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Bill Cunliffe: Always Doing It The Right Way

Photo credit: Le Coq Records

Jim Worsley By

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When I wanted to learn about jazz, Oscar Peterson changed my life in one magic moment.
—Bill Cunliffe
Most notably a jazz pianist, it comes as more than a surprise that Bill Cunliffe was not in the same orbit as jazz until he was in college. With the sheer volume of top shelf jazz he has written and recorded since, he would seem to have made up for any lost time. That time, those early years, were hardly lost. Instead filled with learning to play classical, pop, and Broadway.

Cunliffe is remarkable not just in the variety of work he has accomplished, but in his ambition to do it right. To be authentic in any and all endeavors. Latin, big band, small ensembles, chamber music, orchestras, and more are all within his scope.

Our conversation ranged from the present, with two new records that he has already released this year—both of which feature Vinnie Colaiuta and John Patitucci—to the yesteryear of childhood, high school, and college. And, yes, there is much in between, including Grammy and Emmy nominations, a film project with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and his reflections on Chick Corea.

All About Jazz: Hi Bill. I've been looking forward to talking with you again. How are you doing?

Bill Cunliffe: Great. I'm doing great. What's up with you, Jim?

AAJ: Well, just three days ago I was making some notes for this conversation. I paused to check the mail, and like kismet, there was a copy of your new release Trio (Le Coq Records, 2021), with Vinnie Colaiuta and John Patitucci. I knew right then and there what my plans for the evening were. I listened to it three times that night, and a couple of time since. So everything else I was going to ask you about will just have to wait (laughing).

BC: Oh, well that's super that you have a copy. Very happy to talk about that.

AAJ: First things first, before we can rightly talk about Trio, tell us about the newly founded Le Coq Records and your role in that landscape.

BC: Well, I met these folks three or four years ago in Las Vegas. Piero Pata and his wife were very talented flamenco dancers and ran highly successful flamenco shows in Spain. I hope to still get out to see one of these shows. With my love of that sound with Paco De Lucia and Chick Corea, that would be just amazing. Anyways they got to a certain age and they couldn't do what they once were able to do on the dance floor. So, now in their fifties, they decided to start a record company. Piero has a longtime love and knowledge of standards and jazz. He had the resources so he started doing some small projects in Las Vegas. I got involved and we started doing some beautiful things with and for Andy James. That was the focus. But, Piero is very smart when it comes to music and to life. He understood that a record company couldn't be built around one artist.

AAJ: Then there was quite the breakout record. The Jazz All-Stars, Volume One (Le Coq Records, 2021), has a host of great talent on it. John Beasley, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Alex Acuña, and Terell Stafford, just to name a few. And, of course, Colaiuta, Patitucci, and yourself.

GB: Yeah, we had a lot of fun with that. As you say, a lot of great artists on the record. Guys that I really enjoy playing with. Stafford is my favorite trumpet player, period. Bar none. We taught at Temple University together.

AAJ: You and your fellow pianist and composer, Beasley, provided strong originals, that would seem to be key to the strength of the record. Your composition "Tu Were Nui" is very cool, a real standout.

BC: Thank you for that. Thank you very much.

AAJ: What does that mean or translate into?

BC: It means the ultimate challenge. Harmonically it has a landscape that is sort of "wow, where are we? What are we supposed to do now? It has a very different harmonic and rhythmic texture.

AAJ: Well, its a nice mix of standards and originals. Colaiuta and Patitucci laid down the law and framed it so well that everyone had a chance to step up and do their thing. Some very nice soloing from Colaiuta and Patitucci as well.

BC: We had these guys in the studio, so one day Piero says to me "how'd you like to do a record with Vinnie and John?" I said, "Are you kidding me, of course, when do we start?" He says "right now, it's all set up."

AAJ: Oh, man...

BC: Yeah, I couldn't believe it. We didn't have any time to rehearse. So we stuck with standards that we all knew. I just called them out and we all played from memory. There was no music in front of us. We just improvised. It was great because we were really paying attention to each other.

AAJ: Amazing that your paths hadn't crossed before. Your conversation was long overdue, The consequence was a deep dive of improvisational bliss. It indeed has the sound of three cats just diggin' the space and feeding off each other. Maybe sometimes better not to overthink it. Just play it and see what comes out naturally.

BC: Well, I had never done a record like this before, and boy was it fun. Wow! Piero liked it. He may want to do something else along those lines. These kind of records just aren't made anymore.

AAJ: Yeah, it takes you back to the fifties.

BC: Yeah, like Miles Davis. All those Cookin' (Prestige, 1956), Steamin' (Prestige, 1961), Workin' (Prestige, 1960), and Relaxin' (Prestige, 1958) records were made in a few hours. [Despite the release dates, all four records were recorded in 1956] It was a quick snapshot of where they were at the time. It was just beautiful. I love it.

AAJ: I appreciated the song selections and the sequencing flowed beautifully. With the possible exception of "Laura" and "Just in Time," the standards chosen are from the "not as often heard" category. What was the process in choosing what tunes to play?

BC: Well, you have assessed it correctly. We are not going to do "Green Dolphin Street," "All The Things You Are," or "Out of Nowhere." Those have been played enough.

AAJ: Well, we've talked about two great records to start out the year with. Going the other direction, you were born and raised in Massachusetts, correct?

BC: Yes, that's right.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?

BC: Well, somewhat, yes. Mom was a pianist and sang in the choir. Amateur pianist, but very good.

AAJ: You started playing when you were young then. Did you ultimately start getting formal lessons?

BC: Yes. What I remember though is that we had a huge upright when I was quite small. When we moved into an eight hundred feet home the upright had to go. It went with the promise of getting another piano. Eventually I had a much smaller piano that they paid five hundred bucks for. Keep in mind, this was 1964. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money back then.

AAJ: Yes, it sure was.

BC: The lessons I started getting were mostly classical, which I didn't mind at all. I took to it, I loved it. This teacher, Maxine Calt, also allowed me to improvise. She had a book that I could play out of and rearrange and make new accompaniments for. But I wasn't listening to jazz at all at that time. I was in high school studying Broadway tunes, which I needed to learn for my scholarship. We did Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific. So I knew all the tunes from those shows. In college, I started getting some outside gigs playing Broadway tunes and some light rock. Stuff like Fleetwood Mac, Sergio Mendes, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and things like that.

AAJ: When and how did you discover jazz?

BC: I was playing for a singer named Matt Zaitchik. His brother played in the James Cotton Blues Band. I was really diggin' what they were doing, so I asked his brother about it. I wanted to learn about it. He says, "well, have you listened to Oscar Peterson?" The answer was no... I had never heard of him. He loaned me one of his records. Oscar Peterson changed my life in one magic moment.

AAJ: That's an amazing story that jazz entered your life so relatively late. At least it got off on the right note with the Oscar Peterson Trio. That is as good as it gets.

BC: With Sam Jones and Bobby Durham, yes. I was hooked instantly. I branched out to some of his stuff with Ray Brown. Much of that seemed overly arranged. It was a bit more commercial. The ones with Thad Jones and Bobby Durham are raw and powerful. Highly crafted high energy stuff that is just outstanding. I really loved that part of Oscar. Years later, however, I met Ray Brown and he was terrific. He became a big part of my life at that time. I learned a lot from him.

AAJ: There is a reverence for Ray Brown spoken by several artists. Words like sincere, gracious, honorable, and fair-minded. Would you concur with that assessment?

BC: Oh, Absolutely, yes I would. A great guy to be around and man, could he play! Ray really payed attention to me. Every chord I played mattered to him. He wanted us to be strong and do our own thing. He would hear this or that and respond to it intelligently. It was great, we had such a dialogue going on. He was a great leader in that he was very supportive of our ideas, but was strong and assertive when he knew it was time to take charge of the band.

AAJ: That quality would seem adherent to most of the top and successful band leaders.

BC: Sure, yeah, look at Miles. John Coltrane would ask him what he wanted him to play. Miles would say, "you do it. I'm paying you all this money, write some damn music."

AAJ: You studied composition and much more attending the prestigious Eastman School of Music after graduating from Duke University. What stands out in your memories of Eastman? Did you get everything out of that experience that you had hoped for?

BC: Absolutely yes. It was fantastic. I was a player, but I learned SO much about writing and arranging at Eastman. Rayburn Wright was the musical director at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and also was my arranging teacher at Eastman. He knew everything about big bands, chamber music, orchestras, and he just knew it all. In addition, Bill Dobbins, who is still there, was my teacher. He knows all about smaller ensembles, and playing in smaller groups. It turned out to be the perfect place for me. You know actually, Jim, it couldn't have been better. We had small class sizes, which translated into more personal attention. I got to play with some really fantastic musicians. It was one of the happiest times in my life.

AAJ: If I'm not mistaken, your first truly big time connection was the chance to play with Buddy Rich. That had to have been an exciting time.

BC: He played with such enthusiasm, so yeah he was a blast to play with. It was an honor to play with Buddy Rich.

AAJ: I've heard it said that Rich was a tough task master. Where do you weigh in on that?

BC: He could be tough on you, sure. He had a sound in his head. He was determined to have that sound. He was in his sixties by the time I played with him. He had worked hard as the leader of a big band for a long time. He had a right to have certain expectations. Here he was working his ass off, and it didn't cut It with him to see, and hear, younger players giving it less than there all. He wasn't going to settle for that.

AAJ: Yeah and why should he?

BC: Exactly right. I appreciate that more now as I get older. That he was doing the things he needed to do in order to be the fantastic band leader he was.

AAJ: There are so many legendary names that you have played with, that we could never get to them all. One that really leaps off the page is Frank Sinatra. Did you record with him, play live, or both?

BC: It was kind of a lucky accident. He was recording a song called "L.A. is My Lady." They needed someone to play a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Joe Harnell was the musical director. I was there and Joe suggested that I play, so that he could spend more time conducting. I was able to play on the other tracks, just as some padding, some thickening where it needed it. I loved playing with Frank. He was in great voice.

AAJ: Right place at the right time. You have a few Grammy nominations to your credit. Your Grammy win for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 2010 was in regard to an Oscar Peterson piece. I have a special place in my heart for Peterson. Tell us all about that arrangement and what made it unique.

BC: I had rerecorded Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse, 1961) into The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Part 2 (Resonance Records, 2008) just for the fun of it. I'm a huge fan of his work. George Klabin was producing and we had some time left. He asked me to play an Oscar Peterson album (Resonance Big Band Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Resonance Records, 2009). We talked about what tunes we were going to do and I brought up the idea of doing a suite. Buddy Rich did a lot of suites so I was real familiar with that. I ended up doing "West Side Story Medley." After I finished recording it, George came up to me and said "that's going to win a Grammy." I don't make records for that reason. I do it because it is fun. But he was right on this one, sure enough I received a Grammy.

AAJ: Your discography is extensive, with a lot of diversity. Latin octets, big band, jazz ensembles of varying sizes, orchestra concertos, chamber music, and more. While composing and arranging in all these styles, there is still Another World of composing that has led to Emmy nominations. Many who know you as a jazz pianist may not know about this aspect of your career. Was writing for television and movies something that you consciously set out to do or was there just a Guiding Light?

BC: (laughing} After I finished up with the Rich band, I had a girl friend in Cincinnati and decided to move back there. Part of the fun there was playing a club where I got to play with a lot of great artists. I was in a house trio that played with James Moody, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Ayers, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Bob Mintzer, Woody Shaw, Bob Berg, Art Blakey, and so many more.

AAJ: Wow, that's a lot of really big names coming through town.

BC: That was the highlight of my time in Cincinnati for sure. But I had a day job writing jingles for a jingles company as well. Proctor and Gamble, headquartered in Cincinnati, was a major player, and why they called them soap operas. I was assigned to write some stuff and a couple of things were nominated for Emmys.

AAJ: No intent of writing for television in any capacity, and you end up with Emmy nominations. There's that right place and right time again.

BC: Yeah, I did a couple of other things after I moved to L.A., but it was far from my first love. One project I am particularly proud of is working with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his film, entitled On The Shoulder of Giants (Union Productions, 2011).

AAJ: Yes, I was just going to ask about that. That's a terrific project.

BC: As you no doubt know, Jim, Kareem is a huge jazz fan. He's into Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the others. I wrote a score that would hopefully bolster the drama of the movie, which was the history of the first successful black barnstorming basketball team. They were know as the Harlem Rens because they worked at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. They would have basketball games, but then clear out the gym and have music concerts at night. Kareem's biggest loves are basketball and jazz.

AAJ: Yes, I've read some of his other historical pieces on jazz. How about you, basketball in your wheelhouse?

BC: I love basketball. Never could play very well, but I love the game. Growing up in Massachusetts I went to many Boston Celtics games. This was back in the day of great players like Bill Russell and John Havlicek. I also went to several Harlem Globetrotters games. I always heard that basketball bouncing on the floor and I thought of drums. Basketball is the most rhythmic jazz like sport there is.

AAJ: How did that come to be? Did Abdul Jabbar reach out to you or?

BC: Yes, through the L.A. Jazz Society. I was honored as the best composer and arranger in 2010. My big band performed and he was in the audience.

AAJ: You also have a great love of Latin music. How did that develop?

BC: Well, I grew up really loving pop music. This was the sixties and seventies. By the nineties, even the eighties, I was bored with it. It just wasn't the same. But the Latin music still had actual musical instruments and, of course, such a great beat. I gravitated towards it and really enjoy it.

AAJ: Your Latin band, Imaginacion, has been together for many years now, yes?

BC: Yes, and we have another record in the can, ready to go.

AAJ: You have had many bands and ensembles over the years. How many groups do you have currently?

BC: I believe I would say three. The trio, solo, and the Latin Band. I, however, form various octets as I go along.

AAJ: You mentioned Chick Corea earlier. As a contemporary do you have anything you would like to say about Chick?

BC: I loved Chick, but I wouldn't say I am exactly a contemporary. I am sixteen years younger. When I went to school there was the four horseman, Chick, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett. They were the vanguard of modern jazz piano at that time. The quality and quantity of his music is unequaled. There is something like ninety albums. They are all good. Every single one of them There is not a dog in there. He brought this freshness and beauty to everything. His spirit of play and his spirit of creativity. There has never been another like him and there never will be. Chick shaped all of us. Heaven's gain is our loss.

AAJ: Thank you, Bill. That's all very nicely said. You know, even though we have covered a lot of ground, I would be remiss not to bring up John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton. Between their orchestra and the smaller ensemble, you were bandmates for a number of years.

BC: Yeah, I played with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for ten years. Then for several more years with the Clayton Brothers. It was a great musical experience. John Clayton was a lot like Ray Brown, in the sense that he paid a lot of attention to what I was playing. Every note I played mattered to him. That's my biggest takeaway.

AAJ: Many artists are teaching lessons now to ease the financial burden. Teaching has long been part of your musical career. You have been a Professor of Music at Cal-State Fullerton now for many years.

BC: Well, you know, Jim, all of my life what was missing is that I never had any kids of my own. So, when Terell Stafford advised me to join the jazz faculty at Temple University, I thought, you know, Philly is a great town and I thought it might be kind of a nice thing to do to kind of get more involved with young people. I loved it. Sometimes I think I should have stayed. But I love L.A., and there you have it.

AAJ: There we have it indeed. Well, Bill. I must say I really enjoyed talking with you this afternoon.

BC: Me too, Jim. It was great.

AAJ: Hopefully before too long we will be back at Sam First celebrating life and live music again.

BC: Can't wait. Until then.

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