Ronnie Cuber is a baritone saxophonist with a beefy sound who came up through the big bands of the 1960s. During this problematic big band era, rock and soul put the squeeze on orchestras' abilities to earn a profit. Yet top-name leaders still managed to tour and record, in many cases by arranging rock and soul hits and, by decade's end, incorporating jazz-rock fusion into their books.
Ronnie had the good fortune to play in Maynard Ferguson's band from 1963 to 1965, when the band recorded three strong albums for the Mainstream label before the trumpeter disbanded. Since then, Ronnie has recorded with Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa Horace Silver, George Benson and many other artists. He also has led many sessions and continues to record and tour today.
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Ronnie on Maynard Ferguson, the 69-year-old reedman talks about joining the band, the excitement of soloing and the trouble encountered on the road...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Ronnie Cuber: South Brooklyn. Most of the guys my age were jazz fans.
JW: What was your first instrument?
RC: The clarinet. I was 9 years old when I started playing. Then in my first year of high school, there was a need for a sax player. So my father bought me a tenor. In my senior year, I switched to baritone. My music teacher at the time got me an audition for the Newport Youth Band. The audition was held at the apartment of Marshall Brown, the head of the youth band. [Photo by Ben Johnson]
JW: Where did Brown live?
RC: Marshall was married to a painter. Their crib was on 86th and Park Ave. I auditioned on tenor. He had a piano player there and a trumpeter for accompaniment. Marshall had been head of Farmingdale High School’s band in Farmingdale, N.Y., before being asked to form a big band with high school players who lived in the Tri-State New York region.
JW: How did your audition go?
RC: Well. I was in the Newport Youth Band in 1959 and 1960. From the band, there was a nucleus of guys who would get together and play some small ensemble stuff, which was mostly written by Mike Abene [pictured]. The guys included me, Al Abreu on tenor, Benny Jacobs on trombone, Harry Hall on trumpet, Mike on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass and Larry Rosen on drums. Maynard Ferguson played the Newport Jazz Festival then, as did most of the bands, and heard us. He was impressed.
JW: Was the youth band good?
RC: Very. Andy Marsla, our lead alto, was playing so well that he started to sound like Cannonball Adderley. Ernie Wilkins wrote duet charts for Andy and Cannonball to play together at Newport, which was recorded. They’d trade eights, and at one point on the recording you couldn’t tell who was who.
JW: What happened when the youth band ended?
RC: I did a lot of big band work, going out on dance bands and Latin dates. I also played and recorded with Slide Hampton [pictured]. It was like big band time for me.
JW: How did you get the call to join Maynard Ferguson’s band in 1963?
RC: Mike Abene had joined Maynard’s band right off the youth band. Then Mike wound up recommending me. Upon Mike’s recommendation, Maynard didn’t feel it was necessary to audition me. He hired me for the next gig to see how I'd fit in.
JW: Were you intimidated?
RC: Well, yeah. I had to get on the edge of my seat and zero in on those notes. I had to both play the parts and be part of the band and blend. I was about 21 years old. But because there were guys on the band I had already played with, I wasn’t alone and it was exciting. Maynard was always smiling. He was so jovial. After the first night, I was asked to play on other gigs. I felt like I had passed the initiation on the very first gig.
JW: How was touring with the band?
RC: We did a lot of dances. We toured everywhere—a lot of ballrooms in Pennsylvania mixed in with clubs in Chicago and Detroit. College kids were dancing to Maynard's music just before rock took over. Maynard kind of had a jazz book and then he had his dance set, too, with tunes like Hey There and Give Me the Simple Life.
JW: What was one of your favorite songs in the book when you started?
RC: I dug Frame for the Blues. I knew the tune from listening to it. Slide Hampton wrote the chart. Maynard had recorded it on A Message From Newport in 1958.
JW: Was playing with the Ferguson band exciting?
RC: Amazing. I remember doing a week at this club called the Minor Key in Detroit. Drummer Rufus Jones was still with the band. Maynard sent me out on a up-tempo blues in b-flat, and I was on there for six or seven minutes with Rufus driving me.
JW: How did it feel?
RC: Great. I could feel at one point that everything was clicking just right. I felt light as a feather. I wasn’t even thinking. I saw this blue light off in the distance on the club’s back wall. I just concentrated on that light. I looked at that light and was fixed on it. Finally the band broke it down, and I went back to my seat. Willie Maiden, who was the straw boss and a salty guy, said to me, “Yeahhh.” That felt fantastic.
JW: How did everyone stay so loose?
RC: Everybody on the band had their little thing. A lot of us smoked grass. Maiden was a juicer. He had his martini before dinner and that was his groove. Maynard really loved him. Willie was very thin and had a Midwestern personality. He was just a straight-up, straight-ahead guy. Very level-headed.
JW: How so?
RC: I remember one time we were playing a college dance. In the middle of a set, some kid stuck his hand out to shake Maynard’s hand. Something happened where the kid took his hand and started squeezing it really tight. It started to hurt Maynard, you know?
JW: What did Ferguson do?
RC: Maynard pulled his hand away hard from the guy. The guy was looking to hurt him. So Maynard got pissed, threw his trumpet down and walked off the stage mid-number. His trumpet was all bent up. A few minutes later he returned with his other trumpet. But I noticed he was wearing a pair of rubber galoshes.
RC: Yes. I was thinking, what the heck was he doing that for? He told me later he was wearing them for traction, in preparation for physical confrontation. He had dress shoes on and didn’t have sneakers, so he put those snow rubbers on and continued the gig.
JW: And Maiden?
RC: While Maynard was backstage, I leaped up and said to the kid, “You son of a bitch, I’m going to kick your ass.” Willie jumped up and said, “Whoa, hey Ronnie, sit down, sit down. Keep quiet.”
JW: Why did Maiden react that way?
RC: The kid was with a bunch of drunken college friends. Willie knew that mixing it up could escalate and cost us more than the kids. All of a sudden, the kids just disappeared, so the problem resolved itself.
JazzWax tracks: Ronnie Cuber is on three 1964 albums by Maynard Ferguson: The New Sound of Maynard Ferguson, Come Blow Your Horn (both combined here) and Color Him Wild (which is at iTunes as Dues).
JazzWax clip: Here's Ronnie Cuber with Maynard Ferguson in 1964 on On Green Dolphin Street from Color Him Wild. Dig Ronnie's tire-thick anchor sound in the background on baritone sax...