It’s about time

Grammy-winning jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe and trio return to Gilly’s

By Tim Walker

Photo: The Bill Cunliffe Trio performs at Gilly’s Dec. 9

Bill Cunliffe is a respected artist in the world of jazz today—but jazz music, surprisingly, wasn’t his first love.
“I didn’t originally start out as a jazz pianist,” the 59-year-old Grammy-winner said when interviewed recently from his home in Los Angeles. “I started out as a mediocre classical pianist. It was only when I heard an Oscar Peterson record at the age of 20 that I decided that jazz was for me.”
Lovers of jazz remain grateful for Cunliffe’s encounter with Oscar Peterson’s music, as it resulted in what has been an amazing and productive career for the talented musician. Despite touring and performing as a pianist with the Bill Cunliffe Trio, with orchestras all over the country and with other musicians in a variety of settings—with the Buddy Rich band, for example—Bill Cunliffe has managed to juggle a dizzying amount of other projects and endeavors in the music business.
The Massachusetts-born Cunliffe is a respected jazz studies professor at California State Fullerton, and in 2010, he was named a “Distinguished Faculty Member of the College of the Arts” there. That same year, the Los Angeles Jazz Society honored Cunliffe with its “Composer/Arranger Award.” He is also, in addition to being a composer and arranger, a recording artist with more than a dozen albums to his credit, and a successful author, having written a number of influential and respected books on jazz and blues piano.
In a return to an area he is intimately familiar with, Bill Cunliffe and the Bill Cunliffe Trio will be performing live in Dayton at Gilly’s Dec. 9. Cunliffe has a lifelong relationship with the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. He has performed here countless times during his career, most recently during an amazing evening with the Middletown Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 14 of this year.
“That was really fun,” Cunliffe says of the performance. “Before that encounter with Peterson’s music, I was really into Gershwin. And I’ve always wanted to compose for orchestra, and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. As you might know, I won a Grammy in 2009 for arranging West Side Story, which is Leonard Bernstein. I’ve played Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ since I was 17-years-old—I played it in high school. So, I also have a version of the ‘Piano Concerto in F’ by Gershwin that I’ve completely rearranged and re-orchestrated. And that’s what we did in Middletown a few weeks ago, and it turned out great. That’s a very good orchestra. Carmen DeLeone, the symphony’s musical director who also conducted the orchestra, actually was my drummer for a number of years in the group ’Bout Time.”
Cunliffe continues, reflecting on his past in Dayton. “’Bout Time was Carmen and me, along with Paul Evoskevich on saxophone and Dave Spyridon on bass. We were together for about three years, from ’81 to ’84, in Dayton. We played the Trolley Stop, and we also played the Oregon Express. We played Newcom’s, and we played many, many other clubs in that area.”
When asked about his touring schedule and whether he looks forward to returning to the Miami Valley, Cunliffe replies, “I’ve been a professor at Cal State Fullerton for a number of years, and I’ve been on a sabbatical this year. So what I’ve been doing is a lot more touring. So I’m going up to Northern California. I’m going to New York. And coming to Ohio a lot more. It’s been great. I really, really have enjoyed coming to Ohio—this is going to be something I do a couple of times per year because I really enjoy the people, and I have great friends in Ohio.”
With a career as varied as Cunliffe, there’s rarely one single thing on the horizon: from recording to composing to playing live shows with different groups of people.
“I’d have to say that performing in some sort of orchestral setting is number one,” the pianist says. “But right behind that is performing with the trio. The trio is great because as a composer, I like to be able to control the environment. With an orchestra, you can have a lot of variety—you can have the orchestra stop. You can have them move forward or slow down. But you can do all that in a trio too. And in a trio, it’s just as creative. One person does something, and the whole thing changes. So it’s very interactive in a way that’s very, very special. So playing with the jazz trio is my favorite thing. But as a composer, I still love the challenge of a big orchestra.”
Fans of good music, jazz piano and Gershwin—and anyone who loved ‘Bout Time—should make plans to come to Gilly’s Dec. 9 for what promises to be a special evening.

The Bill Cunliffe Trio will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9 at Gilly’s, 132 S. Jefferson St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets are $10. For more information, please call 937.228.8414 or go to or
Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their 2 children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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