Ronnie Cuber, a saxophonist and flutist who primarily played the baritone and whose stampeding solo approach landed him in top big bands in the 1960s and '70s and leading jazz, rock, pop, Latin, funk and soul orchestras and combos in the 1980s and beyond, including the Saturday Night Live band, died October 7. He was 80.
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 at the time when hospital surgeries were put on hold to deal 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 his neck. Though the infection was resolved at the hospital, the 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.
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 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, most recently recording solos on Michael Abene's WDR Big Band album recently released.
Ronnie helped advance and widen the heavy soul-jazz and jazz-rock sound of the baritone saxophone increasingly found on albums and in TV house bands in 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 late 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. Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears didn't routinely feature a baritone saxophone.
In tribute to Ronnie, here is my two-part interview with him combined in 2011 on his years with Maynard Ferguson. I have also added 11 favorite clips plus bonus tracks...
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 saxophonist. 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.
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 pianist 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. 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. It was like big band time for me.
JW: How did you get the call to join Maynard Ferguson’s band in 1s963?
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 his album A Message From Newport in 1958.
JW: Was playing with the Ferguson band as exciting as that music was to hear?
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. Maynard 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.
JW: Did kids often get snotty with musicians when bands played clubs and ballrooms?
RC: Yes. It also happened quite a bit when I was with Woody’s band in 1967. I remember one time we were on a break, walking around, and I had a paper cup with a beer. Some kid came over and smacked it right out of my hand. He had his buddies around. That really took me by surprise. I thought the kid was crazy.
JW: What did you do?
RC: I looked over and saw Woody watching me. I had to think fast. Should I start something or is Woody waiting for me to back off and leave it alone? Or did he want me to fight? I just stepped back and acted like nothing had happened. Woody never said anything. To this day I don't know whether he approved or not.
JW: Did you play in New York with Ferguson?
RC: Yes. I remember we played Birdland quite a bit. Back then, when you went to Birdland, there would almost always be another band opposite you. On some weeks there might even be three bands on the bill. One time, there was the Irene Reid Trio and The Jack McDuff Quartet with George Benson. Another time, we did a week opposite King Curtis.
JW: What did you think of him?
RC: He was good. I had a habit of leaving my horn on my chair when I went to get a drink on break. On one occasion I was sitting there at the bar watching King Curtis on stage. All of a sudden he picked up my baritone and was looking at the reed. I guess it was all funky and stuff, and he was trying to clean it off with his thumbnail. He went to play it and nothing came out. I had a kind of hard reed but he finally got it to play. I used a 3½ with a large-tip opening. [laughs]
JW: Of all the tunes you're on with Ferguson, I think I dig Lady’s in Love from Color Him Wild the most.
RC: [Laughs]. When I was on the Mingus Big Band in 2001, trumpeter Kenny Rampton was listening to a track on his iPod. He came over to me and asked me to listen. It was Lady's in Love. When I heard the baritone solo, I said, “Wow, who is that?” Kenny said, “It’s you” [laughs].
JW: Were the Ferguson charts tough to record in the studio?
RC: Not really. They were already played through on the road. We just went into the studio and knocked them off for albums—a couple of takes for each tune. When I’d hear Maynard’s high notes on live gigs, like on tunes like Maria, he’d leave you in suspense. You’d think, “Wow, is he going to make it?” And every night he’d hit that triple high-C.
JW: How did he get up there?
RC: He told us he had a little secret that enabled him to get ready for high triple-Cs. He said he’d tighten the muscles in his stomach, which would give him support. I also noticed he’d always have these thick-soled English brogue shoes. He’d give a stamp with his left or right foot to really get grounded before hitting the high notes.
JW: How did you travel around, by bus?
RC: No, we traveled in three station wagons. I guess it was the cheapest way to go. Guys in the band who drove would earn extra money. In my car, alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan drove. We’d go through snowstorms and everything, and be out for two weeks at a time. There would be long drives, too, like from Chicago to New York. We’d take uppers to stay awake. Maynard had his own car, but other times he’d ride with the car I was in.
JW: By the late '60s, rock was coming in.
RC: Yeah, I was with Woody’s band by then. We’d play things like MacArthur Park, which I absolutely hated, and Light My Fire. Awful stuff for a big band.
JW: Did you sense the music was changing?
RC: Yeah. The popularity of rock was astonishing in the late '60s. I sensed I had to be flexible to earn. I knew I had to keep my jazz chops. A lot of young guys got on bands in the early '60s and forgot that they might not always be sitting on a bandstand reading music.
JW: What did you do?
RC: I was tight with band pianist Mike Abene. We always made sure to jam in the afternoon when we got to a gig. While everyone else was at the hotel, we’d play some tunes just to get away from the big band thing. By playing charts all the time, you risk getting stale and mechanical. I also didn’t get much solo space in the band, so jamming kept my chops strong. Or Mike and I would join jam sessions in different towns.
JW: You left Maynard in 1965. Why?
RC: There was a point in time when Maynard disbanded and moved to India. He had some tax problems as well. I moved on. In the '60s I recorded with people like Dr. Lonnie Smith, George Benson and Woody. In the '70s there were many dates for Creed Taylor's CTI label, with Esther Phillips and others. I've been busy ever since, both as a sideman and soloist. But Maynard's band was special. It was a terrific experience that I think about every day.
Here are 11 favorite clips of Ronnie in action:
Here's the Newport Youth Band in 1959 playing Brunch, an Ernie Wilkins chart, with solos by Harry Hall on trumpet, Ronnie on baritone saxophone and Mike Abene on piano...
Here's the band playing Tiny Kahn and Al Cohn's Tiny's Blues in 1959, with solos by Benny Jacobs-El (trombone), Andy Marsala (alto sax), Ronnie (baritone sax) and Mike Abene (piano)...
Here's Ronnie with the George Benson Quintet playing George Wallington's Godchild in 1962...
Here's Roinnie soloing onThe Song Is You, recorded with Maynard Ferguson in 1963...
Here's Ronnie's monster solo on Lady's in Love with Maynard Ferguson in 1964...
Here's Ronnie playing Sudwest Funk with Barry Harris (p) Sam Jones (b) Albert Tootie" Heath (d) in 1976...
Here's Ronnie with Sam Noto on Notes to You in 1977...
Here's Ronnie with the Lee Konitz Nonet soloing on Giant Steps in 1977, with solos by Burt Collins on trumpet, Lee on alto saxophone, Lee and Ronnie together on a sax soli, with Kenny Washington on drums...
Here's Ronnie playing Whiter Shade of Pale with the Gadd Gang in 1988...
Here's Ronnie on Dig with Kenny Drew Jr. on piano in 1995...
Here's Ronnie in action with trumpeter Randy Brecker, and saxophonist Bill Evans with the SoulBop Band in San Sebastian Jazz Festival in 2003, backed by (I believe) Dave Kikoshi on piano, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Victor Bailey on bass and Steve Smith on drums...
Bonus 1: Here's Bret Primack's tribute to Ronnie...
For Bret's on-camera interview series with Ronnie, go here.
Bonus 2: From Roberta Arnold, Ronnie's road manager and former wife who knew him since 1959, here's Ronnie at the Novisad Serbia Jazz Festival in Serbia in 2007 with the incomparable pianist Kenny Drew Jr., drummer Steve Johns and bassist Ruben Rodriguez...
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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