The Savannah Jazz Orchestra will honor two great musicians April 23 at its annual Duke Ellington Birthday Concert.
Sponsored by the Coastal Jazz Association, the event is known as "The Rite of Swing." Also being honored is the late bassist Ben Tucker.
Joining the orchestra will be special guest Richie Cole for the 31st annual Tribute to Duke Ellington. It will be held at the newly named Benjamin M. Tucker Pavilion, located at The Club at Savannah Harbor, which will be dedicated earlier in the day. The Club is located at The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa on Hutchinson Island.
Tucker, a jazz bassist and longtime resident of Savannah, played on hundreds of albums with the likes of Quincy Jones, B.B. King and Dexter Gordon.
A community icon, Tucker was involved in schools, youth organizations and adult learning, colleges, churches and community business in Savannah. He died in a traffic accident on Hutchinson Island in 2013.
The pavilion offers panoramic views of the golf course and club house. It provides space for up to 150 seated or 200 reception guests and is climate-controlled.
Tucker performed every week at The Westin's Sunday Jazz Brunch. The Westin is partnering with Coastal Jazz Association to unveil the pavilion.
The Savannah Jazz Orchestra is directed by trombonist Teddy Adams.
"There will be a dedication of the new venue to Ben, and also the Duke Ellington concert. Our headliner is alto saxophonist Richie Cole," Adams says.
"The concert is free and open to the public, but we accept donations. This is part of our main scholarship drive.
"We give scholarships to deserving music students at Armstrong and Georgia Southern," Adams says. "The students we selected this year will be featured on a Duke Ellington song."
This year's concert falls before Ellington's birthday.
"His birthday is actually April 29," Adams says. "We get as close as we can at an available venue.
"We've always done it with a featured artist who is known regionally or nationally," he says. "Richie Cole is internationally known."
Cole began playing alto saxophone when he was 10 years old in his hometown of Trenton, N.J. He won a full scholarship from Downbeat Magazine to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and his professional career began in 1969 when he joined the Buddy Rich Big Band.
After stints with the Lionel Hampton Big Band and the Doc Severinsen Big Band, Cole formed his own quintet and toured worldwide. He popularized bebop and his own "Alto Madness" style in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Having performed with some of the greatest vocalists of his generation, Cole gave a command performance for Elizabeth, the Queen of England. He has recorded more than 50 albums and CDs.
A composer and arranger, Cole has arranged for full big bands and symphony orchestras. As he tours, he often presents university master classes.
"We have been networking," Adams says. "He has been performing in Charleston and we're able to afford him because he's only 110 miles away."
Jazz is in Cole's blood.
"My dad owned two nightclubs in Trenton, N.J.," he says. "Somehow, somebody at the Harlem Club either left or sold an alto sax to my father. I had no other choice - I had to play.
"I put a lot of work into my trade. You keep practicing and you keep getting better and better.
"I was in school bands and orchestras and knew right from the beginning that music was my life," Cole says. "I've done a lot of gigs but never had a job. It's been up and down, but I had no other choice."
Cole's personal favorite musician and biggest influence is Cannonball Adderly.
"There are so many great sax players who have influenced me over the years," Cole says. "Cannonball Adderly loves the story he tells.
"There are so many great musicians out there that taught me a lot. It's hard to say one is better.
"It's personal," he says. "It's like food. Jazz is a four-letter word like food."
A composer as well as a player, Cole writes a lot of music and does arrangements for big band orchestras.
"That's what I really like doing," he says. "The sax is my hobby.
"I pretty much started right away. I did little songs, and when I was in high school, I wrote a symphony for the high school orchestra.
"I don't know how I did it," Cole says. "I don't think I could do it now."
Ellington is a legend, Cole says.
"He had a band for years and years and years, and when he was asked when he was going to retire, he said, 'Retire to what?'" Cole says. "I'm going to keep kicking until I can't keep kicking anymore. I'm looking forward to being in Savannah."
IF YOU GO
What: Duke Ellington Birthday Concert
When: April 23
Where: Benjamin M. Tucker Pavilion, The Club at Savannah Harbor, Hutchinson Island
Cost: Free; donations accepted
2-4 p.m. Family friendly golf and games
4 p.m. Ribbon cutting for Benjamin M. Tucker Pavilion with champagne toast
5-7 p.m. "The Rite of Swing" tribute to Duke Ellington featuring Richie Cole