Thursday, February 7, 2008

Arthur Cunningham (1928-1997), Jazz and Classical Composer of African Descent

[The Piano Music of Arthur Cunningham; John Ellis, piano; Equilibrium 65 (2004)]

John Ellis is a pianist and a Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, and was a student and a close associate of Arthur Cunningham, who is profiled at He has recorded
The Piano Music of Arthur Cunningham, Equilibrium 65 (2004). He also wrote the liner notes for the CD, on which Cunningham's compositions for piano are accompanied by a 13-minute track entitled Excerpts from Interviews with Arthur Cunningham.

The liner notes begin: “Arthur Cunningham was born in Piermont, N.Y. In 1928. He was an eclectic composer trained from childhood in both jazz and classical music. His early studies were at the Metropolitan Music School in New York City. While there, he studied classical composition with the school's director, Wallingford Riegger and jazz piano with Teddy Wilson and John Mehegan.”
“Upon graduation, he went to Fisk University, an historic all-Black school in Nashville, Tennessee. His education there was made possible by a fund set up by a group including Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. At Fisk, he studied classical piano with the well-known accompanist William Duncan Allen, and theory and composition with John Work.”

“He studied further at The Juilliard School with Peter Mennin, Norman Lloyd, and Henry Brant. He earned a Masters Degree from Columbia Teachers College where he received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1992.” “His work as a composer took flight in 1968 after a commission from Benjamin Steinberg and the Symphony of the New World. The piece he produced was the dissonant and rhythmically complex
Concentrics for orchestra. It was given its premiere at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, NYC in February 1969. His most prolific period followed with works such as Engrams, Harlem Suite (including Lullabye for a Jazz Baby which was performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company), Night Song, Eclatette for solo cello or double bass, The Walton Statement for double bass and orchestra, and many other choral and instrumental pieces.”

Prof. Ellis notes that Arthur Cunningham pursued interests in jazz piano for some time before returning to classical composing: “Following a period in the early 1980's where he focused on jazz piano playing, vocal coaching and teaching, he returned to composing in 1986 with a group of short piano pieces. A high point of this late period was his revision of
Concentrics for a performance by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta in 1989.”

The liner notes explain the role Kate Davidson played in the last several years of Arthur Cunningham's life: “His compositional activities and jazz performing continued until his death. His work with cabaret artist, Kate Davidson (whom he would later marry) was a central creative activity in the last decade of his life. Together, they performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands, and served as U.S. representatives at Expo '92 in Seville, Spain. Further evidence of Cunningham's wide-ranging activities was his work as music coordinator and narrator for the 1989 PBS documentary, The Exiles.” “He died after a long struggle with cancer in 1997, only a month after a concert in his honor produced by the Rockland Community College African-American History Month Committee.”

Arthur+Cunningham" rel="tag">Arthur Cunningham
John+Ellis" rel="tag">John Ellis
Harlem+Suite" rel="tag">Harlem Suite
Concentrics+orchestra" rel="tag">Concentrics orchestra
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
African+American" rel="tag">African American

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