The Professor Speaks! Our Interview with Adrian Cunningham

Over the years, Adrian Cunningham has made his mark on the jazz scene. Knowing a bit of his background, I wanted to interview him, but I began with something I was surprised to say!

Schaen Fox: You are the only artist I’ve interviewed without a Wikipedia entry.

Adrian Cunningham: I think I do, and it is in German for some reason. I remember seeing that once. Musicians have people make them for them, but I haven’t done it myself. Yeah, here it is. If you Google “Adrian Cunningham, Wikipedia” you will see it in German. Now why that is, is beyond me, but I am officially in Wikipedia in the great Deutschland.

I’ve enjoyed reading your column in The Syncopated Times. Do you do a lot of writing?

No. That’s pretty much the only thing I do, the monthly column in that paper, and I have written liner notes for my own albums. They contacted me because they like the kind of cheeky things I post on Facebook to make people laugh. They asked, “Do you want to do a column?” two or three years ago. I’ve done 50 or 60 articles for them. It’s an enjoyable challenge.

Are there any other members of your family or your parent’s friends who have made music their career?

Hot Jazz Jubile

No, I started on the piano when I was 11. My brother took up drums in high school, but he never took it further. I think our parents thought music would help round out our education. That is how it started. For some reason I took to music. It was something I was pretty good at. I was by no means a prodigy, or a gifted kid, but I very much enjoyed it.

How did your family react to your decision to make music your career?

I remember my mum was a little concerned about the stability of my career choice. Because I really love animals, she was hoping I would be a veterinarian. But they were always very supportive of me playing music. My dad passed away when I was 21, so he never got a chance to see what I got do with it, but they were very proud of everything I did musically.

What attracted you to jazz?

My first real exposure was from my father. He loved early jazz: Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Woody Herman. Both my parents loved music, and my dad especially loved Louis Armstrong. My brother and I spent our youth combing through our dad’s 78 collection, and loving the sound. It was like from another world, so foreign to us. So, the music drew me to it. Then I studied piano, like I said, but that was essentially classical. When I was 16, at my high school they had a saxophone and clarinet available for me to try out. At that point I made the connection between those instruments and jazz. I gravitated towards playing along with old records. So, it was essentially my dad that got me passionate about the music.Adrian Cunningham


Was there much of a chance to hear jazz outside your home, like on TV, the radio or in clubs?

I had some great mentors that I grew up listening to: Tom Baker, who was actually originally a Californian, but he has been in Australia a long time. He, and his band were a big influence on me as a teenager, because my dad loved his band. He and a Sidney clarinet player called Paul Furnace were very big mentors to me as a teenager, especially with traditional music.

Please tell us about your career in Australia.


I went through the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. That was my formal study after high school. I did an honors degree in clarinet performance and jazz. I got a decent grounding and made good musical contacts. I worked up until I was 31 when I moved to America. In that time, I had a pretty successful career in Sydney. I had my own quartet, and we did three or four albums before I left. We used to sell out the jazz clubs. It was a great time. On top of that, I was doing a lot of commercial work and TV studio bands. That was a real joy because TV gigs are so well organized. It was a big leap of faith to give all of that up. The year before I left, I was earning a six-figure salary. When I got to New York, the first year I earned a four-figure salary. [Laughs] Talk about suffering for your art.

Why did you decide to give that up and live here?

Let me answer with a question: How many Australian jazz musicians can you name that didn’t come to America?


Australia has some wonderful musicians, but essentially jazz is American music, so if you want to live and breathe a language, you have to be absorbing the culture where that language comes from. To be a great technician on your instrument and to just listen to recordings is not enough. The lessons I’ve gotten since coming to America, and living in New York, and learning from the masters who we all grew up listening to, that is the sort of thing you can’t get when you are 10,000 miles away.

Australia is a great place to live. You can get good gigs, but it is just not part of the lineage of the music. For me, it was really important to be all in. When I came as a tourist in 2007, the year before I moved, I was so inspired. I thought if I stayed in Australia, I’d have a great career. but if I didn’t go to New York, I’d always regret not knowing what could have been.


Have you noticed any differences in the cultures of the jazz musicians in Sydney and those here?

Oh, enormously different, and that comes from the cultures of the countries. Australia is a beautiful place to live. Everything is easy, the living standard is very high, the food is great, the weather is great, but everyone is a little bit complacent. It is like that old story: The two young fish swimming down the river and the old fish swims by and says, “The water feels good today.” They look at each other and say, “What water?” You have to get out of it to realize what it is. Australia, as amazing as it is, when I go back now, I want to shake everybody and say, “Wake up! Why are you so apathetic?” There is something about New York, the drive, it is a struggle every day. Australia is a beautiful place to live, but the musicians, and I’m speaking very broadly, are a bit complacent, because they don’t have to work hard to pay the rent or compete with the best in the world.

I caught up with a friend last night, a wonderful piano player, Dimitri Landrain. He is from France, and has been in New York about 10 years. We were saying that there is nowhere like this in the world. Such a tough city brings out the best in everybody. It’s just the finest musicians anywhere in the world. There are world class musicians all throughout the world, but the concentration of them here, on a daily level here is inspiring to hear. New York right now is obviously shut down, but generally speaking, inspiration on a daily level, hearing world class musicians, a lot of which I’ve just never heard of, I’m just blown away by the concentration and level of musicianship here. Its unparalleled.

David Ostwald Armstrong Eternity Band
Louis Armstrong Eternity Band at Birdland with Bria Skonberg and Adrian Cunningham.

Considering all the classic jazz selections you regularly play, why did you settle in New York rather than New Orleans?

Overall, because New York is where everything is at. New Orleans wouldn’t be a bad place to live, too. I’ve been there a handful of times, and of course it is amazing every time. But, for someone who appreciates all of the styles of music, and I don’t mean just jazz, but everything, and to be at the vanguard of it all where the best musicians are doing new things, New York is the better choice for me. I think for lifestyle reasons too, New Orleans is pretty lazy, but New York has that driving factor.

When you were in NOLA, did you visit any jazz shrines?

I went to roughly Louis’s birth area near the quarter. Of course, I went to the French Quarter, Congo Square, and Preservation Hall and heard the band there. I’m not particularly one who celebrates graves or anything like that. For me, once you are gone, you’re gone. For me it is more about exploring the city and who are the great musicians now. From that point, I heard some incredible New Orleans musicians, Wendell Brunious and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. There are just so much great, great musicians down there that continue the tradition. They get it down there, they really do. It’s in the city.

There are very few places in the world where you feel music is a part of it. Australia doesn’t have a musical identity of its own. Even our great anthems and the songs that we love are melodies stolen from England and Ireland. So, Australia doesn’t have a tradition of music that is in our blood. Part of that is Australia is too young to find its own.

I read that when you moved to New York, you came with enough money to last six months. How well did the plan work?

I had essentially six months to live from without making anything. I knew that even if I didn’t make one dollar, I could survive rent and everything for about six months. It was scary as hell, I mean you were leaving everything behind, and not knowing anybody. My mentality was, “I’m not going to worry about the future. I’m just going to give it everything for six months, and then I’ll worry about it. So, I really made the most of every opportunity. I went to all the jam sessions. Any time I sat in with a band, and the bandleader said, “You know there is a band at bla, bla, bla, you should go and sit in with them.” I did it. I made sure it was my mission to follow through on every lead I had. New York is, despite the competitiveness, a very open place. At that time to, I was busking in Central Park, for the first year or so, three or four days a week, and bringing in pretty reasonable money. In terms of living standards, I could kind of get by. So, after six months I could say, “Okay, I’m not saving money, but things are happening, and I’m starting to see the potential of bringing in more.” It was a long road. I don’t think there was a simple penny dropping moment, but it just went from there.

Please tell us more about your busking days, I read that some famous people interacted with you.

It is amazing the people you’ll see: Owen Wilson rode by on his bike and dropped a $20 in our bucket. Keith Jarrett was hanging out one day while we were playing in the park. That was pretty extraordinary, although I didn’t know it was Keith Jarrett until afterwards. He was just sitting on a bench for about 15 minutes. When he got up, one of the guys said, “Oh my God, that is Keith Jarrett,” and he went over to talk to him. He said, “That sounds great guys.” And that was it. Alec Baldwin was walking through, and gave us a tip.

[Years later] I played at Alec Baldwin’s wedding, and that was pretty cool, lots of famous people. Woody Allen was there, and went straight to the buffet table. He seemed as awkward a dude as he appears in the movies. That is another great thing about New York. Everyone is just there, and it feels like we are all in it together. I was walking around the reservoir with my girlfriend in Central Park and Bruce Willis was walking with a friend. We kind of followed him for 50 meters or so, trying not to be creepy.

Professor Adrian Cunningham and Ed Polcer perform at the Colorado Springs Jazz Party. (Tony Mottola photo, courtesy NJJS)

You listened to these American recordings, what was it like when you first met some of those players, say Sonny Rollins?

I’ve never seen Sonny Rollins live. He is the first non-traditional musician that really clicked with me, because his playing is so melodic and sophisticated. It is out of the traditional palate, but there is still something so innately powerfully musical about it. His sense of melody really grabbed me, and he plays so many great old songs too. The way he could interpret melody was really powerful for me to hear. So, being in New York, there has been so many great musicians that I have happened to hear and meet, that is another reason why I am here, because you hear everybody. It’s very rare that you hear great musicians touring Australia. It’s a big deal, but in New York, any night of the week you can look at the guide and say, “Who am I going to hear tonight?” because I have to choose. It’s pretty amazing like that.

Aren’t there other musicians in New York from down under? I’m surprised that you didn’t have some form of support when you moved.

There’s a good community of musicians, and some I’m good friends with: Nick Hempton, a great musician and beautiful saxophonist, is one. Another close friend, Jason Campbell, is a wonderful guitarist, has actually moved back to Australia since the pandemic. Those two were here longer than me. I certainly reached out to them, had some beers and caught up, but other than that I was on my own. Of course, there is Nicki Parrott who I admire greatly, I’ve done a lot of festivals with her over the years. She is a special cat. Broadly speaking, I don’t particularly want to be deeply associated with Australian musicians. If I wanted to do that I could have just stayed in Australia. I wanted to learn from the American musicians, and see what New York could offer.

The person I most associate you with is Wycliffe Gordon. Assuming you spend time together off the bandstand, what is he like to be around?

I like to say about Wycliffe that he is the closest I’ll ever get to feeling the spirit of Louis Armstrong. There is something magical about the man, not only musically, that speaks for itself, but as a human being. Everything I’ve experienced with him is about positivity, love and acceptance. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say a bad word about anybody. He is just an extraordinary human being. The biggest lessons I’ve learned since being in America are with Wycliffe. That’s probably the biggest positivity about being here. He is a super easy guy. He loves to hang. He is always responsible about his work. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention. If you are all hanging out, he will make sure you are included. He’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve worked with, well of anyone I know even.

In addition to Wycliffe, are there any other musicians that you have worked with that have standout personalities?

What popped into my head was playing with Wynton Marsalis and Vince Giordano. It was a gig I did with Wynton and Vince at the Brooks Brothers because Wynton is endorsed by them. That was the only time I had a close experience performing with Wynton. He is a really gracious human being, which was surprising, because I have heard a lot to the contrary. I imagine maybe he has mellowed as he has gotten older. He was really gracious and an incredible presence on the stage, as a person and a performer. You really feel something extraordinary about that.

And Vince Giordano is a very, very unique and inspiring human being. I think he’s got to be totally insane to keep up what he has been doing for the last 40 years. I’ve never met anybody like him. He is an extraordinary man that you can talk about for hours. He owns a second house just next door filled with music and memorabilia. Who do you know that has that? His incredible energy on stage is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It drives the band singlehandedly. He is so focused and knowledgeable about the very early ’20s Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, all that style of playing. It is very unique, even Louis Armstrong’s stuff is different.

Adrian Cunningham at the Vail Jazz Party. (photo by Mark Robbins)

I’ve never had a bandleader that knows what he wants so specifically, and in a good way too. I was in Vince’s band full time for two years, leading the sax section, which was no small feat considering you’ve got Mark Lopeman, Dan Levinson, and Andy Stein, a sax section that’s really amazing. I was a kind of wet behind the ears, relatively young cat trying to lead these guys; a daunting task, but Vince knows exactly how to get out of you what you need. Let’s say for example I have a problem with my articulation or my time feel was a little bit funny in some passages or something, he’ll say, “Okay, what I want you to do is just be on the beat a little more, or do this, or do that.” Not only will he say that to you, then he’ll go home that night and e-mail three examples of how he wants it to sound. So, I’ve never met a bandleader that is so tuned in on what he wants, and can give you specific examples from recordings. From that point of view, what I learned from Vince was unbelievable. I mean, the Lincoln Center hires Vince to come in and talk about this stuff, because there is no one else that gets it as deeply. So, to get a first-hand education from a guy like that was really amazing.

[Also read Adrian’s column: My Time With The Nighthawks]

Have you read much about your long-gone jazz heroes, and who are the most interesting as people, not artists?

Oh yeah, I have read a lot of biographies, [and] they were all bloody nuts. In terms of spirit and just the essence of human being, I think Louis Armstrong sounds like the most extraordinary person. He is one guy that every story I hear is about warmth and generosity. He just seems like an extraordinary human being. Sidney Bechet sounds like a real character, getting into a gunfight in the streets of Paris because he was arguing about the chord changes with another musician.

Stan Getz for example, you think, “How could anything but a beautiful human being come up with this beautiful round sound?” But everything I heard about the guy was, “This guy wasn’t nice at all.” I’m sure he had a beautiful side, but I don’t think he showed it that often. To equate that to their music, in terms of their personalities, it’s incredible to think, “This guy was probably a total jerk.”

I’ve read a lot of books about Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw because I’ve done a lot of clarinet shows. Those two, probably completely nuts, but incredibly focused and driven. Benny being super competitive, and Artie Shaw, I think, was the biggest earning person in show business at one point. So incredibly rich, and all he wanted to do was write books. He didn’t even enjoy music, he just wanted to be respected as an author. These guys are insane, amazing.

Do you have any career souvenirs people visiting you can see?

Physical? Not really. No. I keep some posters from gigs I’ve done. Most of my souvenirs are digital photos or recordings. If it is a really great concert, I’ll keep a recording of that for myself. I tend to try to keep my physical objects down, because, as you know, things tend to build up, and in a New York apartment, things can get pretty crowded pretty quickly.

Please tell us about those concert recordings. Is it the quality of the music or that you were playing with someone special?

I think definitely the musicians, playing with Wycliffe. Yeah, there’s a lot of gigs with Wycliffe that I have kept because they were extraordinary gigs. They weren’t necessarily about, “I want to keep these because we played at Lincoln Center,” or something like that, but because the energy was so amazing. For me, the music itself will speak for whether I keep it.

My band tours a lot, so I like to do funny videos while we are traveling. There is a video we did in Tel Aviv, where we mimed along to a James Brown tune. It was such fun to do. For me, that is an important souvenir, because it’s just the beautiful energy of the festival. We had a good time, and there is something tangible to show for it in terms of a performance. There is another thing which is cool: I played at Carnegie Hall with an orchestra a couple of years ago. That was a beautiful experience that is up on YouTube. It is nice to have that.

Do you also take students?

It has never been something that I have particularly aspired to do, but I’m not against it. It is just that music and performing are my big focus, so that is where much of my energy goes. The occasional student will pick me up for a flute or clarinet lesson. Since the pandemic, I’ve had some Zoom lessons with some students and adults, but nothing regular. My lifestyle over the past how many years hasn’t been conducive to teaching, because I’ve been touring on the road a lot.

Do you have any strong interests outside of music?

Adrian Cunningham Flute
Professor Adrian Cunningham, shown playing hot flute at the 2018 Chicken Fat Ball (photo by Lynn Redmile Photography;

I love tae kwon do. I started that when I was a teenager, and have continued, on and off, for a lot of my life. I’m not training at the moment because everything is shut down, but a couple of times a week, I’ll try to do a little bit myself. There is a punching bag at my gym that I like to have a go at. That is pretty much it. I’m one of those live and breathe music guys. Even though I feel kind of desperate now because it’s a very uninspiring time, there is nothing to practice for. For me, it is such a part of my routine and who I am, I’m still doing three hours of practice. The scary part is if the [pandemic destroys my career], I don’t even know what else I’d want to do.

Is there any film novel or story that you feel captures the life of a musician?

I’ve never really thought about it like that. [Chuckles] Blues Brothers. [Chuckles] But you know what, that’s a movie that I come back to more often than not. When we’re doing a gig, and something funny or stupid happens, I think, “Oh my God! That’s like the Blues Brothers.” That scene where the gig paid $200, but they drank $400 worth of beer, so they owed the bar. You know, I am going to go with Blues Brothers, because there are so many references to the working life of a musician in that movie, it’s too good.

Let’s flip the question. Is there a film that completely missed the mark?

Oh boy. I’m sure a lot of people have said Whiplash, but just thinking out loud, I thought that movie was actually pretty accurate in terms of the education system. Maybe I can separate movies from reality, because if you’re a boxer and you watch Rocky, or if you’re a fighter piolet and you watch Top Gun, you have to realize there is a degree of separation between storytelling and reality. I think any musician who gets up in arms about somebody not portraying it right, just has to take a breath and think, “This is a story. This isn’t about “He’s using a number three reed on the saxophone when he should have been…” You know. I just think, “It’s a story. It’s referencing. I spoke to a drummer who told me, “Some of the things that guy yelled to the student is word for word what teachers have said. I’ve heard more than one person say, “That’s not far off.”

Do you have any new projects that we can look forward to?

I have a few albums coming out. I have a Christmas album which was a collaboration with a great song-writing team down in Florida, Mark Feinmann and Gloria Munoz. Mark is the leader of a band called La Lucha. I’ve known him through the festivals down in Florida. It is a different departure for me, because it is not straight-ahead swinging jazz, but it is beautiful melodies. They have written a great album. I’ve never done a Christmas project before, so this was kind of cool. Then, my band, Professor Cunningham and His Old School, we’ve recorded a whole album a few months ago under lockdown. Arbors Records [released] that in January. That was a fascinating project, because we recorded it basically all in our bedrooms throughout the world. I was here, guys were in Canada, guys were in Spain, and we kind of put it all together. It was different because, as you know, jazz is such a live music. To approach it when not everyone was in the same room was a challenge, but I think it turned out really well. I’m happy with it.

Thanks for doing this. I really enjoyed talking to you.

My pleasure. Keep in touch.

Schaen Fox is a longtime jazz fan. Now retired, he devotes much of his time to the music. Write him at [email protected].

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