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Richard "Richie, Alto Madness" Cole

May 2, 2020


Alto Madness has been silenced: Richie Cole takes his final bow

Richie Cole died peacefully in his Carnegie, Pennsylvania, home on Saturday, May 2. He was 72 years old.

Since the age of 10, Cole played the saxophone, an all-consuming passion which took him around the world and into the hearts of millions of listeners, many who became lifelong friends.

He was a songwriter, composer, arranger and performer who recorded more than 50 albums and CDs. With his raw talent and New Jersey wit, he charmed his audiences.

From the time he first picked up a saxophone, playing it was all he wanted to do.

He lived, breathed and slept music.

Neighborhood children who lived along Nancy Lane in Trenton/Ewing New Jersey where he grew up, said that they often heard Cole practicing his saxophone as they played outside.

“He was always my buddy,” said Karen Alfano, his best friend since 1953 who met Cole when she was 3 and he was 5. “He was so good to people, even in high school.”

From the second floor of the modest Cape Cod home, where he was raised by Emily and Tom Cole, neighbors listened to Cole stumbling through the melodies. As he got better, he often played requests, such as Peter Gunn, Alfano recalled. He played it so well that neighbors would come to request, even expect to hear it on any given day.

He often was seen walking across the street, sax in hand, to the home of Paul Czumbil, his first music teacher. Years later, he would be taught by famed alto saxophonist Phil Woods, Alfano said.

But, at times, the young budding star would play too late into the night and neighbors would call the Cole residence and ask that he stop.

Tom Cole eventually installed a buzzer in the budding musician’s bedroom, which he rang when it was time for Richie to stop blowing his horn so the neighbors could sleep.

At age 12, he formed his first band, the Jazz Casuals.

When not playing music, the young Cole was the first on his block to have a lemonade stand with a full-size cutout of the Kool-Aid Man. The neighbor kids all played games in his yard, where Cole once organized an entire circus. He made all the other kids play a part, said Alfano, who Cole directed to dress up as a clown.

“He was always having these big ideas,” Alfano said. “It was never little, it was always big.”

Often saying he was a “friend of the friendless” and calling many in his circle “my man,” Cole enjoyed time with friends, talking about music, writing and re-writing music.

His work was influenced by Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. He earned a full scholarship from DownBeat Magazine and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In 1969, after just two years at Berklee, he left school and joined the Buddy Rich Big Band and toured the world. Among several collaborations during his career, he performed with the Lionel Hampton Big Band and the Doc Severinsen Big Band. He eventually formed Alto Madness and toured the world, popularizing bebop in the 1970s and 1980s.

He performed and recorded with Eddie Jefferson, the Manhattan Transfer, Bobby Enriquez, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Tom Waits, Boots Randolph and Nancy Wilson. He performed at such famed establishments as Carnegie Hall, Village Vanguard and gave a command performance for the Queen of England.

But he never forgot where he came from.

With his music he often paid tribute to his beloved hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. He once claimed that his hometown had a unique sound. In a local newspaper article written in 1999 when asked to describe the city’s unique sound he said: “Don’t ask me to describe it, you just gotta listen to it. You can’t describe music with words, you gotta hear it. Once you hear it, you’ll understand.”

He often arranged music for full big bands, symphony orchestras and frequent performances at jazz festivals around the world. He also was known to share his love for jazz with younger musicians.

In the last few years of his life, he lived in a small studio apartment in Carnegie. When not out performing or recording, he enjoyed the solitude of his modest space filled with plants, two TVs on which he watched hours of Law and Order, and of course, a keyboard on which he wrote and arranged music.

Cole leaves behind a legacy of music and countless fans around the world. Quite simply, he was born to play jazz and we were all lucky enough to have been here to bear witness to his pure imagination.

Cole was preceded in death by his father, Richard "Dick" Hubbard, and his parents, Emily and Tom Cole. He is survived by his daughters, Amanda “Amy” (Tony) Marrazzo and Annie Cole, and four grandchildren, Emily and Abigail Marrazzo and Ricardo and Julian Barajas.

Arrangements entrusted to the SZAFRANSKI-EBERLEIN FUNERAL HOME, INC. (412)276-1107

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