Tag Archives: Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe and the Grammy that got away

Bill Cunliffe and his Grammy from 2010. Cunliffe lost his bid for two in a row to Billy Childs.

This was a bittersweet year for me at the Grammys. I was there because the orchestral piece, “fourth stream… La Banda,” that I wrote for my friend, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and the Temple University Orchestra, was nominated for Best Original Composition, the first time I’ve been nominated in this category.

I regard it as my best work in this genre. The Temple faculty were so excited that a bunch of them came out, including Dean Robert Stroker, conductor Luis Biava, financial officer Linda Fiore, and development director Tara Webb Duey, and some of their family. The night before, we had a spectacular dinner at Spago, and there was lots of anticipation in the air.

In past years, I’ve never prepared a speech, and never thought I had a chance to win, but . . . THIS YEAR!? We rehearsed our moves, what to say, how for them to follow me up to the podium, etc, etc. We had hoped to be the little engine that could, the tough state school with young musicians and a first time nominee in the category.

But it was not to be. Billy Childs, a friend and colleague, and great composer and jazz pianist, won for his Chamber Jazz Project. A masterpiece, recorded with world class musicians.

The air went out of the room among us. But we put on our game faces, and sat through the rest of the ceremony.

I agree with Branford Marsalis when he recently said that today’s popular music isn’t really for his generation, and that he wanted to pursue what interested him in classical and art music. But, as a professor at Cal State Fullerton, I still am always curious about what the young enjoy in music.  I’m usually quite pleased by my students’ taste. They like things that are alternatively melodic, and, outrageous.

The afternoon ceremony was filled with good vibes; the highlight for me was Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spaulding singing an unaccompanied duet on Miles Davis’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Kathy Griffin was hilarious as MC, many of her comments unprintable here.

The evening ceremony, musically not for people over 50 like myself, nevertheless had some high moments. Barbra Streisand, with a huge orchestra sounding very good despite a shaky opening in “Evergreen;” Mick Jagger singing and strutting around like someone at least twenty years younger; Lady Antebellum demonstrating a pleasing country pop with a lovely female lead. And Cee Lo Green and Gwyneth Paltrow were surprisingly funky and fun.

The Grammys have made, I think, the correct choice in making the thing play well on TV, so the requisite Lady Gaga pop production and choreography got the crowd buzzing, as did Eminem, to me he is a one trick pony, but good at what he does. I might add that the trumpeter Conte Condoli said the same thing about Mussolini.

Hopefully see you again next year!

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A night of magic moves to Vitello’s

For one night only: The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

One of the biggest thrills of my life was winning a Grammy Award earlier this year.

I’ve been nominated three times, and, really, that’s enough. It means your peers respect you and know about what you’re doing, and that’s good enough. I’m savvy enough to know that as a jazz player I’m competing with the universe. But the arranging category is a bit smaller, so the odds of recognition are a little better.

But, I was honored, with the 2010 Best Instrumental Arrangement Grammy for the chart I wrote for Resonance Records’ “Tribute to Oscar Peterson.”

If you go on grammys.com, and scroll to minute 27 of the awards, you can see me, breathlessly running up to the front. I had been sitting in the back with my girlfriend, Wanda Lau, and friends Tierney Sutton and Alan Kaplan, her husband. I wasn’t expecting to win, obviously, so I was way in the back, just talking.

For whatever reason, I had sketched out my “bullet points” in the bizarre case of having to make a speech –  you gotta thank George Klabin, the owner of the label, Resonance Records; the cats in the band; your girlfriend; Oscar Peterson, since I’d borrowed much from him in the arrangement. And, of course, Leonard Bernstein.

When I got up on the stage, I saw a lot of friends sitting in the band – Ron King, Brandon Fields, etc – and I said, to no one in particular, “Yeah, getting an award is nice, but you guys have a GIG! Get me on it!!”

I’ve heard from so many friends about the award, and it’s been a wonderful experience, but I returned to earth very quickly. The next day, I was sitting in my living room with dozens of Cal State Fullerton student schedules sprawled around me, trying to figure out who’s playing in the jazz small groups there. Sigh.

I’m lucky to live in Studio City, just two blocks from a very fine Italian restaurant, Vitello’s. Many of you remember it from the Robert Blake days. I used to take people on my Studio City/Hollywood tour. I’d take them to Blake’s old house, where once, tagged on a wall, were the words “Mata Hari Ranch.” eeecchh! Then I’d take them to Vitello’s and show them “the dumpster.”

Well, OK, not THAT dumpster, but any old one I saw. You just make up things, like the double-decker bus drivers in NYC do. According to them, Madonna lives in about eight different apartments. Then I’d take them to the Brady Bunch house, on Dilling, the one they showed at the beginning of the program. Quite the contrast, don’t ya think?

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The “fourth Stream . . . La Banda”

Terell Stafford and Bill Cunliffe trade musical ideas

Terell Stafford and I have been good friends and musical compatriots for over ten years. He asked me a year or so ago to write something for him to play with his quartet and the Temple University Symphony, something classical, but jazz as well.

It’s tough to make jazz work with a symphony, seeing as the swing 8th notes feel entirely different than the straight ones you have with an orchestra.

But in Latin/salsa/Cuban/Mexican music, this is not a problem, as the 8th notes are straight there, too. Maybe that’s why Latin jazz and classical music work so well together, thinking about the Gershwin Cuban Overture, and Copland’s El Salon Mexico. And, of course, Paquito D’Rivera.

So I decided to do something in the salsa vein, but integrating it firmly with classical music, which was always my first love. The symphony orchestra is my favorite instrument.

I had been ruminating for, oh, maybe four or five years, about doing something on John Lewis’ “Django.” Now if you use his melody, it’s an arrangement, but if you just use a general example of his harmonic outline, then that’s a composition. And I wanted to really do something substantial that expresses a wide range of my interests.

So I decided to write a passacaglia, or bassline, on the harmonic pattern of “Django,” and write a set of variations on that, in the spirit of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, or the Elgar Enigma Variations. The Elgar particularly intrigued me because the theme is often hidden.

As I wrote the passacagla, a simple hymn-like tune in 3/4, I thought I could do so many things with it. We could “blow” on the changes with the jazz band. I could do a free fantasia based on the first few notes. I could construct a 12-tone row based on the rhythm of the passacagia.

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