Yes Indeed!

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Yes Indeed!: The Cover

Notes by Woody Smith

The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was President. The very first “The Simpsons” cartoon was broadcast on “The Tracy Ullman Show” on the brand new Fox network. Iraq was an ally of ours even though they hit the USS Stark with an Exocet missile. The Redskins had the NFL’s best record and won that season’s Super Bowl. The Bangles topped the Billboard charts with their song “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

And the album “Yes Indeed!” became the first record album released by the Tom Cunningham Orchestra, already the hottest big band in the Baltimore/Washington area and getting hotter. This album, Eagle Records release #1, did not sell quite as well as “Walk Like an Egyptian” and unfortunately got much less airplay, alas, even though whole SCADS of folks think it’s MUCH better.

Their style of uptime swing was, and still is, perfect to dance to and a treat for the ears, and they have been performing before large audiences on a regular basis before and ever since.

This album is very rare. You might TRY to find one in stores but good luck there; it’s hard in these latter days when even CDs are passé and the iPods and Zunes rule the roost, to find anything on vinyl even if it went platinum (which, for some inexplicable reason, this album didn’t), anywhere outside of yard sales anymore. Yes Indeed! has never been released on compact disk, and until now was unavailable in digital form in any format.

But here it is. This is it. And if you’ve got that swing, you just can’t get enough.

Good old-fashioned vinyl LPs were HUGE by today’s standards, a whole foot in diameter. While this presented issues of handling and storage that often exhibited themselves in scratches and warping, it had its advantages, particularly in the opportunities it presented for cover art. You just can’t do anything all that interesting on a little CD jewel box, and as for the artwork on the ephemeral digital – sample.mp3, .aac, .wma files and the like, well, it is rapidly becoming a lost art.

When the Tom Cunningham Orchestra decided to release “Yes, Indeed,” back in the days when CD players were the playthings of rich audiophiles, it obviously needed a cover. While they might have paid a rich audiophile’s ransom to Andrew Wyeth or Andy Warhol to commission the artwork, the idea was rejected as impractical under the circumstances that prevailed during those troubled times.

Instead Tom Cunningham and his wife, Robin Sheridan of the fabulous RPMs, decided to turn to Robin’s sister-in-law, Marie Smith, who enjoyed doing clever and amusing wax pencil drawings of animals and such. She created the happy cover art you see above, which pretty much captures the feel of the band and the music — happiness, energy and joy.

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The material on the album was recorded live at The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia, on August 24th and 25th, 1987. Tom turned to the Dean of Washington area jazz DJs, Felix Grant of WDCU FM JAZZ 90 Radio, who provided the following for the back of the album cover:

Quite possibly, the question I have been asked most over the years is — “When are the big bands coming back?” What many people don’t realize is that there are an unbelievable number of big bands functioning today. There is hardly a city, of any size, that does not have a formidable group of musicians capable and eager to play in this style. In addition, there are many schools, colleges and universities offering degrees in music which include big band presentations within their curriculum. The Army, Navy and Air Force have Big Bands that tour regularly with great success. So, the big band is not necessarily a thing of the past — but rather a continuing force in music.

In Washington, D.C. there are several fine bands, and without doubt, one of the best is the group led by Tom Cunningham. Tom was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. He studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston before organizing his own big band in 1976. The band has appeared on Washington radio and television, at inaugural balls, and all of the local jazz clubs; but its “meat and potatoes” has been playing for dancing. This is the band’s first album.

The musicians comprise a total cross-section of age, backgrounds, race, and gender — but all from Washington and the surrounding region. The dean of the band, drummer Mark “Mr. Metronome” Hill, was playing in big bands at least as far back as Lucky Millinder (’41) and Sabby Lewis (’42-’44) — before most of his band-mates were even born.

Musically, the band is among the first to fill a gaping hole in the preservation of jazz: the torch of Traditional Jazz has been well kept by a fiercely loyal following; the jazz world at large is still actively trying to assimilate the works of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and their followers; while the central, “classical” period has gone virtually unserved. All the more a pity, because it was during this high-flying era that jazz enjoyed its greatest popularity — an era when teenagers could name the top soloists and bands — an era when the people interacted with the artists by dancing, or just crowding around the bandstand — an era when the music was reaching the people; turning them on and drawing them into the world of jazz. Tom believes that this crossroads between America’s art and her people is the proper place to start again; to re-acquaint two old friends who’ve lost touch: America and their jazz music.

The album was recorded on August 24-25, 1987, in “The Barns of Wolf Trap,” in Vienna, Virginia. In keeping with the style of the times, the band taped the music while set up as for a live performance, with a pair of mikes out front to catch the sound just as it would be heard in the flesh. There’s no studio gimmickry here to spoil the spontaneity and completeness of each tune — just sixteen musicians and four singers playing together as a band.

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In this introductory album, Tom has chosen a group of songs that have worn well over the years and, with one exception, are established favorites. That exception is out of the Ellington book — the rare and overlooked “Baghdad.”

Opening the program is MOTEN SWING, a riff tune derived by Count Basie from the chords of “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” back in the early ’30s when he was Bennie Moten’s second piano player. This arrangement was done for Basie’s own band by Ernie Wilkins, and Tom has adopted it as his theme song. It’s basically a four-minute summary of everything that a big band is. Solos are by Jim Moulder (piano), Orrington Hall (tenor) and Tom (trumpet).

The Sy Oliver treatment of CHICAGO finds Ben Kline in the old Tommy Dorsey role, Dave Kaseman as Buddy DeFranco, Tom as Sy, and the RPMs as the Semtimentalists (a.k.a. the Clark Sisters).

The RPMs (for Robin, Patti and Marti) have been close friends and harmonizers since they first met. They blend like sisters, which is fortunate, considering how much of their repertoire is derived from singing sisters: Andrews, Boswell, Clark, etc. CHEEK TO CHEEK dates from the ’30s, when the Boswell Sisters were setting a style that all the other groups would follow.

Juan Tizol, composer of “Perdido” and “Caravan,” wrote BAGHDAD for Duke Ellington during the recording ban of 1943; therefore it’s been largely lost to the world, until now. Solos are by Ben Kline (trombone), Joe Russo (alto), and Tom (trumpet). The extra Latin percussion is by the four singers.

The Fabulous RPM Trio: Marty (top), Patti (left), & Robin (right)

BOOGIE WOOGIE was originally a vehicle for blues shouter Jimmy Rushing, with the Basie band of 1936. Here it serves to introduce young Rod Willoughby. Rod’s career was guided initially by fellow Washingtonian and jazz legend, the late John Malachi. He’s been with Tom since 1985. Featured on tenor is Orrington Hall, whose R&B roots are here very much in evidence. Orrie toured with Tiny “Jersey Bounce” Bradshaw, from 1948-1951, and has recorded with such notable blues artists as Cleanhead Vinson, Winonie Harris, and Lucky Millinder.

Patti Elmore gives a straightforward and beautiful treatment to SUMMERTIME, from a Boyd Raeburn score that originally featured his wife, singer Ginnie Powell.

RAY’S IDEA was written by Ray Brown and arranged by Gil Fuller for the Dizzy Gillespie big band of the late ’40s; one of the all-time great organizations, whose fame suffered from the postwar decline of the bands, bargain-basement recording quality, and mainly from being ahead of their time. Tom’s arranger and one-time band altoist, Don Lerman, takes a guest spot on the tune’s opening solo; he’s followed by Orrington Hall (tenor) and Ben Kline (trombone).

Rod Willoughby and the RPMs blend their voices to make the kind of romantic music that always fills the dance floor on I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN. The trombonist is Ben Kline. Ben made a fine addition to the band during the making of this album, while regular trombonist Ron Smith was in Australia.

The oldest tune in Tom’s library was written by another Washington bandleader, Duke Ellington. The haunting clarinet trio on THE MOOCHE sets the time and place: 1928, the Cotton Club, the “jungle” sound. Solos are by Joe Russo (clarinet), and John Tyler (alto); the growling brasses are Cunningham and Rob Jernigan (trumpets), and Harold Rhoads (trombone).

Count Basie recorded JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE in 1938, with standout solos by Earle Warren (alto), Buck Clayton (trumpet), and Lester Young (tenor). Twenty years later, an inspired Jon Hendricks came up with these “vocalese” lyrics. Thirty years later still, the RPMs are singing and marvelling at the whole creation process. Says Robin, “When I hear the original masterpiece, it’s as if those horn players knew what the lyrics were!” In this version, it’s Marty Bass on the Earle Warren/Dave Lambert solo; Robin Sheridan as Buck Clayton/Annie Ross, and Patti Elmore as Lester Young/Jon Hendricks.

Arranging for Tom Cunningham can be pretty tough — your work is always heard side by side with the giants of arranging — Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver, et.al. The only “in-house” arranger that the band has ever had is Don Lerman. Notice how his chart of LOVER MAN is tailored to Robin Sheridan’s voice, Tom’s trumpet, and Orrington Hall’s tenor.

Tom sings a Sy Oliver vocal once more during YES INDEED! with a little help from Robin Sheridan (in real life Mrs. Cunningham). The lyrics were spruced up just a bit, leaving no doubt as to how they feel about the subject at hand. Amen.

Amen indeed! Not the end, but an affirmation that the big band is alive and well in the hands of Tom Cunningham and remains a potent entity in what is identified as big band jazz.

FELIX GRANT
WDCU-FM JAZZ 90


The Band

Rhythm:
Drums: Mark Hill
Bass: Ward “Hungry” Harris
Piano: Jim Moulder
Guitar: Judd Lees

Saxes:
Alto, Clarinet: Joe Russo
Alto, Clarinet, Flute: John Tyler
Tenor, Clarinet: Orrington Hall
Tenor, Clarinet: Dave Kaseman
Baritone, Clarinet: Robert Greene

Trumpets:
Tom Cunningham
Ron Jernigan
Jeff Seffens
Dave Carlson

Trombones:
Ben Kline
Harold Rhoads
John Pickeral

Vocalists and Latin Percussion:
Rod Willoughby
The RPM Trio:
Robin Sheridan
Patti Elmore
Marty Bass

Production:
Executive Producer: Dave Carlson for Eagle Records
Producer and Director: Tom Cunningham
Recording: Lion and Fox Recording Studios
Chief Engineer: Rob Buhrman
Graphic Art: Crabtree & Jemison, Arlington, Virginia
Original Cover Art: Marie Smith
Photography: Spring Photography, Arlington, Virginia