianist and my former babysitter Karla Geiser. They became part of the remarkable if not staunch music program at the high school led by instrumental head, Lloyd Snyder, and my dad, known as “Jimmy” by his students.
That particular generation produced a number of successful musicians: master cellist Sue Poliacek, jazzmen Barry Paskiewics (alias Bo Parker), Cedric Jensen, and Dominick Defrancesco, blues master Joe Zuccarrela, Lamplighter big band leader Bob Smith, and many others.
One of the remarkable aspects of the program was that musicians were shared between the vocal and instrumental programs, so even if orchestra and band were your specialty, you still ended up in choir for a while. Much later, Richie confided in me, “I was always scared to death of your Dad. I never called him Jimmy….always Mr. Lauffer, but I couldn’t believe the stuff (not exactly the term) he got me to sing.” It is somewhat odd to think of Richie singing the Bach Magnificat, but it happened.
After Ewing High, Richie began his stellar career. His full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston was interrupted by being commandeered by the Buddy Rich Band, which led to the first alto chair in Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show band, which led to his collaborations with the Manhattan Transfer and his dear friend and mentor, Eddie Jefferson. This time was peppered with appearances in Trenton, notably at Lanzi’s Lounge on Liberty Street. Great Jazz and famous musicians were there, but Richie always let us youngsters sit in, and his encouragement was inspiring to us.
It was 1996 when I strolled into Joe’s Mill Hill saloon on South Broad, and the music was blazing. Four horns were in the front line with guitar bass and drums. Nobody was at the piano so the leader, Richie Cole, asked me to sit in. This was the beginning of the now world-famous Alto Madness Orchestra (AMO) which characterized the last phase of Richie’s vast career. Of course the Joe’s Mill AMO was the Philly/Trenton version of the band, and there were many musical adventures even up to our appearance at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing last Christmas.
Now there is an AMO in every town. “The Boys” (as Richie called us regardless of which version of the band it was) exist in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Antonio, LA, Tomsk in Russia, Trento, Italy, etc. etc. I am particularly grateful to our colleagues in the Pittsburgh AMO who have embraced him the last 4 or 5 years and produced the last flurry of eight or 10 albums for the world to enjoy.
Richie and I had spoken on occasion the last couple of months, and I know it had been saddening for him not to be able to work, as it is for all of us who perform music. Shortly before his passing, maybe the day before, he performed a solo concert outside of his apartment complex for his neighbors. This proves, as if there is any need to, that he was put on this earth for a very important reason: to spread joy and happiness through his music and his beloved saxophone. Well done, good and faithful servant.