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Michael Cuscuna, record producer who made jazz reissues both an art and a science, has died at 75

Michael Cuscuna at the NARAS New York Chapter's salute to Bruce Lundvall at Jazz Standard in New York City on June 20, 2011.
Brian Ach/WireImage for NARAS
Michael Cuscuna at the NARAS New York Chapter's salute to Bruce Lundvall at Jazz Standard in New York City on June 20, 2011.

Michael Cuscuna, a jazz producer, writer, historian, and archivist who spent half a century rescuing thousands of archival jazz recordings from oblivion, died on April 20 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 75.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Lisa Cuscuna. The cause of death was cancer, which Cuscuna had been battling for about six months.

A prolific and dedicated archivist, Cuscuna had more than 2,600 album credits as a producer, the vast majority of them jazz, and most of them reissues. While he worked as producer for Atlantic, Motown, and Arista Records among others, he was particularly associated with Blue Note Records, searching exhaustively through the label’s vast archives and producing hundreds of reissues and collections of newly discovered music. “Plainly stated, Blue Note Records would not exist as it does today without the passion and dedication of Michael Cuscuna,” attested the label in a statement.

Cuscuna was even more synonymous with Mosaic Records, which he founded with industry veteran Charlie Lourie in 1982. He used that label as a platform for curating and issuing sweeping boxed sets that mined recording archives to surface rare, long out-of-print, and often never-before-released jazz recordings. Cuscuna’s productions for Mosaic included the likes of The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (1983), The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (1990), and The Complete Nat ‘King’ Cole Capitol Trio Recordings (1993), the last of which won him a Grammy Award for Best Historical Compilation.

2023_11_13 WRTI Holiday Gift Guide
Joseph V. Labolito
Two Mosaic Records sets, featuring music from the pianist Sonny Clark and Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic Tours, as pictured in the 2023 WRTI Holiday Gift Guide.

Mosaic Records boxed sets are handsomely designed packages marketed to hardcore jazz fans, and available only via mail order. But they are also invaluable historical documents, extensively researched and carefully curated, with detailed notes and the best available discographic and sessionographic information.

“If I put out music that is really unworthy or would embarrass the artist or make an artist unhappy, then I think that’s the worst sin I could commit,” Cuscuna told Mike Shanley in a 2011 interview for the Pittsburgh City Paper. “I take the responsibility of what has been unissued, what has never come out. If I’m going to cause it to come out, I better have a very good reason.”

Zev Feldman, a record producer who considered Cuscuna a role model and a mentor, considers the depth of his legacy to be unfathomable. “That work is going to live on past all of our lifetimes, you know, because of what he did,” Feldman tells WRTI. “He leaves this enormous footprint. Who knows what the record companies would have done, had he not been there to shepherd it in?”

Cuscuna also produced new releases. Working for Arista Freedom and Muse Records in the 1970s, he shepherded recordings by Andrew Hill, Oliver Lake, Woody Shaw, Julius Hemphill and Anthony Braxton. He became a key producer and consultant in the 1980s reincarnation of Blue Note, where he oversaw titles by Dexter Gordon and Bobby Hutcherson as well as Shaw and Hill. Cuscuna also produced the Blue Note showcase concerts at the 1986 Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan, heralding the label’s return.

A significant amount of Cuscuna’s work in archiving and preserving jazz history came not through the music, but through his custodianship of the photography of Blue Note cofounder Francis Wolff. “In all those years after those great Blue Note album covers, nobody ever asked if there were any more pictures,” Lisa Cuscuna tells WRTI. “Michael was the one who chased down Afred Lion and found out that actually, there were about 20,000 more. So he spent years licensing them until Alfred finally said, ‘Look, you take these and just give me a percentage of whatever you make from them.’ So Michael really kept that end of the history alive, too.”

Michael Arthur Cuscuna was born Sept. 20, 1948 in Stamford, to Arthur and Lorraine Cuscuna; his father was chair of the Stamford Housing Commission. His interest in music began around the age of seven, when he started collecting 45 rpm records of his favorite rhythm & blues artists. At 10, he started playing on a starter drum set his father bought for him; “I eventually realized I wasn’t a great drummer, nor was I going to be a great drummer,” he recalled in a 2019 interview with journalist Joe Maita. ”And I switched to alto saxophone and flute, and eventually tenor sax and flute, and even then I wasn’t a good musician.”

Instead, while studying English at the University of Pennsylvania, Cuscuna began broadcasting at WXPN, moving from there to the Philadelphia commercial station WMMR and then to WABC in New York. He also worked briefly for ESP-Disk’ Records and began working as a freelance journalist and reviewer at DownBeat magazine. One of his three Grammys was in the Best Album Notes category, for his contribution to Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-’68, on Columbia/Legacy.

In the early 1970s Cuscuna started working with Atlantic, Muse, and Arista Freedom Records, producing both reissues and new releases for the labels. It was in this capacity that he met Charlie Lourie, then a marketing executive for Blue Note, who arranged for Cuscuna to have access to the Blue Note vault and produce reissues and archival releases for the label — which he did from 1975 until 1981, when the label initially folded. Then in 1982, he joined with Lourie to establish Mosaic, which quickly became a distinctive and highly respected conduit for historical jazz releases.

“While many are aware of the legacy of riches he has catalogued for one of the greatest art forms,” said Mosaic in a statement published Sunday, “all of us who work or have worked at Mosaic also know him as a hard worker, generous and dedicated to his family.” In addition to his wife, the former Lisa Podgur, Cuscuna is survived by two children, Max and Lauren Cuscuna, and two grandchildren, Nicholas and Penny Cuscuna.

When Bruce Lundvall resurrected the Blue Note imprint in 1984, he quickly signed Cuscuna as its reissue director. Over the next two decades he produced about 60 releases per year for the label. These projects included Blue Note’s wildly successful “RVG Editions,” in which Cuscuna had original engineer Rudy Van Gelder remaster some of his most storied recordings; and new archival discoveries such as the 1957 concert recording Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and a 1964 performance by Charles Mingus at Cornell University. Meanwhile, he also administered Wolff’s photographic catalog — solidifying Blue Note’s place in the jazz firmament. “It would be impossible to overstate Michael’s importance to the Blue Note legacy, which he worked tirelessly to fortify for nearly 50 years,” Blue Note posted in a statement.

Earlier this year, DownBeat honored Cuscuna for a Lifetime Achievement in Recording. Among the many tributes that has poured in on social media is one from the jazz historian Loren Schoenberg, who began by writing: “If you love jazz, you owe something to this man.”

Lisa Cuscuna, reflecting on his legacy, puts it this way: “I think Michael was very lucky to be known for something that was helpful and important for the community. Jazz people were always telling him how grateful they were.”