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The holiday season is here, but the Music Hall is closed due to covid. It makes me nostalgic. We lost a good neighbor, dear friend and phenomenal talent when Richie Cole passed away last May. The saxophone virtuoso, composer and arranger was born in Trenton, N.J., and lived ‘everywhere’ as he traveled the world throughout his career — but he was happiest to call Carnegie home during his final years.

In 2014, his daughter encouraged him to move closer to her in Pittsburgh. Cole quickly settled in Carnegie and into our local music scene.

Cole was exposed to jazz at a young age at his father’s clubs in New Jersey. He started playing saxophone at age 10 and progressively built a name for himself. He joined the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1969 and eventually formed his own quintet, touring the world and reinvigorating bebop throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Cole was unequivocally a keeper of the bebop flame, following Charlie Parker.

Cole recorded, performed and toured with countless fellow greats: Eddie Jefferson, The Manhattan Transfer and Sonny Stitt to name a few. To watch him perform live was to witness a man expertly and effortlessly ‘sing’ through his alto saxophone. If that weren’t enough, he was also known for his charisma and connection with audiences on stage.

Trombonist Reggie Watkins, a close friend and colleague of Cole’s shared some memories of the man he affectionately called “Uncle Richie.” Watkins moved to Carnegie around the same time that Cole did. The two first met outside of the North Side’s James Street Gastropub, where Watkins’ band the Steeltown Horns rehearsed. The musicians were all experienced road band regulars and Cole recognized that immediately.

Watkins recalls Cole’s reaction to their encounter, “I knew I met my guys.”

Cole, Watkins and the Steeltown Horns formed the Pittsburgh Alto Madness Orchestra.

Alto Madness first came about in the ‘90s out of the unique, straight-ahead bebop sound that Cole perfected during the previous decades. Watkins explained that Cole composed especially well for four horns and three rhythm pieces. Occasionally a vocalist would join in, but the seven-piece group became known for achieving the full sound of an 18-piece big band with the intimacy that allowed for great solos. Cole formed Alto Madness Orchestras all over the globe.

In his extensive travels, Cole played before the Queen of England, at Carnegie Hall in New York and at our very own Carnegie Carnegie Hall. In 2016, Cole and his Alto Madness Orchestra joined us for A Very Carnegie Christmas on the Music Hall Stage for a nearly sold-out audience. The show featured tunes from the group’s then recently released album, “Have Yourself an Alto Madness Christmas.” What struck me the most about this performance was an excellent example of Cole’s kind and generous nature; he composed an original song, “Carnegie Christmas” for students of the Carnegie Elementary Chorus and shared his stage with them.

During our 2017 A Very Carnegie Christmas, Cole collaborated with students of the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Carnegie Elementary Chorus. This was one of my first Music Hall shows after being hired by the ACFL&MH and it stuck with me. It was inspiring to see an established musician make room to lift up young artists. I may always associate Richie Cole with Christmas-time.

Watkins recalls that Cole performed, toured and wrote prolifically after relocating to Carnegie. Of his more than 50 career albums, several original tunes were inspired by his adopted hometown. Cole’s 2015 album Pittsburgh features the song “I Have a Home in Pittsburgh.”

And he certainly did. In a 2017 interview with jazztimes.com, Cole shared, “After 68 years, I have come to my Shangri-La.”

Despite his tough Jersey-bred exterior, Watkins remembers Cole as “a sweet and loyal friend.”

As much as Carnegie inspired him, Cole left an imprint on our community and will be remembered throughout the world for his music and for his friendship.

Richard Thomas Cole “Alto Madness”

Feb. 29, 1948-May 2, 2020

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