Ronnie Cuber, a baritone saxophonist with a wide and versatile range on his instrument, died October 8 at his studio in New York City. He was 80.
His death was announced by his longtime friend and colleague, pianist Eddie Palmieri, on social media. Cause of death was not disclosed; however, per journalist Marc Myers, Cuber had been suffering from complications related to a fall he took in 2020.
Though he also played tenor and soprano saxes, as well as clarinet and flute, Cuber was one of a relative handful of players who specialized in the baritone saxophone. His virtuosity and muscular style created a high demand for his services, which in turn placed Cuber in a myriad of styles and contexts. He worked in big bands, small combos, and vocal accompaniment; in bebop, hard bop, soul jazz, postbop, fusion, and Latin; and with pop, rock, funk, and blues artists, as well as NBC’s Saturday Night Live band.
His résumé was remarkable. Cuber’s sideman credits extended from Maynard Ferguson, George Benson, and Palmieri to Charles Mingus, Hank Crawford, and Frank Zappa. In addition, he released 20 albums as a leader, each with a different ensemble—these being as wide-ranging and star-studded as his side work. His final recording, 2021’s Tough Baritones, was a co-led session with fellow baritonist Gary Smulyan, accompanied by pianist Gary Versace, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Jason Tiemann.
“Lost a hero today,” saxophonist Jared Sims wrote on Twitter. “I loved his brawling sound and Kool-Aid Man approach to playing. … What an inspiration he was.”
“He was a huge influence on my life and was always very kind to me,” baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus noted. “Thank you for pushing the music forward Ronnie.”
Ronald Edward Cuber was born December 25, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York to Edward Cuber, a handyman, and Marion Cuber, a housewife. At the age of nine he began playing clarinet, switching to tenor saxophone in high school when there was an open seat in the band.
At 17, Cuber auditioned for Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band. “He asked me if I would consider playing baritone,” Cuber recalled to journalist Bret Primack in 2016. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baritone.’ He said, ‘Well, kid, if I buy you one, will you play it?’” Thenceforth, Cuber was a baritone player, modeling his sound after Pepper Adams but also incorporating lessons and licks he’d learned while playing the tenor.
After two years in the Newport Youth Band, Cuber moved on to work with George Benson and Slide Hampton, while making several gigs with dance bands. Then in 1963, he got a call to join the big band led by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson; he toured with the group for two years, then returned to Benson’s band before joining Woody Herman’s orchestra in 1967.
Cuber’s eclecticism only increased in the 1970s. He worked with Dr. Lonnie Smith (a fellow Benson alumnus), Idris Muhammad, and Lee Konitz; appeared on Eddie Palmieri’s groundbreaking salsa recording Harlem River Drive; accompanied vocalist Esther Phillips; and played on Charles Mingus’ final sessions in 1978, Something Like a Bird and Me Myself an Eye. (After the bassist’s passing, Cuber became a member of the repertory ensembles Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band.) He also made his own debut as a leader with 1976’s Cuber Libre. During the 1980s, he joined the Saturday Night Live band and made memorable appearances on pop hits such as the J. Geils Band’s 1981 “Freeze Frame” and Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland.
His work continued unabated in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Cuber remained a top-call player for New York big bands in particular. Along with Palmieri, a perennial collaborator, Cuber worked with Brian Lynch, Luis Bonilla, Conrad Herwig’s “Latin Side” project, and Randy Brecker, and led his own big band on the 1998 album Love for Sale. Cuber also became a regular with soul-jazz icons Dr. John, Hank Crawford, and Jimmy McGriff, and did spells accompanying vocalists Frank Sinatra, Dianne Reeves, and the Manhattan Transfer.
Cuber is survived by Roberta Arnold, his manager and former wife, and two sons, Baird and Shain Cuber.