Carmel Jazz Fest Presents: Tim Cunningham
Table of Contents
FRI, AUGUST 11TH, 2023
9 PM – 10:30 PM
SAT, AUGUST 12TH, 2023
11 AM – 12:30 PM
For decades, the words “smooth, sultry, cool, & funky” have been used to describe Cunningham’s high-energy and emotional stage show, as his sexy blend of smooth jazz and soulful R&B connects with people of all ages, races and genres of music. This unique and versatile style has earned Cunningham the pleasure of opening for such jazz greats as Dave Koz, Norman Brown, Brian Culbertson and George Benson. On the flip side, his bumpin’ R&B flavor has on occasion paired him with Earth, Wind & Fire; Cameo; Boyz II Men; Patti Labelle; Frankie Beverly; Jeffrey Osborne and the late Luther Vandross.
Signed to Atlantic Records in 1996, his first major label release, “Right Turn Only,” featured the efforts of Will Downing, Brian Culbertson, Kevin Whalum and Bobby Lyle. Its featured single, “This is the Life,” hit #19 on the Smooth Jazz Chart and received much international airplay. Cunningham’s additional CD credits include “Sax Change Operation,” “A Change in Altotude,” “Waiting For Love,” “Inner Peace” and “Manchester Road,” which was picked up by Nite Breeze Music/Universal in 2008. His 2011 release, entitled “Reflection,” features a cool collection of original tracks packed with smooth grooves and emotional ballads. The “Tim Cunningham Live” album, where he covers some of his favorite songs, was released in 2012.
Cunningham’s latest exceptional CD, entitled “Freedom,” was released in October 2022.
Don’t miss out on Tim Cunningham’s set and grab your Carmel Jazz Fest tickets at carmeljazzfest.org!
Janelle Morrison: You’re from the same area that Carmel Jazz Fest Executive Director/Founder Blair Clark is from, right?
Tim Cunningham: Blair and I grew up in the same city: Lansing, Michigan. And being musicians, we’ve known each other from working on various gigs and that kind of thing.
JM: I read that you played football at Michigan State, but luckily for us, you chose your passion for music over a professional career in the NFL.
TC: In junior high school, I started playing saxophone in the 7th grade. And when I got to high school, fortunately, there was a jazz band, which a lot of schools didn’t have. I was able to perform in the jazz and concert bands while I was playing football [and] basketball and running track. I was very fortunate to get a football scholarship to Michigan State. I never really thought that I [would], because there were 120 plus guys on the team and only 22 positions. But I ended up starting my freshman year.
My junior year, I switched my major from music to telecommunications, which was something else that I loved. My scholarship was only good for five years, and since I was really involved with playing football, it would have taken six years to finish up a music major. I had the opportunity to sign with the [Dallas] Cowboys as a free agent. They came to the table and offered me a $1,000 signing bonus and $40,000. A lot of people asked why I didn’t do that, and even though this was 40 years ago, that wasn’t a lot of money to play football. My roommate was a first-round pick — Carl Banks — who got picked by the New York Giants, and he was making like $600,000. So, I turned down the contract and finished my degree in telecommunications.
JM: At what point did you decide to focus more on your music and start recording?
TC: First of all, I had to practice. I was a decent player but not to the point of David Sanborn and all these great players. And not that I am now; I’m just saying I really needed to practice to get to the next level. When I got to the point that I thought it was good enough to go out and search for a record deal, nobody would even respond. I sent my demo to several companies. The one company that had the decency to send me a letter saying, “We listened to your music, but it’s just not for us,” ended up signing me two years later. I got that deal with Atlantic Records in 1994, and the album came out in 1996.
JM: There’s been a transformation of the smooth jazz industry as a whole, but specifically the whole cutting of an album process in the last 20 years, right?
Sadly, a couple of years after the album came out, Atlantic totally shut down the jazz label, and the smooth jazz [radio] stations started to drop, and they all went by the wayside. Then I began producing my own CDs, and fortunately, I got my first computer in 1997 and recording software just 3–4 years later. That’s basically what I’ve been doing: emailing tracks back and forth, and this whole project that I just did was done in the basement, not in a studio. When I got all the tracks together, I emailed them to the guy who mixed it in Detroit, and I sent the final mix over to a guy in Oregon who did the mastering for me, and there was no studio money [spent] at all.
JM: You’ve performed at various events and festivals in Indianapolis, but this will be your debut here in Carmel.
TC: I’ve been here in St. Louis since 1994, and I play a couple of local spots, but I’m doing my own shows and promoting my own shows. I ran into Blair last year, and he told me he was doing this festival, and I was like, “That would be cool.” I’ve played in Indianapolis a couple of times. I did the Circle City Classic a couple of times, but it’s been so long since I’ve played there. It’s going to be nice to come back [to Indiana], and I’ll be coming back in February for the NBA All-Star Game, which will be fun.
JM: I think the stories and emotions told through a saxophone are some of the most soulful sounds on the planet. I think people coming out and supporting jazz festivals is cathartic for the soul. Why do you think it’s important for folks to come out and experience live music and jazz festivals?
TC: The saxophone is the closest thing to the human voice; it makes you feel good. I think it’s important for them to go out and see [musicians] and listen to music. Quite honestly, a lot of people like instrumental music because it doesn’t interfere when they’re listening. What I do, specifically, when I release a CD, is focus on the melody. I believe the melody is the most important part of a song that people can remember. They always remember the chorus of a song but might not remember the verses. That’s why they call it the “hook,” because it’s basically hooking you to the song.