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Bob Cunningham

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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]?'
Bassist Bob Cunningham is another example of a talented, underrated and uderappreciated musician. Born in Cleveland in 1934, Cunningham arrived in New York in 1960, hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped, appearing on countless recordings and gigging with all time greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sun Ra, Abbey Lincoln and Yusef Lateef. His first and only recording as a leader, Walking Bass (Nilva), was just reissued, and he’s once again participating in the annual summer series Jammin’ on the Hudson, which takes place on Riverside Drive. He is also part of a show entitled Serenade the World, celebrating the life and work of Oscar Brown, Jr.

Cunningham is an introspective, diffident man with a sly sense of humor and a sharp memory. Although he’s slight of build, his sinewy forearms are strong evidence of the years he’s spent honing his craft. The interview took place in his Brooklyn home, located in a tree-lined oasis in a section of Brooklyn so quiet and rural-looking that one might easily think that the subway somehow went up I-95 to New England.

AllAboutJazz: Your first instrument was the piano but eventually you discovered the bass.

Bob Cunningham: I had friends who played saxophones and trumpets, and I wanted to play the saxophone. So the way to go about that was to get into the school band. You get a clarinet first, and from there you move to saxophone. But there were no clarinets or saxophones available ‘cause I was late in applying for a spot in the band. They offered me a violin, viola, cello and bass. So I said, “Well gee, if I take the bass at least I can play along with my friends”. The guy gave me a bass and a bow, and I started playing that and I just fell in love with it.

AAJ: What was it about the bass that attracted you? Was it the way it’s built, was it the sound?

BC: No, it’s the way that it vibrates! When you pluck it the whole body (Cunningham shakes his arms) shimmies!

AAJ: You got to New York in 1960.

BC: Yeah, October 11th, 10:30 p.m.

AAJ: Broke?

BC: No, I had a little something but New York didn’t take long to break me. I drove here and I parked in the lot next to the YMCA where I was staying, down on 24th Street in Manhattan. It was eight dollars for 24 hours, so I figured I could manage that for a week. I put my car in, then I took it out and went to Birdland or somewhere. I took the car back, put it in, and the guy asked for another eight dollars! I told him “I got my ticket here, I paid for the day”. He says, “No, no. Every time you go in and out of here you gotta pay again!” So that was my first awakening to New York.

AAJ: You didn’t read the fine print.

BC: Or hear the fast talk.

AAJ: Since you arrived here you’ve recorded with a who’s who, a roll call, of great musicians.

BC: Well, it’s been with some of the very fine musicians and people that have really moved music, so that’s been a blessing. That’s what I came here to do. In fact, I was with a very fine group before I left Cleveland. We were making good money working six, seven nights a week, and after hours spots on the weekend, and commercial recording during the day, doing jingles and things like that.

AAJ: Sounds like you were having a good time. What made you decide to make the move to New York?

BC: Well, the group that I was playing with was a fine group, but we weren’t going to the different places around the world that I thought we should be going [to], so I severed my ties temporarily with Cleveland. I [knew] a bassist named Morris Edwards who played with Illinois Jacquet, and I met him every time they came to Cleveland. So when I got to New York Morris was one of the few people that remembered me. So many people came to Cleveland and said “When you get to New York, call me.” But Morris remembered and he hooked me up with one of New York’s finest bass players, guy by the name of Ben Tucker, who was playing with Marian McPartland and Billy Taylor. He had a room available in his apartment in Brooklyn and I stayed with him for a few months.

AAJ: I just listened to your CD (Walking Bass) and in your version of “Manteca” there’s a refrain you repeat throughout that goes “We always go back to Dizzy.” Two of the songs on the disc are by Dizzy, and you dedicate the album to him. What was it about Dizzy that inspired this reverence?

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