Tim Cunningham’s current album Manchester Road, on TAWC Records, makes peace with grieving wounds and nurtures those relationships with family, friends, and God. His smooth jazz compositions and liquid saxophone lines were inspired by his feelings toward his family. Songs like "Sadie," an ode to his young daughter Sadie, and "Wintress," a tribute to his niece Wintress, are prime selections that show how music can speak with emotional depth.
He reflects, "’Wintress’ was my niece who suffered from a fairly severe case of Downs Syndrome. I didn't get a chance to spend much time with her after I left Michigan back in 1992. We were about to finish up the recording and she died of renal failure. When she died, I felt that since I didn't spend much time with her, it was only appropriate for me to dedicate a song to her memory. The melody just came to me at home and I was actually going to play it a capella, but my producer and I came up with the chord changes and made it a complete song."
Tim Cunningham expresses that the songs for Manchester Road came to him easily and like magic, he and his producer/keyboardist Daron Steward thought up the chord series by letting the vibe around them guide them during the course of the recording sessions. He recollects, "When I received the tracks from my producer Daron Steward, for some reason the melodies that I came up with just came to me really easily and so quickly. I couldn't believe how I was able to go in and just start creating the music so freely. It was almost as if there was some type of magic involved. It was really strange."
He recalls, "Right around the time that I recorded the album, my brother-in-law passed away at the age of 47 from a heart attack and maybe his death inspired me in some way because his death was so tragic, and I have not experienced a lot of death in my family. My sister was incredibly strong through the whole process. When I went to his funeral, she was as strong as a rock and I couldn't believe how well she held up. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because she is a huge believer in God as I am, and she knows that God is in control."
Cunningham has always found strength from his belief in God ever since he was a child growing up in Lansing, Michigan. And, though God has put many obstacles in his life, God has also enabled him to meet many wonderful people to help him overcome those obstacles. One very special person has been his wife, and then there have been the numerous multi-faceted musicians whom he has encountered, like his producer Daron Steward whom Cunningham met when both were attending college--Cunningham at Michigan State University and Steward at Western Michigan University.
He shares, "We met in Lansing, Michigan back in 1990. He was playing keyboards with a band that he and his college friends put together at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. At the time, I was working with various musicians, and he came along. We did some local gigs and started to branch out regionally. He studied to be an engineer in college and then began recording in the studio and found that he had the musical talent to create music. It's great working with him because he knows exactly what I'm looking for and is able to create tracks at the drop of a hat. We have had our creative differences, but we have been able to push our issues aside and continue to produce the kind of music that we think jazz fans want to hear."
Cunningham knows what jazz fans like because he is an avid jazz fan and remembers the first time he was captivated by the sonic weavings of jazz music’s maestros. "I started out listening to the straight ahead players and really didn't know what style of jazz I wanted to play. When I heard Grover Washington Jr., I knew that I wanted to be a contemporary jazz player. He is definitely my all time favorite sax player and ironically, he died on my birthday, December 17th. Something about his style just touched my soul and once I heard him, I knew that was what I wanted to do. He truly inspired me, and I only saw him live once. I met him backstage at a concert in Philadelphia in the mid-nineties."
Meeting Grover Washington, Jr. would reaffirm his decision to become a jazz player, especially when early on, Cunningham’s life could have turned out vastly different if he had accepted the offer to become a pro-football player. Cunningham had attended college on a sports scholarship and though sports moguls saw potential in his athletic skills, Cunningham held onto his vision of becoming a jazz player.
He recounts, "I was offered a three-year, free agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys and the salary was $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000. My signing bonus was a mere $1,000. This to me was not a lot of money for playing football. Plus, I also would have lost my last year of financial aid from my scholarship. You are no longer considered an amateur once you sign a pro contract and I still had about 30 credits to finish. My main goal was to finish my degree."
He enlightens, "You also have to understand that I didn’t even want to play football in high school, let alone college. I was asked to come out for the junior varsity team in high school as a quarterback. I was then called up to play varsity in the second game of the season. In the first half, our first and second string running backs got hurt. I was on defense, but now they wanted me to play running back since we really didn’t have another running back on the team, and I had previously played running back in 9th grade."
He reviews, "We were losing 25 to 0 at halftime. I was put in as running back in the second half and somehow I scored three touchdowns. We lost the game 25 to 20, but after that, our starting running back quit because he didn’t want to take a chance on injuring his knee. He had a potential minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers and our second string running back quit the team after I was given the starting job. All of sudden, I began receiving scholarship offers from various colleges as a defensive back and running back. I ended up choosing Michigan State because it was close to home and the starting jobs at defensive back were wide open. I ended up starting as a freshman in the seventh game of the season."
He reasons, "I knew at the very beginning of my college football career that it was just a means of getting through college because I didn’t have the money to pay for a college education. Besides, the average life of a football player in the NFL is only four years and there was no guarantee that I was going to make the team as a free agent. I have seen first round draft picks get cut let alone draft picks in the lower rounds."
Cunningham credits his solid family life and satisfying upbringing in keeping him stable and focused on music when the charmed life of being a football player would have seduced a weaker man. "I am probably one of the most nurtured individuals in this world," he describes. "I am number 7 of seven kids. My brothers and sisters took very good care of me and I never had to worry about anything. They took me to a lot of their junior high school and high school functions and I learned so much from them. We also had a place to go called the Westside Drop-In Center where we could play on a daily basis. My third oldest brother played the drums and trombone in high school and I ended up starting out on drums because of him."
"I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood and I remember the days when we could go to bed and leave our front door open all night during the summer. I’ve always said that I had the perfect childhood as a kid and I now know that you don’t have to be rich to have a great life. The two most important things in this world are your health and relationships. Without either of them, you will either be incredibly lonely or dead."
Cunningham's teachers also contributed to his strong sense of self. "I was very fortunate," he admits. "My junior high band director, Amel Eiland, taught me all about the saxophone. When I went to high school, I had another teacher by the name of Leroy Clemens. Mr. Clemens retired after one year and guess who came over to my high school? You guessed it - Mr. Eiland. He was more than just a band director. He was like family. He actually gave me an old Volkswagen Beetle to drive back and forth to school. He taught me a lot more than just music. He always stressed the importance of getting an education and I took that to heart. That is why football was not very important to me. It was much more important that I finished college and earn my degree."
"As far as technique is concerned," he muses, "I can’t really say that I follow techniques learned from my childhood, but I continue to practice and try to learn as much as I can."
Cunningham’s practice fostered into playing live. "I think everyone is a little nervous starting out," he notes, "but I was able to eventually get over it. I have definitely found that I get more nervous in small venues as opposed to larger venues, and it has everything to do with how close people are sitting to you. I played in my high school jazz band and played three sports so I was very busy. Mr. Eiland thought that I was going to put my saxophone down after I signed to play football at Michigan State, but he was wrong. I played in a few other pop bands back in the mid-eighties and sat in with a blues band on a regular basis. I started my own band back in 1988 and I have been a bandleader ever since. I had a band in my hometown and then I moved to Chicago. I still performed with some of the same guys, but I got a new drummer, bass player and added a guitar player to replace the second keyboard player who started singing with a group that received a deal with Madonna’s label. His name was John Clay and the group was called UNV."
He assesses, "I continue listening to various contemporary jazz saxophonists and developed my own sound. Through the course of my albums since I began recording in 1989, I listened to a whole new group of contemporary sax players that came onto the scene - Gerald Albright, Everette Harp and Kirk Whalum. My sound has matured and developed to what we now know as smooth jazz."
His big chance came in 1994 when Atlantic Records signed him to a recording contract. "It felt incredible because I had gone through quite a bit trying to get into the industry. I learned to appreciate the struggle of trying to get a recording contract, but I also feel that I was fortunate that it only took me four years. I know there has been a ton of really good artists that struggled for much longer than I did."
Though he is no longer signed to Atlantic Records, Cunningham continues releasing records on the indie label TAWC Records. "I am a true believer in God and I can't stress that enough. I may have been overlooked by the industry, but I was able to get a recording contract within about 4 years with Atlantic so someone was paying attention. I was also able to get a corporate deal with Coors Brewing Company that helped me get onto the Cincinnati Jazz Fest for 6 years in a row. This all happened before I got my recording deal with Atlantic. Although things didn’t work out with Atlantic the way that I would have liked them to, I truly believe God wanted me to have some success, and then some growing pains, so that I could truly appreciate being on the next level. Now I know what it takes to get to the next level and I take nothing for granted. I’m enjoying and appreciating it now more than ever."
His rise has been gradual, playing in Las Vegas casinos and jazz music festivals around the globe. "I started back in 1998. I played a few private gigs and then got booked at the Excalibur Hotel for nine weeks in the summer of 1999. Six nights a week playing in a lounge was not my idea of trying to get to the next level, although the exposure was not bad. I would like to go back, but only performing at concerts and not in a lounge."
"My first festival, I believe, was the Michigan Fest on the campus of Michigan State." he cites. "I was featured for three years as the opening act for Al Green, Freddie Jackson and Alexander Zonjic. My favorite festival moment has to be last summer  at the Lansing Jazz Festival in my hometown. Over 10,000 people came out to see me and we sold 399 CDs. What a night! Everyone I talked to after the show said it was definitely the best they had ever seen from me. The crowd was screaming the entire two hours of the show, and to be appreciated like that during a show is the ultimate compliment for an artist."
One of Tim Cunningham’s greatest gifts has been his fans. "My fans are awesome," he bellows. "I have one person that comes to almost every show. I just hope that I am able to make my fans feel the music and that is generally the response that I get from them. I also give them my phone number and from time to time, some of them will call to just chat and feel like they are a part of what I’m doing. Fans are great and they are the only reason that we can do what we do."
Cunningham tells that the setting backstage "depends." It is a mixture of musicians being professional and friendly in his observation. "Sometimes you never see or talk to any of the other bands on the show. From time to time, we run into an artist and his or her band members and strike up a conversation. It’s always a pretty cool experience because of having so much in common."
Cunningham has opened for a number of jazz luminaries including Dave Koz, Earth Wind & Fire, Keith Sweat, The Yellow Jackets, Chick Corea and George Benson to name a few. He tells about meeting George Benson, "I only got a chance to say hello to him after the show and shake his hand. He was very gracious and very complimentary. When he came out on stage, he asked the audience, ‘Did you hear that young man that was playing the saxophone?’ He said, ‘Who was that guy?’ The audience replied, ‘Tim Cunningham.’ That was a night that I won’t forget. I also had just had hernia surgery 10 days before the show so it was a little hard to blow on the horn without feeling any pain. Ouch!!!!!"
Undaunted by the experience, Cunningham’s desire to play with jazz greats has not waned. "I would love to work with Gerald Albright and once again with Bobby Lyle. These are two of the most talented artists in smooth jazz by far. They have been unfortunately overlooked when it comes to music production. They are also two of the nicest guys that you will ever meet."
His greatest challenge he says has been, "Finding time to spend with my music and my family. I have three small children ages 7, 5 and 3. As you know, children need a lot of attention and how they develop will be determined by how much time you spend with them. I think we all know someone that didn’t spend a lot of time with their child and now the child has personal issues or resent their parents for not spending time with them. You will find that a lot of these kids also get themselves into a lot of trouble because they have had no direction from their parents and felt not love. If you talk to the average gang member, he or she came from a broken home. The father is usually gone and the mom is working so much that she doesn’t have time to spend with her child. They then resort to gang life because they at least have someone to talk to and share some of their personal issues with. Sad, but true."
Balancing a stable home life with indulging his creative talents has been his hardest job. In addition to being an accomplished saxophonist and composer, Cunningham has also dabbled in acting and was noticed for it by his fans. He made a few guest appearances on the TV series The Untouchables. "When it aired," he remembers, "I had several people call me and say, ‘Did I see you on the Untouchables?’ So yes, they definitely recognized me. I actually took two acting courses in college and truly enjoyed it. I would love to be able to do it again. The hours are very long."
"I have a friend that I met on the Bertrice Berry set that has now become an actor. His name is Randy J. Goodwin and he and I have talked about me helping him with music for his projects once he and his partners get their first movie or sitcom together. I’m very excited about the potential of writing another theme song like I did on the Bertrice Berry Show, or getting a small part as a musician in a movie that Randy and I have discussed."
Life feels full for Cunningham and maybe sometimes, that requires some things to fall out in order to make room for those things coming in. For Cunningham, those who have passed away, like his brother-in-law and his niece Wintress, will always be a part of him in his songs. It is his gift to them and his way of expressing his emotions for them.
For aspiring artists, Tim Cunningham recommends, "First of all, you need to really be up on your instrument. Get various opinions on your music and not just from your friends. I have heard a lot young artists that need more development, but their friends have told them that they were ready and have what it takes to be on the next level. There are a lot of disappointments in this business and you cannot get frustrated or feel disrespected if no one is calling you back. I have been disappointed by many people, but I have never taken it personally. Until you get established and really get your name out there, you will find a lot of disappointments. Once you get established and people start to know who you are, you’ll start getting responses from those people that wouldn’t call you back."
So true, but luckily for Cunningham, his determination, which enabled him to make three touchdowns in one game and sustaining his focus on playing music even when being a sports figure was so tempting, has been the magic that keeps him centered. He uses that determination to rise above obstacles, to heal grieving wounds, and to keep his faith in God. His strength is inspiring and his love for all things is laudable. God bless him.