BC: The intensity of his seriousness about the music, [and his] focus on quality. I remember the first rehearsal I had with the band was at his home, which was in Corona [Queens], around the corner from Louis Armstrong. I was supposed to be there at 12 o’clock and I got there at 12:05. He says “Bob Cunningham, you’re late.” And he’s got this pseudo-serious look on his face, and says “You know, you’re in the rhythm section and time is of the essence.” And my jaw fell. He was very serious but he had a way of tongue-in- cheeking his lines.
AAJ: It took a long time for you to do your first recording as a leader. Was that a function of opportunity?
BC: It was an opportunity that came to me from drummer Alvin Queen, who was developing a recording company. Elvin Jones, who happens not to be in the best of health these days [Ed. Jones passed away as of press time] , introduced Alvin Queen [to me]. So that’s how I got my first record session. I hadn’t been working that much as a leader at that point, and I just hadn’t taken the initiative to be aggressive about it. I guess one reason why I wasn’t so aggressive [was that] many of my acquaintances who had made records were so unhappy with the relationship with the record companies they were working for. Record companies tend to make a minimal amount of recordings, 10,000, 5,000, and that’s the beginning and the end of it. After six months or a year you can’t find the records. They’re not in the stores, some of the shops have shipped some of them back, and the record company sells them as closeouts, and they say they lose money on them, so they wanna charge the artist back for money they lost! That was disheartening to a lot of artists and I didn’t want to get into that kind of a bind. And I guess I’m a procrastinator. But this deal with Alvin Queen came along some years later, and it was a good deal, and I had arrangements with him where once he stopped producing it I had the rights to produce it.
AAJ: When I was in college the school radio station had a jazz show from 1-4 in the afternoon, and they always ended the show with the Clayton Brothers’ version of “Walking Bass”. I loved that song and I love the spin you put on it.
BC: Okay, “Walking Bass”, that’s a poem by Keeter Betts, that’s not mine. That song was given to me by another bassist, Brian Smith, that’s how I came to be familiar with that particular poem, I call it. Today they’d call it a rap. I’ve never heard it by the Clayton Brothers. This is something I would look for. I would even take it upon myself maybe just to call the Clayton Brothers.
AAJ: Something I noticed when I listened to Walking Bass is that you like to bow as much as you like to pluck.
BC: Back when I was 12 and joined the school orchestra the bandmaster gave me a bass and handed me a bow, and I looked at the bow as if to say “What in the hell do I need this [for]?” Five minutes later he had me bowing the bass. What we were playing in the orchestra was a lot of band music and orchestral music. I was playing primarily tuba parts and the tuba plays long notes sometimes. With the bow, you can sustain the sound, and I like this because it’s more horn-like, it’s more vocal, and it’s a beautiful sound. You can sing, cry, holler, moan. Once you pluck, it’s gone. It amazes me that out of 100 bassists, maybe only 50 of ‘em own a bow. And out of that 50, probably only ten percent of ‘em try to bow anything. And 50 percent they just bow the last note at the end of the song. It seems like such a waste. The other thing about it is that if you’re not playing that bow constantly it’ll say ugly things and embarass you in public.
AAJ: One project you’re currently involved in is a show being put on by the National Black Theater.
BC: Yes, it’s called Serenade the World, which is a show inspired by the life of Oscar Brown, Jr., in my opinion one of this country’s underappreciated artists, somebody that creates art that flows from love, and left a musical legacy filled with positive and meaningful messages. I guess his most famous song is “Signifying Monkey”. Some people even consider him the father of rap because of what he wrote and how he structured his lyrics. The show was put together by the star, Genovis Albright, and I’m part of what’s called the Oscar Brown, Jr. Trio, with Phil Young on the drums and Ann Belmont playing the guitar.
AAJ: Talk a little about "Jammin’ on the Hudson."