Celebrated Jazz Producer, Historian Michael Cuscuna Dies at 75

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Cuscuna played a singular role in the world of jazz as a producer of new jazz, R&B and rock recordings; as co-founder of a leading reissue record label; as a historian, journalist and DJ; and as the man who singlehandedly kept the Blue Note label on life support.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

It is not easy to bid farewell to a best friend, knowing that it’s a final goodbye. Michael Cuscuna, who succumbed to cancer on April 20 at age 75, was one of the best friends this music has had. It’s simply too limiting to call him the leading jazz reissue producer of the past 50 years — which he certainly was. He was much more. As a producer of new jazz, R&B and rock recordings and as co-founder of a leading reissue record label and as a historian, journalist and deejay, and as the man who singlehandedly kept the Blue Note label on life support when no one else was paying attention or knew what to do — Cuscuna played a singular role in the world of jazz by not limiting himself to any one lane.

In person, Cuscuna could be acerbic, magnetic, wickedly funny, loud and always fiercely devoted to musicians and their music. He often displayed a bristling energy suggesting he was on the prowl for the next project or challenge. He was opinionated and with good reason: He possessed a wealth of information gathered through arduous research and first-hand experiences. With colleagues, journalists and new recruits, he was exceedingly generous with his time and with information. He wanted the story to be accurate and fully told, if it was to be told at all. He had little time for music business chicanery though he accepted, and navigated the realities of that world. As a staffer, consultant or his own boss, he was a success. He repeatedly figured out how to strike the balance between the artistic and commercial priorities in the realm of recorded music, and keep great jazz music on the retail shelves and eventually online.

Cuscuna was deeply steeped in the jazz tradition — his now hard-to-find CD collection celebrating the label’s Port of Harlem all-star group highlighted Blue Note’s overlooked traditional, pre-bop chapter. But he was no purist. “Blue Note success was about funky music — what I call funk pop,” Cuscuna once said, describing the label’s often maligned 1970s period. “The Mizell Brothers’ records were really great productions — and Ronnie Laws? My God, “Always There” is one of my favorite six minutes of music.”

What measure can reliably gauge the impact Cuscuna had on the music, its players, and its audience? Somehow the tally of more than 2,600 albums bearing his credit doesn’t quite do it. Three Grammy Awards — two for Best Historical Album of the Year, and one for Best Album Notes — seem woefully insufficient. Cuscuna himself would scoff at the effort, less out of humility and more because it would be energy better spent on other, music-supporting tasks. Music was his profession, his passion, his life.

Cuscuna could be humble. Just this past January, DownBeat — which he contributed to in the earliest days of his career — honored him with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement in Recording award, and recalled a comment Woody Shaw made: “No matter what you produce or do in your life, the thing you’ll be remembered for is rescuing all that Blue Note material.” Cuscuna’s response was typically succinct. “Looking back all these years, I’m content with that.”

News of Cuscuna’s departure spread quickly through the music field. Speaking from his leadership role at Blue Note, Don Was spoke for many. “All of us at Blue Note Records will forever be indebted to Michael. It’s not hyperbolic to say that there would be no legacy for us to caretake without the exhaustive work he did to identify, catalog and circulate both our master tapes and the Francis Wolff photo archive. His friendship, wise counsel and savvy expertise are irreplaceable.”

Michael Cuscuna was born in Stamford, Connecticut, on Sept. 20, 1948. At the age of 9, he was already captivated by R&B and doo-wop on the radio, and by his teenage years, became a jazz adherent and began playing drums, saxophone and flute. He ventured into New York often, visiting jazz clubs that would welcome underage fans, catching his heroes in their prime: Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis. Art Blakey. John Coltrane — and at times, meeting them. On one occasion at Birdland, he noticed Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones sitting nearby and summoned the courage to tell him how much he loved their music. “Oh, we just finished an album called A Love Supreme,” Cuscuna recalled him saying. “I think you’ll really like it.”

Cuscuna came of age in the late ’60s, becoming both witness to and participant in the major cultural shifts of that pivotal decade. He took on the roles of progressive rock deejay (at University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN and later WABC-FM in New york, as well as Philadelphia’s WMMR) and music journalist, writing for Rolling Stone, Jazz & Pop and other publications. In the early ’70s, his confidence working with musicians and deep knowledge of music history led him to take on freelance production work in the overlap of rock, jazz and other musical styles. He wrote liner notes for many jazz albums and worked with the likes of Buddy Guy, Chris Smither, Ken Nordine and Bonnie Raitt for various labels, and landed a staff job at Atlantic Records, produced albums for Dave Brubeck and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Eventually, Cuscuna’s first musical love won out and he began to focus more on jazz-oriented projects. A discovery in 1970, he later revealed, highlighted the path to his future: “As a journalist, radio show host and record producer, I began coming into contact with many musicians who had been major players in Blue Note’s repertory company. Since Blue Note had always been my favorite label for its consistent quality, conversations would ultimately drift to those great days of the label. Increasingly, I would hear about tantalizing unissued sessions. Soon I began writing down sketchy information from musicians about these unknown treasures in a notebook. The staggering amount of unissued material soon became evident, and I tried constantly to get into the [Blue Note tape] vaults.”

Cuscuna’s research led him to develop a network of information — musicians, producers, engineers — that would prove invaluable in chronicling the detailed history of the label. But he was alone in his pursuit and could not get permission to enter the label’s recorded archives. In the ’70s, Blue Note was more interested in the crossover successes in their roster at the time and less in older recordings. Undaunted, Cuscuna continued to work with a variety of jazz imprints on new and reissued recordings, while adding to his notebook. In late 1974, he finally met someone at the label who shared his enthusiasm for the label’s archival legacy: Charlie Lourie, a former CBS executive who’s now Blue Note’s new head of marketing. The two soon formed a fruitful partnership that outlived the mothballing of Blue Note as an active label in 1981, and two years later, led to the establishment of what has proven to be the gold standard of independent jazz reissue labels: Mosaic Records.

While Mosaic’s limited-run, high-quality box sets are celebrated for licensing music from various labels and featuring music of complete recording sessions with deeply researched booklets, they also stand as proof of Lourie and Cuscuna’s genius in creating a business structure (low inventories, direct marketing, mail-order fulfillment) that works to the advantage of all involved — musicians and consumers especially. “My idea was to make Mosaic definitive, with sessions in proper order, in the best sound, and with the context that only thorough annotation could provide,” Cuscuna said. Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings served as Mosaic’s birth announcement in 1983 and garnered a Grammy nomination. Today the label’s total output numbers more than 275 titles.

Ironically, even as Mosaic took off, Bruce Lundvall, a seasoned, artist-friendly record executive and well-known jazz devotee, was hired by EMI to bring Blue Note back to life. Lundvall and Cuscuna knew each other, having worked together in 1976 on Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming: Live At The Vanguard. Lundvall knew he could not consider reviving Blue Note without Cuscuna by his side. “The first thing I did was hire [Michael] Cuscuna as a consultant because he had Mosaic so I couldn’t hire him on staff,” Lundvall said. “The two of us really started Blue Note together, and we started the [more pop-oriented] Manhattan label in July of ’84.”

From 1984 through the ’00s, Cuscuna served as Lundvall’s right hand — heading various reissue campaigns of Blue Note catalogue, including the popular “RVG” remastered series that brought together many iconic recordings with their original engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Cuscuna consulted with Lundvall on the signing of new artists, and produced new recordings by such jazz and jazz-adjacent artists as Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Lou Rawls. But his favorite activity was discovering unused session recordings and releasing the music for the first time. It remained that way for most of his career. “My main motivation is really not reissues,” he admitted in 2005. “It’s focusing on unissued material.”

Blue Note was successfully reactivated and the Lundvall-Cuscuna partnership successfully steered the label for the next 20 years. In 1988, he partnered with music researcher Michael Ruppli, publishing the first edition of The Blue Note Label: A Discography, a scholarly work that stands as the definitive annals of the recording enterprise. Just before he passed, Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note, sent Cuscuna a steamer trunk holding all the photographs shot by Lion’s partner at the label, Frank Wolff.

In 1986, Lion was invited to participate in the rebirth of the label he had started. He was poor health but excited to witness a new Blue Note for a new era. “I want to say that Bruce and Michael are not just ordinary executives looking to make a fast buck,” he said. “They’ve both got that Blue Note spirit.”

Cuscuna held fast to that spirit. If he had a core philosophy, it was essentially a practical one: Record and release as much music as one can in order to preserve and popularize.

The jazz world has lost one of its dearest friends and most effective supporters. Cuscuna can sleep well. The music he produced and helped save remains with us and now serves as his undying legacy. DB



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