But on his first visit to Fells Point, back in 1986, he knew he had found something different. A fellow jazz drummer had asked him to fill in for some gigs at Bertha's Restaurant , a well-known tavern in the heart of the bar scene on Broadway.
“I was followin' the directions”, he says, his native Virginia drawl occcasionally lopping off the “g” from his “ing” words. “I got off the interstate. I took Pratt Street to Broadway, and I came straight down Broadway and I was lookin' for Bertha's”.
The stories come out in long, detailed streams, just the way you might think a jazz musician would talk. With a pointed patch of gray beard on his chin, he looks part jazz beatnik (he's wearing a black beret) and part Col. Sanders.
“I saw the water and I saw these street lights and I went, like, 'Damn, I don't even know why I like this yet'. But this felt very right”.
He moved to Baltimore two years later and formed his own jazz group, playing regularly around town and often in Fells Point at Bertha's, The Cat's Eye Pub and other local hangouts.
Fells Point was a different place then, still a rough, blue-collar place. There were no trendy coffee shops like The Daily Grind , where Cunneff is entertaining a couple of out-of-town visitors on a Friday night. As he talks, a man who identified himself only as Turque pulls up a chair.
Turque is an old Fells Point regular who recently moved to Pikesville. He has a beard and his hair is pulled back in a short, tight ponytail. They talk about the old days -- the nasty stevedores working at the end of the seaport era, the less-than-savory characters, the unsolved murders.
“Back in the '60s and '70s, Fells Point wasn't a place to hang out”, Turque says. “You come down here and got fucked up, you ended up in the river. That's the way things were“.
Times have changed
They have a lively conversation about all the changes of the past three decades -- the rehabbed houses with the fancy doors and stain-glass windows, the new construction, the Yuppie shops. The roots of that stretch back to the early '80s. A bunch of artists settled in the area, drawn by the lure of cheap waterfront housing, and they started fixing the place up one property at a time.