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by R.J. Bianchino
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Don & Alicia Cunningham

There's no doubt about it. The Cunninghams are a world class act. This can be easily attested to by their popularity overseas. Specifically Japan where they perform four to five months out of the year at clubs such as Body and Soul in Aoyama, Sometime in Kichijoji, And Satin Doll. Here in Las Vegas, where they've lived since 1996, playing in clubs is a rare occurrence. The fact is, there are really no jazz clubs in Vegas. We do have the Blue Note, but their fate at this time remains unknown. The only scheduled performance for August/September is Bobby "Blue" Bland.

So I was surprised when I received a phone call from Don Cunningham saying he and Alicia would be playing at the Four Play Club on the weekend. The club is run by Leon Gilliam who is himself a musician. Leon sang with the Las Vegas based Platters from 1989 to 1993. Today he is still performing; playing R&B Saturday nights at the club. Four Play is a small room, housing about 250 people maximum. The Cunningham crowd numbered, at the most, one hundred guests. This audience may have been small in number, but they were the greatest when it came to enthusiasm, respect, and support. The Cunninghams deserved every bit of it and responded in kind with a fine performance.

Backing the vocal duo was the rhythm section from the Jimmy Wilkins Big Band, whose personnel included Jimmy Wilkins on trombone, Dick Jones bass, Pat Sherrod drums, and Mike Montana on piano. Their opening song, "Let The Good Times Roll", set the mood for the evening. This was followed by Benny Carter's "Doozy" and "Bridges" by Milton Nascimento. Then back to more jazzy tunes by Duke Ellington (What Am I Here For?) and Horace Silver (Quicksilver). The lyrics for the Silver song were penned by the Cunninghams.

Peppered throughout the performance were Don's many anecdotes. The introduction to "Quicksilver" included an amusing story revolving about his longtime friend Herb Jeffries - "The Bronze Buckaroo." Herb, who will be celebrating his 90th birthday come September 11, was the first to make movies about black cowboys. Cunningham alluded to the fact that while other cowboy's (such as Gene Autry) steeds always trotted along gracefully, Herb's stallion - or was it a mare? - went a clickety clod, clickety clod. Jefferies he said would relply that, after all, these were B-movies.

Don Cunningham & Pat Sherrod Serious again, the Cunninghams segued into "Ceora", a beautiful ballad by Lee Morgan, and Clare Fischer's "Morning." The latter contained a zesty conga solo by Don. Then came a touching rendition of "Here's to Life" dedicated to the great Joe Williams. The set fittingly closed with Count Basie's "Shiny Silk Stockings" and Ellington's "Cottontail" - a tune Herb Jeffries made famous when he was vocalist with the "Great (Ellington Blanton-Webster) Band" of the forties.

Jimmy Wilkins again opened the set. This time with Duke's "Perdido" followed by "Speak Low." Back on stage, the Cunninghams began with a medley consisting of "Two For The Blues", "Stormy Monday", and "Nobody Loves Me." The groove then shifted to Milt Jackson and was dedicated to "Bags". No bebop vocal set seems to be complete without George Shearing's "Lullaby Of Birdland." Although it may be overplayed, I never tire of this tune. And Don and Alicia handled it in style.

This was followed by "Bebop Revisited." Composed as an instrumental by Lloyd Hebert, Don and Alicia cunningly added the words in true bebop fashion. The rest of the set continued with more songs by Horace Silver (Lunceford's Legacy) and Count Basie (Until I Met You). Then a smooth sampling of "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." Never one to stand still long, Don next swung into "Senior Blues" and took a lengthy crowd pleasing conga solo. Drummer Pat Sherrod added some very tasteful fills as the song became a swinging percussive duet.

Now it was Alicia Cunningham's turn to shine as she soloed on "Autumn In New York." Some prompting by Don, and the audience, led Alicia to sing a second number. This time in her native Spanish tongue - "Sabor a Mí." She explained to the audience that it was not unusual for her to sing at least one song in Spanish per night. It rather came about as a bribe from her mother, who would not go to her gigs otherwise.

Alicia Cunningham After the applause for his wife died down, Don went back up on stage. He was about to do a song by the man who inspired him to sing - Nat "King" Cole. It was Nat, he said, who led him away from the congas and saxophone and taught him it was ok to sing. He thanked Nat for this by singing the classic "Mona Lisa" with Alicia accompanying him on piano.

The evening ended on a high note as the Cunninghams and the band tore into Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." And indeed they were flying - with Don and Alicia exchanging lines, and Don once again conquering the congas. Not to mention what may now well be a Las Vegas jazz tradition with Don and Jimmy Wilkins singing in the Clark Terry "Mumbles" style. It's always a joy to witness the enjoyment Jimmy, and the crowd, gets from this.

Such was the conclusion to a memorable night. A night of bebop revisited. It all began with "Let The Good Times Roll." And roll they did. Let's all hope there will be many more good times, and that they and bebop will be revisited again and again.

jazzNotes: This Labor Day weekend the Cunninghams will visit Horace Silver to celebrate his 73rd birthday. With Silver they will then go over to Benny Carter's home. Benny recently celebrated his 94th birthday! The Cunninghams will also be part of a celebration honoring Herb Jeffries on his 90th birthday (although it'll be held in November for 3 nights - 26th-28th at the Riverside Resort in Laughlin, Nevada. They'll appear on the 28th along with Trini Lopez, the Mills Brothers, and others.

Photography by R.J. Bianchino copyright © 2001-2003 Moondog Productions

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