Click on one of the buttons to the right:

Biography

Jazz pianist, composer and arranger Bill Cunliffe is widely known for his swinging and lyrical pianism and his creativity and invention as a composer and arranger of jazz.  He graduated from Duke University and the Eastman School of Music, where he won several Down Beat Awards.  After graduation, he taught at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio. His first major jazz gig was pianist and arranger  with Buddy Rich, touring Europe with Frank Sinatra. He later  performed  with Ray Brown, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson, Woody Shaw and James Moody.

Bill was the 1989 winner of the $10,000 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Award, and has received stipends from the National Endowment for the Arts. A number of his jazz instructional books  are published by Alfred Publications,  his big band compositions are published by Kendor Music and Otter Music, and his choral music is self-published on his website www.billcunliffe.com.  Bill was Marian McPartland's guest on her famed "Piano Jazz" radio show in June '98.

Cunliffe has released a dozen CD’s as a leader, his latest, which reached the #2 position in the JazzWeek radio polls is Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2, on Resonance Records. He currently performs with his own trio, the Joe LaBarbera Quintet, and in duo with flutist Holly Hofmann.

This year, Bill received a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement for his West Side Story Medley, released on the CD, “The Resonance Big Band Pays Tribute to Oscar Peterson.” He has also been nominated for three Grammys and two Emmys as a composer and arranger. His latest film project is "On The Shoulders of Giants," a documentary about jazz and basketball in Harlem in the 30's, produced by basketball great, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bill has composed extensively for big band, chamber groups, choir and orchestra. His concerto for trumpet and orchestra, “fourth stream… La Banda,” featuring Terell Stafford with the Temple University Symphony, was recently premiered at Alice Tully Hall, in New York and at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia,.  In addition, his performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, that feature jazz trio improvisation have won public acclaim. According to the Wellington (NZ) Times, Bill’s recent concert at the Wellington Jazz Festival was "Best jazz piano since Oscar Peterson." The BBC Review recently said that "Bill Cunliffe is one of the great players of the day." The Atlanta Jazz Journal gave his album A Rare Connection five stars.

He teaches at the Vail Jazz Institute, and the Skidmore Jazz Institute,  and is Associate Professor of Music at Cal State Fullerton. He is also composer-in-residence at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena, CA.
Top of Page

Press

"ACE OCTET in a LATIN GROOVE"

by Don Heckman
LA Times, April 22, 2004

"Pianist Bill Cunliffe brings his powerful "big band" to the Vic in Santa Monica.... Cunliffe added another brightly colored entry to (his) resume via his Latin Jazz Big Band. Calling an 8 piece ensemble a "big band" was a stretch in nomenclature, yet the title was fully applicable in terms of the group's power and vitality. In a pair of numbers, "Heat Wave" and "Pure Imagination" the horns were orchestrated in close, tightly moving harmony, the sumptuousness recalling textures associated with Gil Evans. Cunliffe's "Bone Crusher" opened up plenty of space for the ensemble's fine soloists with (trumpeter Kye) Palmer making most of the opportunity. If there was anything missing from an otherwise scintillating evening, it was more of Cunliffe's piano work... the music would have benefited from a larger does of his far-ranging improvisational imagination."

"Spotlight"

by Ernie Rideout
Keyboard Magazine, January 2004

"Hearing Bill Cunliffe on CD is always a major treat... for in addition to his superb piano playing you usually get his exrtemely clever arrangements, tailor-made for a hand-picked group of first-rate players... What takes this CD from great to sublime is the... compositions of Earl Zindars.... With a nod to Art Farmer's Jazztet, Cunliffe sets Zindars' tunes with an expert ear for the power and beauty of a world-class three-horn lineup. And throughout, his playing is inventive, melodic, and soulful."
Top of Page

Interviews

"L.A. Jazz Scene Interview April 2010"

by Fred Jung
All About Jazz, February 29, 2004
LA Jazz Scene
 

LAJS : What is a typical week like for you? Are you highly scheduled or do you have enough free time for yourself?

Bill : I teach at Cal State Fullerton from Tues through Thurs, so those days are packed. I have to be there by 10, and living in Studio City, that can be a challenge just getting there. My iPhone has a great GPS program on it, though, so I can usually figure out the best way to get there in under an hour. I get out of school around 7, and might just do homework, grade papers, etc, until 8. Then I'm home in about 50 minutes. Often I stay down there one night a week... there are many good cheap hotels down there.

I teach improvisation, direct four combos, a big band, have five piano students and teach arranging or jazz history. It's a lot crammed into three days, but I really enjoy my students.

LAJS : You lived in New York for some time: You sent us columns from N.Y. so we got an idea about the jazz scene there. Why did you return to L.A.? What didn’t you like about New York?

Bill : Dave, I've been torn between NY and LA for quite some time. I still have a place in NY, which is rented out a lot, and I love the people there, the scene, the energy. But it's expensive, and living there takes up a lot of energy.

LAJS : It seems that you have found enough work to satisfy you here in L.A. What makes L.A. good for musicians--the weather, connections, networking, more recording opportunities, etc. What do you think it is for you?

Bill:  For me, work has been good in LA, and I have a great church here (All Saints, in Pasadena, where I'm composer in residence) and a great girlfriend, Wanda Lau, who is a copy editor for the LA Times. And the weather doesn't hurt, either! I never got into the studio scene here, just fell in with great players, such as John Clayton, Clay Jenkins, Bob Sheppard, and Joe LaBarbera, and just couldn't leave. Trombonist Bruce Paulson, who now lives in New Zealand, had a great weekly jam session at his house... that's where I met a lot of my friends. I do feel that because I travel a lot, LA is cool. If I were dependent on the LA jazz scene for my happiness, it wouldn't be enough. It's a very good scene, don't get me wrong, and very underrated, but one night in NY or even Chicago tells you there's a lot more out there.
These days, I'm as much a composer as a player, and LA is good for that. Excellent engineers, and recording studios, and plenty of great players on every instrument. As the industry recording thing declines, it's actually better for composers now, because you can get your stuff played and recorded, and these amazing players are available and interested in new things.

LAJS : You were nominated for a Grammy and won. Tell me about the recording and how it came about. What made it special for you?

Bill:   George Klabin, a fine studio engineer (and owner of a health food supply company) recently started a record label, Resonance Records. We had done a record, Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2, (the music of Oliver Nelson) and we were very pleased with it. He knew I was an arranger, and he wanted me to help him do a tribute album to the music of Oscar Peterson. He knew of a Romanian pianist, Marian Petrescu, now living in Finland, who he said was the perfect guy. Boy he was right on that one. Marian is amazing... really can do Oscar, technically. And a beautiful cat, easy to work with, and a lovely spirit.  Growing up, Oscar was my favorite player, and even though I had to get away from him, somewhat, to find myself, I thought it would be a lot of fun. We picked out some of the repertoire together, and I really wanted to do some things from the Oscar "West Side Story," album. George was like, I don't know, it's a lot of stuff, too much music, and I reminded him of the classic Buddy Rich arrangement of West Side that I played every night for a year and a half. I thought we could do a 13-14 minute medley of the stuff, and it would be a real big hit, especially on live gigs. He agreed, and we did it, and it came out great. In fact, he said, "this is a Grammy winner," and I poo-pooed him. But he was right!

LAJS : Tell me what the whole Grammy timeline is: How are you nominated, by mail or a phone call? Then what happens? What’s the time element here, weeks, months? How did you feel when you were nominated? Who was the first person you called with the news?

Bill:   Grammy submissions are due in the fall. If you're a member, you can nominate yourself, or someone else who is a member can nominate you. To be a member, you have to have recorded or participated in an album that's available nationwide, which means it's primarily musicians, engineers and producers who vote. There are three levels, a call for ballot submissions, a call for final nominations in each category, and a final vote for the winner, which is announced in the end of January. The members vote, as far as I can tell, for the final nominations, and the winner. There are committees of respected experts, in each chapter, there are 12 or 13 of them. They are also a factor in the voting, which is great, because the Grammy, to win, your peers have to vote for you. From what I can tell, and I'm not an expert, it's a combination of the chapters, and the popular vote.
'm savvy enough to know that as a jazz player I'm competing with the universe, but the arranging category is a bit smaller, so the odds of recognition are a little better.
This was my third nomination. I really didn't expect to win, there were some great entrants in my area, Jeremy Lubbock, Michael, Giaccino, and Vince Mendoza, one of my personal heroes. But it was a real thrill.

.LAJS :Tell me what its like to actually stand on the stage and accept the Grammy. What were you feeling?

Bill:  If you go on www.grammys.com, and scroll to minute 27 of the awards (it was taken down a few weeks later) you can see me, breathlessly running up to the front (I was sitting in the back with my girlfriend, Wanda, and friends Tierney Sutton and Alan Kaplan, her husband. I wasn't expecting to win, obviously, so I was way in the back, just talking. For whatever reason, I had sketched out my "bullet points" in the bizarre case of having to make a speech;  you gotta thank George Klabin, the owner of the label, the cats in the band, your girlfriend, Oscar Peterson (since I borrowed much from him in the arrangement), and, of course, Leonard Bernstein.
When I got up there, I saw that in the band were a lot of friends, Ron King, Brandon Fields, etc, and I said, to no one in particular, "yeah, getting an award is nice, but you guys have a GIG! Get me on it!!"
I've heard from so many friends about the award, and it's been a wonderful experience, but I returned to earth very quickly. The next day, I was sitting in my living room with dozens of Cal State Fullerton student schedules sprawled around me, trying to figure out who's playing in the jazz small groups there. Sigh.
Winning the Grammy has made me a little less obsessive/compulsive about my career. I always feel like, I don't do enough, I need to study, create more, hustle more work, etc, etc. All you musicians know how that is. But I can relax a little bit more. I certainly don't have to worry about winning the Grammy ever again, or being concerned about how people think about me. And more importantly, I can really reflect that I've taken, maybe not the perfect life path, but a very good one, and I've done pretty much the best I can to make the most of myself.

LAJS : What are your future plans? What are looking forward to, more collaborations, composing, or something entirely new?

Bill:  . What I'm really excited about now is the NY premiere of a concerto I've written for trumpeter Terell Stafford and the Temple University Symphony Orchestra. It's called "fourth stream... La Banda," and it's a fusion of jazz, classical, and latin music. They are doing it at Lincoln Center in two weeks, and recording it next week. I have always loved the orchestra, and it was a thrill to write exactly what I wanted to write, and get it played.

LAJS : If you weren’t a musician what would you choose to do to make a living? I’m just being curious here, maybe you have other talents or skills that mean a lot to you.

Bill:   I' m lucky to live in Studio City, just two blocks from a very fine Italian restaurant, Vitello's. Many of you remember it from the Robert Blake days. I used to take people on my Studio City/Hollywood tour. I take them to Robert Blake's old house, it used to have written on it, "Mata Hari Ranch." eeecchh! Then I take them to Vitellos, and show them the dumpster. Well, not THAT dumpster, but any old one. You just make up things, like the double decker bus drivers in NYC do. (According to them, Madonna lives in about 8 different apartments in New York.) Then I take them to the Brady Bunch house, on Dilling, the one they showed at the beginning of the program.
April Williams has been managing the music there for over a year now, and she's a great lady, supports the cats, does everything right. The room is acoustically excellent, and the young sound guys are cool, into the music, and do their job. She's had a few big bands in there, and it sounds fantastic. So I decided to do, perhaps, the dumbest thing, the most foolhardy thing a musician can do.

Start a big band.

Well, for one night, anyway. My old friend Bruce Paulson did this for a gig in Alaska, announcing, "this is the first AND last gig of the Bruce Paulson Big Band." And it was, too. This night, April 17, will be a little less stressful. Just an hour and a half, and we'll finish with the Grammy-winning West Side Story arrangement. I'm getting as many of the cats from the session that I can. We'll start with champagne at 7:30, and the band kicks off at 8:30 until 11. Should be fun. If you have a lot of champagne, we'll sound even better.

Future plans? I'm a little bit in transition. I've been writing so much, the piano looks lonesome over there. Gotta go give it some love!! Holly Hofmann and I have a duo, and we have a new record out, and we're going to do more with that. And I'm going to Hawaii in June with my girlfriend, Wanda. We recently celebrated a year together, to the amazement of my friends!

Top of Page


"A Fireside Chat With Bill Cunliffe"

by Fred Jung
All About Jazz, February 29, 2004
There is a tendency to be indifferent to the familiar - an absence of appreciation with an assumption of the routine. But there is a wisdom in nothing lasts forever. So perhaps, it would behoove us to be grateful that we have musicians locally like Bill Cunliffe (unedited and in his own words), who too yearns for a renewed sense... [go to article]
Top of Page