Chicago Drummer Jeremy Cunningham Delivers Personal Message on Gun Violence


Drummer Jeremy Cunningham enlisted Jeff Parker, Jaimie Branch, Makaya McCraven and others to play on his new album.

(Photo: Connor Lane)

About 12 years ago, drummer Jeremy Cunningham had plenty of reasons to feel that his life was going great. He was finishing a rigorous program at the University of Cincinnati’s conservatory and had plans to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music. But everything changed on Jan. 5, 2008, when his brother, Andrew, was murdered during a home invasion and robbery in Cincinnati. Cunningham experienced shock, horror and sorrow at the news—but also a determination to respond.

“It was always something that was in the back of my mind: How can I write something that would honor my brother,” Cunningham said. “How can I let people understand what happens to a person, to a family, a community as a result of gun violence? It took me a long time to be able to gather all of the things I needed to make that happen.”

Cunningham tells that story through a combination of music, recorded conversations and spoken recitations on The Weather Up There (Northern Spy). The album’s tone conveys myriad emotions as his rage surrounding this crime runs alongside sunnier childhood memories. Dynamic, sometimes ethereal, grooves deliver these thoughts in surprising ways. Sparse instrumental arrangements move from nuanced electric keyboard passages to a drum choir that includes fellow Chicagoans Mike Reed and Makaya McCraven.

A conversation with Reed also sparked Cunningham’s decision to make the album about more than just his brother’s death. “Mike asked me if I was going to tell my daughter about how my brother died or am I going to tell her other things about him,” Cunningham said. “And I said, ‘You’re right, I can’t just make this about the worst day of his life. It has to be a full picture of the person.’”

Other artists inspired Cunningham as well, especially colleagues he met in Chicago shortly after moving to the city a decade ago. Those earlier collaborators—such as saxophonist Caroline Davis and trumpeter Marquis Hill—inform his composition style today. He also built a longstanding bond with guitarist Jeff Parker, who co-produced The Weather Up There with Cunningham and Paul Bryan. Cunningham credits Parker for interweaving spoken testimonials with the drum choir on “Elegy.”

“Jeff found a moment where my sister and brother’s best friend said the same thing in the exact same way,” Cunningham said. “He made a break and it goes to my aunt talking about how she was talking about gun control and the person responded that the right to own a gun is more important than human tragedy. It fades out and fades in with me bashing away.”

As Cunningham worked with Parker and Bryan to turn motifs into fully formed compositions, he also wrote with other longtime associates in mind, including saxophonist Josh Johnson. But he also allowed space for them to bring in their own ideas.

“Jeremy might have had a song that wasn’t quite what it had the potential to be, then they would change arrangements and there would be a different prompt for me to work from,” Johnson said. “Sometimes that meant taking the song and completely turning it on its head. That’s exciting and speaks to his dedication to getting it right.”

The Weather Up There also adheres to Cunningham’s altruistic ideals. Growing up, he contemplated becoming a surgeon, thinkging it was the best way to help people. Now, he hopes to raise awareness about gun violence and about laws that would restrict access to weapons like the assault rifle used to murder his brother.

“You turn on the news right now you’ll hear a terrible story,” Cunningham said. “Maybe hearing [a news] story isn’t enough. Maybe you have to experience it a different way.” DB

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed the photo of Jeremy Cunningham. Connor Lane is the photographer. DownBeat regrets the error.

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