We remember Michael Cuscuna (1948-2024) on the Night Beat on Wednesday, May 8.

A lifelong jazz fan, he began his career in radio although he had been hanging out at New York City jazz clubs since the age of 14 where he heard Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk.

His career included over 2,600 producing credits (roughly 1,700 for reissues and unreleased recordings plus another 900 for new recordings. Among Michael’s earliest producing credits are albums by Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt, both released in the early 1970s.

Around this time Michael began working for Atlantic Records. He would produce albums by Dave Brubeck and Robin Kenyatta during his time there. He suggested to Nesuhi Ertegun (the jazz-loving brother of label president Ahmet Ertegun) that Atlantic begin to issue unreleased recordings that were part of the Atlantic vault by John Coltrane, Warne Marsh, and many others.  Atlantic had no interest at the time. Just a few years later most of the label’s recorded history was lost in a catastrophic fire.

Blue Note’s head of marketing Charlie Lourie hired Michael in 1975 to curate the archives of the label with a limited number of 2 LP recordings issued as part of what the label referred to as the Blue Note Reissue Series. By 1981, Blue Note’s parent company mothballed the label.

Out of work, the two men formed Mosaic Records in 1982 which quickly became the gold standard for definitive boxed sets of recordings by both legendary and overlooked jazz musicians. In the latter camp, one would have to include the sets by tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks and pianist Herbie Nichols.

After becoming friends with Alfred Lion, the surviving founder of Blue Note, he sent Michael a trunk containing photos taken at many of the recording sessions by fellow Blue Note founder Francis Wolff.

In 1984, EMI breathed new life into Blue Note. It hired recording industry legend Bruce Lundvall to run it. One of Lundvall’s first hires was Michael Cuscuna who, between 1985 and 2007, produced at least 60 reissues for the label each year.

There are any number of great interviews of Michael to be found on the internet, either as podcasts or print. One of the very best I discovered was at Jerry Jazz Musician/Michael Cuscuna.

Among Michael’s awards and accolades are three Grammy Awards:

1993: Best Historical Album for Nat King Cole, The Complete Capitol Trio Recordings (Mosaic)

1998: Best Album Notes for Miles Davis, Miles Davis Quintet, 1965–68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (with Bob Belden and Todd Coolman)

2002: Best Historical Album for Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933–1944) (with Michael Brooks)

And in January 2024 Downbeat Magazine bestowed Michael with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Recording honor.

Michael produced a few recordings by trumpeter Woody Shaw in the 1970s and 1980s. At one point he told Cuscuna, “No matter what you produce or do in your life, the thing you’ll be remembered for is rescuing all that Blue Note material.”

“Looking back all these years,” Cuscuna says today, “I’m content with that.”

I’m still finalizing my set list for my show but at this writing, it will include (time permitting) Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, Don Pullen, Pat Martino, Chick Corea, Tina Brooks, Dexter Gordon, Nat Cole, Billie Holiday and Andrew Hill.

Tune in to the Night Beat with Doug Crane on Wednesday, May 8 at 8 p.m. on KUVO JAZZ!

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Photography was sourced from the NYTimes obituary and was provided to them to use by the Cuscuna family; left to right: Michael Cuscuna, Bruce Lundvall, and Dexter Gordon.
Woody Shaw’s “Stepping Stones” album was produced by Michael Cuscuna

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