In Memoriam: Ronnie Cuber, 1941–2022

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Cuber had the ability to bring out the lyricism of the baritone saxophone.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Saxophonist Ronald Edward Cuber passed away on Oct. 7. He was 80.

Known on stage as Ronnie, Cuber drew praise as a master of the baritone saxophone, performing as a sideman with an expansive, wide-ranging number of artists and groups. On the jazz side, Cuber was a staple of Eddie Palmieri’s band, drawing condolences and praise from the great Latin jazz pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader.

“In memory of my dear friend Ronnie Cuber who just passed away, he was truly one of a kind,” Palmieri wrote on social media. “Known mostly for his musicianship on the baritone saxophone, his contributions to an eclectic array of musical recordings span over 60 years. Ronnie delivered tasteful phrases on my album Harlem River Drive and his solo on “Coast To Coast” is one that epitomizes the type of range Ronnie always carried as a remarkable session player. He is one of those people who will forever live in my heart and the memories we shared on the bandstand and in studios will always be cherished. Thank you, Ronnie, may your spirit roam free and be blessed!”

Cuber had the ability to bring out the lyricism of the baritone. He played traditional jazz in the style of Pepper Adams and Nick Brignola, but also has led Latin sessions and appeared on dozens of pop and blues recordings as an in-demand sideman.

Cuber was born on Christmas Day, 1941, in New York. When he was 18, he appeared in Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band at the Newport Jazz Festival. Three years later he was in Slide Hampton’s groups and spent the 1960s working with Maynard Ferguson, George Benson, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and Lonnie Smith. During the next decade, Cuber performed on a wealth of recordings and embraced distant ends of the woodwind family by playing flute and baritone saxophone on Eddie Palmieri’s 1973 record Sun Of Latin Music. While working with Lee Konitz in the late ’70s, Cuber featured clarinet and soprano saxophone alongside the baritone. He recorded his own Cuber Libre in 1976 and released a succession of traditional jazz records in the ’80s and beyond, such as Live At The Blue Note and The Scene Is Clean (Milestone).

Among the pop and blues musicians who recruited Cuber for sessions were Chaka Khan, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, David Byrne, Paul Simon and B.B. King. In 1998, Cuber played on and arranged the Three Baritone Saxophone Band’s tribute disc Plays Mulligan.

“Ronnie was kind of a hard-edged cat, as we all knew, but there was also a soft side to him that made you like him and want to listen to his stories, and he had a lot of ’em,” drummer Steve Johns stated in a social media posting. “He was a musician’s musicians that truly knew what he wanted. Cuber was one of cats that made you realize that this is why you move to NYC. Ronnie set the level high for us all.”

“When I first heard mentor/music legend Ronnie Cuber had passed away, the 1993 The Scene Is Clean (Milestone) recording session immediately popped into my head,” said bassist Reggie Washington on social media. “Ronnie was pissed at pianist Geoff Keezer for not taking the music seriously. At the end of his rant (and the rehearsal) he said: ‘Do you know who the hell I am? I’m Muthafu@king Ronnie Cuber … and this rehearsal is over!’ I looked at my big brothers, drummer Victor Jones and legendary percussionist Milton Cardona (R.I.P.), and they motioned me out the door! The next day was as if it never happened and the session (as you can hear) was great! I’m gonna miss you, Ronnie. I learned so much from you.” DB



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