May 28, 2024

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Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber has died, our tribute to him and our interview: Video, Photos

Ronnie Cuber, a saxophonist and flutist who primarily played the baritone and whose muscular solo approach landed him in top big bands in the 1960s and ’70s and leading jazz, rock, pop, Latin, funk and soul orchestras and ensembles in the 1980s and beyond, including the Saturday Night Live band, died October 7. He was 80. Remembering him, we present our interview made on July 30, 2018.

Jazz interview with jazz legendary saxophonist, composer Ronnie Cuber. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Ronnie Cuber: – I was born in Brooklyn, New York USA … my mother and father were piano and accordion. I started on clarinet and took up tenor in high school.

JBN: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the your musical instrument?

RC: – In I played in the school band from the age of 14 to 17 my high scool teacher Isadore Rozovsky suggested to my parents that I would be a fine musician and to pursue a career in music.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

RC: – I experimented with diff horns mpc’s.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

RC: – I play long tones, I write my own music, I have written arrangements for the MINGUS BIG BAND Sometimes I go to the Slonimsky book of scales and arpeggios.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

RC: – On the baritone I have a wide variety of intervals I can choose from in my solo’s.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Ronnie’s Trio>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

RC: – In doing a pianoless trio I play a little different … Adam Nussbaum and I go back to the ’70’s Adam and Jay have a good foundation for me to jump off into.

JBN: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

RC: – I have no preference.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?


JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

RC: – Being in the studio A&R 799 in the 80’s with Sinatra,Quincy Jones and a whole host of all stars…..also Dave Grusin’s “WEST SIDE STORY” “HARDBOP GRANDPOP” W/HORACE SILVER “Live at the Mozambique” w/Lonnie Smith, Joe Dukes, George Benson …

JBN: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

RC: – In the middle “60’s Playing w/George Benson, Lonnie Smith shot me to the top of the list as a baritone sax player.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

RC: – We can get the young guys to re-harmonize the old tunes and infuse fresh blood into old standards.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

RC: – Conveying the message from you to the audience is like sending your spirit out to the people!

JBN: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

RC: – Peace in the Middle East … rogue regimes like N.Korea having nuclear weapons THE SYRIAN LEADER MUST GO!!!

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

RC: – Bring jazz back to the White House!

JBN: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

RC: – Maybe write for a 5 horn ensemble.

JBN: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

RC: – Artists like Joe Zawinul, Jaco, Miles have blended jazz/world/rock into their own brew.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

RC: – I like to stay focused on my own music, recordings, concerts, etc.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

RC: – 1949 is when the hardbop scene started to take shape with groups like “the jazz messengers” “Bird” n’ Diz ”Miles” Max Roach and Clifford Brown THE BLUENOTE RECORD LABEL That period was fertile ground for upcoming jazz musicians …. with many more Labels to record for and get out there!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Ronnie died in his studio on New York’s Upper West Side after suffering from internal injuries related to a fall near his home in the spring of 2020. His back and foot had become seriously injured in the fall, but he could not receive hospital treatment immediately as hospitals put surgeries on hold to cope with the large influx of Covid patients at the start of the pandemic. By the time non-Covid surgeries resumed in late May, an infection had extended into Ronnie’s neck. Though the infection was resolved at the hospital, internal issues had done significant damage. At the time, Ronnie quipped to his road manager, Roberta Arnold, about his hospital stay, “I played all the big rooms there.” Ronnie is survived by Roberta, his former wife, and his sons, Baird and Shain.

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Like many promising young jazz players who came up through university big bands at the close of the 1950s, Ronnie studied at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music before auditioning for Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band in 1959. He joined Slide Hampton’s band in 1962 followed by Maynard Ferguson’s band from 1963 to 1965, George Benson Quintet in 1966 and 1967, and Woody Herman’s band from 1967 to 1969. He then performed and recorded as a prolific leader and sideman. In recent years, Ronnie toured extensively in Europe, and earlier this year recorded solos on Michael Abene’s new WDR Big Band album.

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In the mid-1960s, Ronnie helped advance and widen the heavy soul-jazz and jazz-funk sound of the baritone saxophone, which would increasingly appear on albums and in TV house bands of the early 1970s. The funk approach on the horn had already been pioneered by Maceo Parker of James Brown’s band, but Ronnie’s hefty, jazz-flavored riff solos in the 1960s and early ’70s were soon ubiquitous thanks to players such as Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka of Tower of Power, Stan Bronstein of Elephant’s Memory and studio saxophonist Lew Del Gato of the original Saturday Night Live band. Interestingly, Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears didn’t routinely feature a baritone saxophone.


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