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 digeridoo and Ghanaian flute. Cole is the leader of 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 (scroll down for discography).

All About Jazz wrote: “Cole has explored the expressive capabilities of Asian double reed instruments in a jazz context for almost four decades. His virtuosity on digeridoo, Chinese sona, Ghanian flute, Indian shenai and nagaswarm 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 Parker)

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.

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 (scroll down for bibliography). Cole has 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 serves as Artistic Director of the non-profit organization Shadrack, Inc., which is developing a long range philanthropic plans; as well as composing, recording and performing with the Untempered Ensemble and other groups.

“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)


When I watched the video incident involving Eric Garner and the New York City Police, I first saw several policemen agitating Mr. Garner by touching him. All of a sudden a policeman attacked Mr. Garner from behind with a chokehold, and choked him until he was dead. This occured on July 17, 2014. While he was being choked you can hear Mr. Garner saying “I can’t breathe” several times. It was clear to me that he had been murdered. Then the Grand Jury of Staten Island, a borough of New York City, cleared the policeman of any wrongdoing. When I heard of this decision by the Staten Island Grand Jury my mind flashed back to all the killings of unarmed African American men by the police over the years in America - not only the killings by the police, but the fact that the killers were exonerated.

This is the same process that began during the time African American people were enslaved in this country. This Process of killing us by agents of the government or even private citizens has never ended. That is why I wanted to create a musical work to say that we’re STILL BREATHING.


This is the second CD in a series called "Still Breathing," a project I started in 2016 in response to the murder of Eric Garner in New York City. Over the years in America unarmed African American men and boys have been killed by the police for no reason except that they are African Americans. My grandfather, George Cole, was the first African American detective in the history of the police force of the city of Pittsburgh. He was in this position for 28 years. In his time as detective he made over two hundred arrests, all of which resulted in convictions - but he NEVER ONCE even pulled his gun out of its holster, let alone shot anyone. He was injured several times making arrests, sometimes seriously. When he retired from the force he was praised by his superiors for his detective work, and once received a commendation from President Theodore Roosevelt for catching a forger and bringing him into custody from Canada. I never met my grandfather; he died before I was born. From the stories about him told to me by members of my family and from the African American community in Pittsburgh, and from newspaper reports and other records, I learned what an excellent policeman he was.

I know that the police have the authority to kill people even when they’re unarmed. But African Americans are viewed in our society as being “inferior,” and when there is a group in a society that is viewed as "inferior" it is tragically easy for the police to kill persons from the "inferior" group, even when they’re unarmed.

In spite of having a target on our backs, we are "Still Breathing."

- Peace, Bill Cole