CD of the Week – Ronnie Cuber’s “Ronnie”

Gene Smith rolled tape for about eight hours one early morning in late September 1961.  I wrote about this night at length in the Jazz Loft Project book.  In the wee hours Smith captured a dramatic, harrowing scene with pianist Sonny Clark, saxophonist Lin Halliday, and Lin’s girlfriend Virginia McEwan in the hallway and stairwell of the building.  But earlier, around midnight, before Sonny and Lin showed up, Smith’s tape captured an unknown voice from the sidewalk yelling up to the open 5th floor windows, “Where’s Ronnie Cuber?  Where’s Ronnie Cuber?”  Drummer Frank Amoss, a loft resident at the time, stuck his head out of the window and yelled back, “He’s not here!”  This brief exchange illustrates how things at the loft worked – people dropping by randomly to see who was there, what was going on.

Ronnie, a baritone saxophonist born in New York in 1941, was one of the youngest of the musicians who played in this loft.  I interviewed him in 2000 before his gig with the Mingus Big Band at the Fez Under Time Cafe on Lafayette Street.  I quoted him in the book this way:  “There was more than one loft.  There were several in the area.  But this was a main one, where Jimmy Stevenson lived.  Guys like Joe Farrell and Chick Corea used to go jam there.  Henry Grimes, Gil Coggins, and Lin Halliday, and Walter Davis, Jr. and Vinnie Ruggiero and Nico Bunink.  Guys coming in from everywhere.  Joe Henderson.  He came in from Detroit.  Guys like Blue Mitchell, you know.  Elmo Hope.  I remember Danny Richmond being up there.”

Today, Ronnie is playing as well or better than ever.  His latest CD, “Ronnie,” is a beauty.  He’s put together a wonderful band with Helen Sung on piano, Johnathan Blake on drums, and Boris Kozlov on bass.  Ronnie’s baritone sax expresses a vital, poetic mix of heavy and light sounds through an interesting sequence of standards including “Daahoud” by Clifford Brown, “Ah Leu Cha by Charlie Parker, and “Gloria’s Step” by Scott Lafaro, the three of whom died a half century ago at ages 25, 34, and 25 respectively.  Ronnie’s band mates Sung and Blake are in their 30′s now, two of the top young musicians on the New York scene.  This record feels like the craft of jazz being preserved and extended.  It makes me reach for my copy of one of the great baritone quartet albums, “Blue Serge,” by Serge Chaloff from 1956 with the magnificent Sonny Clark on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Leroy Vinnegar on bass.  “Ronnie” could be heard as an update on that classic.  According to Ronnie’s manager Roberta Arnold (herself a veteran of the 821 Sixth Avenue loft scene), “Ronnie” has been on the top of the jazz radio charts this winter and early spring.  It’s heartening news to hear.

-Sam Stephenson


  1. Tom Wayburn Said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    From the window of the loft at 761 Sixth Avenue, Lin Halliday and I were watching Ronnie cross Sixth Avenue. Lin said, “Notice the don’t-mess-with-me tough guy walk he picked up in Brooklyn.” That was Ronnie. Quiet, tough, and talented.

  2. Roberta Arnold Said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    Talked to Sany a few days ago and meeting her for lunch. Tom! Why don’t you send me an email or call me. Thank you. Roberta

  3. Roberta Arnold Said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    Excuse me. That’s Sandy!