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Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber

A black and white image of a man wearing sunglasses playing an oversized saxophone into a microphone with stage lights out of focus behind.
Eddy Berthier
CC0 Public Domain donation via Wikimedia Commons
Baritone Saxophonist Ronnie Cuber at the 2013 Brussels Jazz Marathon in 2013.

You could see him in concerts and on television, working hard to play that big baritone sax, and obviously enjoying every moment of it.  Robin Lloyd remembers the prolific saxophonist Ronnie Cuber.

Ronnie Cuber played tenor and soprano saxes, clarinet and flute, but he specialized in the baritone sax. He worked in big bands, small combos, and with vocalists; in bebop, hard bop, soul jazz, postbop, fusion, Latin Jazz and salsa; and with pop, rock, funk, and blues artists, as well as NBC’s Saturday Night Live band, and with Dr. John and Frank Zappa.

Cuber released 20 albums as a leader, each one with a different ensemble and style.

Born on Christmas Day, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, Cuber began playing clarinet at age nine, switching to tenor saxophone in high school. When he was 17, Cuber auditioned for the Newport Youth Band, joining after its director, Marshall Brown bought him a baritone saxophone.

Cuber moved on to work with George Benson and Slide Hampton. And in 1963, he joined the big band led by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson; then went on to work with Woody Herman’s orchestra in 1967.

Cuber appeared on Eddie Palmieri’s groundbreaking salsa recording “Harlem River Drive.” He also accompanied vocalist Esther Phillips and played on Charles Mingus’ final recording sessions in 1978. After Mingus died, Cuber became a member of the repertory ensembles Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band. He also debuted his own band, Cuber Libre, in 1976.

During the 1980s, Cuber joined the Saturday Night Live band, and also did a lot studio recording work: you can hear him on pop hits like the J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame” in 1981 and Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland.

Right up until he was incapacitated by a fall outside of his home in 2020, Cuber remained a first-call player for many New York big bands, and for Latin jazz projects with Eddie Palmieri, trumpeter Brian Lynch, and trombonists Luis Bonilla and Conrad Herwig.

Complications from that fall led to internal infections. And due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the hospitals had no room for Cuber to get the immediate treatment that he needed. He died on October 7. He was 80 years old.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.