Michael Cuscuna, Who Unearthed Hidden Jazz Gems, Dies at 75

Michael Cuscuna, Who Unearthed Hidden Jazz Gems, Dies at 75

Michael Cuscuna, who brought an artist’s level of devotion and a scientist’s attention to detail to the work of exhuming and producing archival jazz recordings — work that vastly expanded access to the buried treasures of American music’s past — died on Saturday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 75.

The singer and songwriter Billy Vera, a friend of more than 60 years, said the cause was complications of esophageal cancer.

Mr. Cuscuna may have been the most prolific archival record producer in history. Starting in an era when midcentury jazz experienced a resurgence of interest, his name showed up in the fine print on over 2,600 albums, most of them reissues, many of which included his painstaking liner notes.

The Mosaic label, which he founded with the music-business veteran Charlie Lourie 41 years ago, has become the gold standard of archival jazz releases. Its first issue was an exhaustive boxed set of old material that Mr. Cuscuna had found in the vaults of the famed Blue Note label.

Soon after that, he helped to revive Blue Note, which had been dormant for years. Working with Bruce Lundvall, who became Blue Note’s president in 1984, Mr. Cuscuna took charge of the label’s back catalog. He released unissued gold by John Coltrane, Art Blakey and numerous others, ultimately combing through the entire catalog and putting out virtually every lost track that seemed fit to be heard.

“Finding something that’s never been heard before and causing it to come out, for me, was always an incredibly gratifying thing,” he said in a video interview with Brett Primack. “Even if you put something out and it only sells 1,000 copies and gets deleted in two years — once you put it out, it exists. Once it’s out in the world, it’s out in the world. That can get copied, it can get analyzed, it can get critiqued. But if it’s just sitting on a shelf, it only exists in a theoretical way. It does not exist.”

Mr. Cuscuna’s archival dives at Blue Note also turned up tens of thousands of photographs taken in the studio by Francis Wolff, one of the label’s founders. Mr. Cuscuna organized and administered the photo archive as well.

He won Grammy Awards for producing boxed sets of Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, and for the liner notes he wrote for a Miles Davis box.

“In person, Cuscuna could be acerbic, magnetic, wickedly funny, loud, and always fiercely devoted to musicians and their music,” the author Ashley Kahn wrote in a tribute on the Blue Note Records website.

Mr. Cuscuna had a standard reply when anyone asked if he had a favorite kind of music: “Atlantic singles and Blue Note albums.”

In January, DownBeat magazine honored Mr. Cuscuna with its award for lifetime achievement in recording.

He is survived by his wife, Lisa (Podgur) Cuscuna; his son, Max; his daughter, Lauren Cuscuna; and two grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

Michael Arthur Cuscuna was born on Sep. 20, 1948, in Stamford. His father, Arthur, was the director of Stamford’s housing authority; his mother, Lorraine, managed the home. His first musical love was the Black popular music he heard on the radio in the late 1950s.

He started collecting 45-r.p.m. records when he was 7 and began drum lessons a few years later. This sparked an interest in drummer-bandleaders like Max Roach and Buddy Rich. “When I started to hear the music around the drums, that’s when I got completely hooked,” he told DownBeat.

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Mr. Cuscuna worked at a record shop and often went to New York on weekends with a cousin and friends to hop between record stores — where they would take sample listens to far more records than they could buy — and jazz clubs, often returning to Stamford on the last train at 3:30 a.m.

By the time he enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he knew he wanted to found a record label. But nothing about business school agreed with him, so he switched his major to English; began doing a nightly show on the campus radio station; and found part-time work at the influential avant-garde label ESP-Disk, learning the music business on the job. After graduating, he started writing for Rolling Stone and DownBeat and hosted a radio show on a progressive FM station in Philadelphia, until WABC-FM in New York hired him away.

Mr. Cuscuna came to producing via the radio. When the blues guitarist Buddy Guy was a guest on his show, Mr. Cuscuna mentioned that he was interested in producing. Mr. Guy later ran into problems with his label and called Mr. Cuscuna with an offer: Come in and produce this session for me.

He independently produced a few more albums, including Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up,” before leaving radio and becoming a staff producer for Atlantic Records. His work there swept across a wide range of jazz — including both the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whom he brought to the label, and Dave Brubeck — as well as pop and blues.

He eventually went freelance, working with Muse, Arista, Motown, ABC and other labels.

As a listener, Blue Note had always been his favorite, and his ears always perked up when he heard artists discussing old sessions that they’d played on. “I would hear things said like, ‘Remember that Lee Morgan record we were on? It never got released,’” he recalled in an interview for the website Jerry Jazz Musician. “I started to bring a notebook, and I started making notes of all these conversations. Then I’d start asking musicians.”

It took him years of prodding at Blue Note, but in 1975 he gained access to the label’s vaults thanks to Mr. Lourie, Blue Note’s new head of marketing, who shared Mr. Cuscuna’s interests. He found far more high-quality unreleased material than he’d expected. Between 1975 and 1981, Mr. Cuscuna helped bring out numerous albums of previously unissued Blue Note recordings.

DownBeat’s critics’ poll introduced a category for producer of the year in 1979, and Mr. Cuscuna won it for the first three years straight. Yet musicians’ appreciation mattered to him more.

“Once, walking down Broadway, I heard my name shouted from a cab. It was Howard Johnson asking me if I had found the Hank Mobley date that he told me about and if it was coming out,” Mr. Cuscuna remembered in an essay posted to Mosaic’s website. “The approval and the enthusiasm of the artists who made the music was very important to me.”

While combing through Blue Note’s archive, he listened to all the label’s Thelonious Monk recordings from the 1940s and ’50s, and found 30 minutes of never-before-released material.

The label heads weren’t interested, but he had a plan of his own: He and Mr. Lourie would start an independent label devoted to releasing as much material from the vault as they could. In 1983, they founded Mosaic Records; a full set of Monk’s Blue Note recordings was its first release.

Mosaic released its boxed sets in hand-numbered, limited runs. Mr. Cuscuna continued to run the label, with Scott Wenzel, until his death. Through the label, he was responsible for collating, annotating and releasing sets by Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others.

For Mr. Cuscuna, jazz’s creative progress depended upon musicians being able to converse with its past.

“There was a whole young group in the early ’80s of music students who became professional musicians, who didn’t have access to this incredible body of work,” he told Mr. Primack. “Once you make it available to them, it sends out that information, and that information affects the future as much as it celebrates the past.”

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