Ronnie Cuber comes out of the Harry Carney and Pepper Adams school of blowing. He corkscrews into a song on the baritone saxophone and then works it over with an aggressive attack, feeding into the instrument's deep, barrel feel. Ronnie began in the Newport Youth Band and moved on to Slide Hampton's band and then Maynard Ferguson's while he was still in his early '20s. After leaving Maynard Ferguson's band in 1965, Ronnie recorded steadily, bringing enormous life and energy to his solos.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Ronnie, the reedman continues his talk about his years with Ferguson...
JazzWax: Did kids often get snotty with musicians when bands played clubs and ballrooms?
Ronnie Cuber: Yes. It also happened quite a bit when I was with Woody’s band in 1967. I remember one time we were on a break, walking around, and I had a paper cup with a beer. Some kid came over and smacked it right out of my hand. He had his buddies around. That really took me by surprise. I thought the kid was crazy.
JW: What did you do?
RC: I looked over and saw Woody watching me. I had to think fast. Should I start something or is Woody waiting for me to back off and leave it alone? Or did he want me to fight? I just stepped back and acted like nothing had happened. Woody never said anything. To this day I don't know whether he approved or not.
JW: Did you play in New York with Ferguson?
RC: Yes. I remember we played Birdland quite a bit. Back then, when you went to Birdland, there would almost always be another band opposite you. On some weeks there might even be three bands on the bill. One time, there was the Irene Reid Trio and The Jack McDuff Quartet with George Benson. Another time, we did a week opposite King Curtis.
JW: What did you think of him?
RC: He was good. I had a habit of leaving my horn on my chair when I went to get a drink on break. On one occasion I was sitting there at the bar watching King Curtis [pictured] on stage. All of a sudden he picked up my baritone and was looking at the reed. I guess it was all funky and stuff, and he was trying to clean it off with his thumbnail. He went to play it and nothing came out. I had a kind of hard reed but he finally got it to play. I used a 3 ½ with a large-tip opening. [laughs]
JW: Of all the tunes you're on with Ferguson, I think I dig Lady’s in Love from Color Him Wild the most.
RC: [Laughs]. When I was on Charles Mingus’ big band in 2001, trumpeter Kenny Rampton was listening to a track on his iPod. He came over to me and asked me to listen. It was Lady's in Love. When I heard the baritone solo, I said, “Wow, who is that?” Kenny said, “It’s you” [laughs].
JW: Were the Ferguson charts tough to record in the studio?
RC: Not really. They were already played through on the road. We just went into the studio and knocked them off for albums—a couple of takes for each tune. When I’d hear Maynard’s high notes on live gigs, like on tunes like Maria, he’d leave you in suspense. You’d think, “Wow, is he going to make it?” And every night he’d hit that triple high-C.
JW: How did he get up there?
RC: He told us he had a little secret that enabled him to get ready for high triple-Cs. He said he’d tighten the muscles in his stomach, which would give him support. I also noticed he’d always have these thick-soled English brogue shoes. He’d give a stamp with his left or right foot to really get grounded before hitting the high notes.
JW: How did you travel around, by bus?
RC: No, we traveled in three station wagons. I guess it was the cheapest way to go. Those were long rides, too. Guys in the band who drove would earn extra money. In my car, alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan drove. We’d go through snowstorms and everything, and be out for two weeks at a time. There would be long drives, too, like from Chicago to New York. We’d take uppers to stay awake. Maynard had his own car, but other times he’d ride with the car I was in.
JW: By the late '60s, rock was coming in, wasn't it?
RC: Yeah, I was with Woody’s band by then. We’d play things like MacArthur Park, which I absolutely hated, and Light My Fire. Awful stuff for a big band.
JW: Did you sense the music was changing?
RC: Yeah. The popularity of rock was astonishing in the late ‘60s. I sensed I had to be flexible to earn. I knew I had to keep my jazz chops. A lot of young guys got on bands in the early '60s and forgot that they might not always be sitting on a bandstand reading music.
JW: What did you do?
RC: I was tight with band pianist Mike Abene. We always made sure to jam in the afternoon when we got to a gig. While everyone else was at the hotel, we’d play some tunes just to get away from the big band thing. By playing charts all the time, you risk getting stale and mechanical. I also didn’t get much solo space in the band, so jamming kept my chops strong. Or Mike and I would join jam sessions in different towns.
JW: You left Maynard in 1965. Why?
RC: There was a point in time when Maynard disbanded and moved to India. He had some tax problems as well. I moved on. In the '60s I recorded with people like Dr. Lonnie Smith, George Benson and Woody. In the '70s there were many dates for Creed Taylor's CTI label, with Esther Phillips and others. I've been busy ever since, both as a sideman and soloist. But Maynard's band was special. It was a terrific experience that I think about every day.
JazzWax tracks: Ronnie Cuber has recorded on 196 sessions. There are simply too many great ones to cite. But here are six of my favorites:
Explosion! The Sound Of Slide Hampton (Atlantic/1962)—Chet Ferretti, Jerry Tyree (tp) Slide Hampton, Benny Jacobs-El (tb) Joe Farrell (ts) Ronnie Cuber (bar) Horace Parlan (p) Bob Cranshaw (b) Vinnie Ruggiero (d) Willie Bobo (cga)
Cuber Libre! (Xanadu/1976)—Barry Harris (p), Sam Jones (b) and Albert "Tootie" Heath (d)
Lee Konitz Nonet (Chiaroscuro/1977)—Burt Collins (tp,flhrn,piccolo-tp), John Eckert (flhrn), Jimmy Knepper (tb), Sam Burtis (b-tb,tu), Lee Konitz (as), Ronnie Cuber (bar,sop), Benny Aronov (p), Nabil "Knobby" Totah (b) and Kenny Washington (d).
Ronnie Cuber: The Scene Is Clean (Milestone/1993)—Lawrence Feldman (fl), Ronnie Cuber (bar,ts,as,fl), Geoff Keezer (keyboards), Joey DeFrancesco (org), George Wadenius (g) Tom Barney or Reggie Washington (b), Victor Jones (d) Manolo Badrena or Milton Cardona (perc).
Steve Gadd: Live at Voce (Varese/2010)—Ronnie Cuber (bar) Joey DeFrancesco (org,tp) Paul Bollenback (g) Steve Gadd (d)
JazzWax clip: Here's Ronnie Cuber in 2003 in Spain...
JazzWax note: Be sure to pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal today (or go here) to read my review of the soon to be released CD, Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings. More on this recording when it's available starting Sept. 6.