Obituaries have been published highlighting his life dedicated to music, his associations with jazz greats, his very significant discography, and his love for his “hometown,” Trenton. But since his actual hometown is Ewing, I’d like to share a personal tribute this month.
For those who don’t know him, Richie Cole was a widely respected jazz alto sax man, as well as a composer, arranger, bandleader, and performer.
He recorded many dozens of albums, and performed around the world with other bands, and his own Alto Madness Orchestra, a mini-big band.
He played in famous venues with the Buddy Rich Band, Lionel Hampton’s band, the Manhattan Transfer, and Doc Severinson’s Tonight Show Band, to name just a few. But even he would tell you, his home was Trenton.
Richie’s father was Richard Hubbard, who managed two nightclubs in the area: the Harlem Club on Brunswick Avenue in Trenton, with a primarily black clientele and noted jazz performers from Philly and NYC; and Hubbie’s on Olden Ave in Ewing, which featured Vegas-type acts and primarily white patrons.
Richie was exposed to the music at these clubs, and liked to tell the story that he was “gifted” his first saxophone as a child when one was left behind in exchange for a payment due. For Richie, it was an immediate love affair, and one that altered his life.
Richie grew up in Ewing with his mother, Emily, and his step-father, Tom Cole. He attended Alfred Reed School and graduated from Ewing High in the mid-sixties.
He often expressed admiration and gratitude for the quality and caliber of music teachers he had growing up—dedicated instructors such as Jim Lauffer and Lloyd Snyder, who encouraged and mentored him.
He was always practicing and trying to perfect his playing. One recent tribute included the reminiscences of a close friend who recalled neighbors asking for song “requests” when they heard him practicing his saxophone, as well as requests to “stop” when the hour got late.
Richie’s first band, the Jazz Casuals, began in Ewing, and even played at a talent showcase at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
By the time he graduated from Ewing High in 1966, he was one of only two students “in the world” selected to receive a full scholarship award to Berklee School of Music in a contest by Downbeat Magazine. He attended Berklee, then replaced lead alto saxophonist Art Pepper in Buddy Rich’s Big Band. After that, he headed off on his own, to make his name.
And yet he always made time to return home to Ewing and the Trenton area. He participated in Ewing High jazz band classes, and invited students to play with his band in local festivals. He played at regular intervals at local clubs, like Lanzi’s, and the Candlelight Lounge.
And, he played a half-dozen times or so at the 1867 Sanctuary.
Many readers may know of my involvement in the repurposing of the old former church on Scotch Road. Once the Sanctuary was re-opened for performances, we reached out to Richie via a mutual friend, and Richie became intrigued with the goal of sustaining the historic building as an arts and performance center.
It turns out Richie’s family once belonged to the congregation, and he recalled many “long hours” as a kid seated in the pews. After Richie’s first concert there in 2016, he was hooked. He was thrilled to see old friends, hear the sound in the hall, play to such an appreciative audience, and support the effort.
We were honored that he scheduled several concerts there each year, and consistently drew great audiences to hear his “Trenton sound” in the heart of Ewing.
I loved his music, and to watch this man with a heart of gold, to see him generously greet and engage with friends, encourage musicians and lovingly interact with his family. Others may more authoritatively comment on his legendary musical abilities and legacy. But to us, Richie was an angel, with a horn.
Rest in peace, my man!
Helen Kull is an advisor to the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society.