Meet Bill Cole

Bill Cole is an American jazz musician, composer, educator and author. An admired innovator, Cole successfully combines the sounds of untempered instruments with an American art form – jazz. Cole specializes in non-Western wind instruments, especially double reed horns: including Chinese sonas, Korean hojok and piri; Indian nagaswarm and shenai and Tibetan trumpet; as well as the Australian didgeridoo and Ghanaian flute. For 31 years Cole lead the Untempered Ensemble, a group he founded in 1992. He has performed with Sam Rivers, Billy Bang, Jayne Cortez, Julius Hemphill, Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, William Parker, Fred Ho, Gerald Veasley and others; at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Town Hall, Symphony Space and venues around the U.S. and in Europe; and has recorded for Boxholder Records.

Cole’s work as a composer is vast, and springs from jazz and African themes. In the early 1980’s, Professor Fela Sowande gave Cole a collection of 500 proverbs from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Inspired by their inherent wisdom, Cole has written musical compositions based on more than 100 of these proverbs, many of which are among the Ensemble’s repertoire. Cole also developed major works called the "Seven Cycles" based on the philosophy of the Ibo people of Nigeria, which holds that the human soul reincarnates seven times. Each of the “Seven Cycles” increased in length and size – ranging from the First Cycle (featuring Sam Rivers and Warren Smith) to later Cycles that included as many as 40 musicians, drumming ensembles and Gospel choirs. Cole continues to compose for the Untempered Ensemble and other companies.

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Born in Pittsburgh, Cole received a PhD in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University. He served as Professor of Music at Amherst College until 1974 and then at Dartmouth College until 1990, where he was Chair of the Music Department. He went on to Chair the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University. Cole has authored two books; “Miles Davis: The Early Years” (1974, William Morrow / 1994, Da Capo Press) and “John Coltrane” (1976, Schirmer / 2001 Da Capo Press); and has published numerous reviews and critical essays. 

Cole recorded seven albums for Boxholder Records and two albums for Shadrack, Inc., including the last recording to feature violin maestro Billy Bang who passed away in 2011, and “Politics” - a tribute to his longtime friend, poet Jayne Cortez, who died in 2012. Each of these CDs has been reviewed with acclaim for Cole's musical vision. Cole continues to compose, record and perform. 

Cole's latest project is a local summer series that began in 2020. During the pandemic, noticing that musicians couldn't play and that people couldn't hear live music, Cole began the series on the porch of his home in Thetford, VT. People brought lawn chairs and enjoyed the music.  Now (2024) in its 5th year, the performances continue to be free of charge to attend - Cole's way of giving back to the community that has been so welcoming after he moved back to Thetford in 2017.

Cole has explored the expressive capabilities of Asian double-reed instruments in a jazz context for almost four decades. His virtuosity on digeridoo, Chinese suona, Ghanian flute, Indian shehnai and nadaswaram infuses his writing and improvising with a pan-global authenticity that avoids dilettantish exoticism.... Cole takes solo after solo that allows a lifetime of immersion in Jazz to reveal itself through the extraordinary timbral resources of his chosen instruments.”

— Michael A. Parker, All About Jazz

Bill Cole, a multicultural multi-instrumentalist, is one of the guys at the top of the hierarchy in the improvised music scene, having been at it in earnest since at least the late 70s. Earlier this year I marveled at his mastery of Eastern reed instruments in his one-on-one with violinist Billy Bang. This performance by the Untempered Ensemble at the Vision Festival continues a tradition started nearly twenty years ago by Cole, putting together performers both young and old, established and up-and-coming, to forge music representing Bill Cole’s singular vision of Eastern and African enhanced jazz.”

— S. Victor Aaron, Something Else Reviews

The Untempered Ensemble