Jazz has lost another of its highly respected instrumentalists with the passing of alto saxophonist Richie Cole. He was 72.

In the ’70s and early ’80s when jazz had splintered into several different directions, Cole was a straight-ahead player who was a staunch protector of bebop — even naming one of his albums Keeper of the Flame — a style he called the “ultimate expression” of jazz.

According to WBGO, Cole’s daughter Annie said he died in his sleep, of natural causes, on May 1 at home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pa.

Born in 1948 in Trenton, N.J., Cole began his professional career with the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1969. He continued his career serving stints with the Lionel Hampton Big Band and the Doc Severinsen Big Band, before forming his own quintet and touring worldwide with his signature “alto madness” style of bebop.

Cole was a prolific composer and performer. Throughout his career, he recorded more than 50 albums as a leader and performed and recorded with Eddie Jefferson, Nancy Wilson, Tom Waits, the Manhattan Transfer, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Jefferson, Eric Kloss, Bobby Enriquez, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Boots Randolph and more.

An alto sax player known for his bright, clear and cheerful sound and his speedy command of rhythm and harmony, Cole could “could go toe-to-toe with anybody,” journalist Nate Chinen wrote.

“I like to trick people into liking jazz by keeping things friendly, upbeat, and familiar,” Cole once said in an interview.

“I feel Richie Cole’s career was held back because he played the horn for fun and the free-wheeling experience of jazz in action … not out of ambition and plans for advancement,” journalist Ted Gioia tweeted following Cole’s death. “Jazz fans ought to celebrate him all the more for that pure flame.”