Michael Cuscuna was born on September 20, 1948 in Stamford Connecticut. Studying drums at the age of 12, he developed a keen interest in jazz that in turn encouraged him to also study saxophone and flute. In High School he organized several events with jazz musicians encouraging his classmates to appreciate this music that he thought was so new and incredible. But sadly, the more he listened, the more he felt he would never be able to play as well as the musicians that had captured his attention. So upon graduation he decided to enter the Wharton School of Business aspiring to someday have a record company of his own.
It didn’t take long to realize that the Wharton School was meant for people who wished to be CEOs of large corporations, so he soon switched to English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, jazz continued to be a driving force in his life. He made time to do a nightly jazz program on the University’s radio station, WXPN, and have a part time job at ESP-Disk Records. This led eventually to writing assignments for JAZZ & POP and DOWNBEAT magazines.
By 1967, still learning as he went along, Cuscuna began presenting concerts in Philadelphia by Paul Bley, Joe Henderson and others. That year with his own money, Cuscuna produced a recording session by guitarist George Freeman in Chicago, which was eventually released on Delmark Records. Cuscuna's friendship with the blues community led to producing albums by Buddy Guy and Junior Wells for Vanguard and Blue Thumb.
In the late 60’s he continued to work in radio. His fascination with the cutting edge groups of the late sixties, led him to begin playing rock album cuts on WXPN FM. This idea was happening simultaneously all over the country and gave birth to 'underground radio' long before the AOR format was conceived. A substantial offer from Philadelphia's WMMR, the city’s Metromedia 'underground' format station, led him back into radio as a professional. Subsequently, an irresistible offer from WABC FM (WPLJ) brought Cuscuna from Philadelphia to New York to do a 'free form' morning show. But although radio was rewarding, Michael never considered the medium his primary goal. Instead he wanted to establish his career as a record producer. So in 1971 when radio became as formatted as AM, Michael left radio in and returned to the recording industry.
As a freelance producer, he recorded several singer/songwriters such as Chris Smither and Bonnie Raitt. Soon recruited by Atlantic Records, he began as a staff producer and worked with Garland Jeffreys, Oscar Brown Jr., Buddy Guy, Dave Brubeck, and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. He began digging into the vaults for unissued material which led to reissue packages. This was the start of a deep curiosity about treasures left unissued in company vaults that would lead to a career characterized by producing packages of complete works.
By the end of 1973, frustrated with his lack of freedom to sign artists, he began to establish himself as a freelance producer with pop-oriented projects led by, Cornell Dupree (Atlantic), Martin Mull (ABC), Luther Allison (Motown) and Ben Sidran (Arista). Cuscuna produced many jazz recordings for Atlantic, Muse, Douglas, Blue Note and Columbia. Notable among these was the 'Wildflowers' series of innovative jazz artists in the New York loft scene for Douglas, and a series of critically acclaimed albums for Columbia by Dexter Gordon and Woody Shaw. In the late seventies, Cuscuna was the U.S. manager for the British based Black Lion/Freedom Records, recording Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake among others. During that time he also produced Larry Coryell, Air and Anthony Braxton for Arista. Throughout the decade Cuscuna also contributed to Down Beat, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Saturday Review and the trade magazine Record World (where he was jazz editor from 1971 to 1976).
In 1975, after five years of fruitless attempts, he gained access to the great Blue Note vaults, thanks to Blue Note's Director of Marketing and Merchandising, Charlie Lourie, who loved the pure legacy of the now commercially oriented label. Over the next six years, Cuscuna and Lourie set three large releases in motion to issue a wealth of significant but unreleased music. Some of what Cuscuna could not release in the U.S., he persuaded the Japanese licensee for Blue Note (King Records) to issue. During those six years, he assembled and released over 100 albums of previously unissued material.
Concurrently, Cuscuna was still dabbling in radio as a freelance and field producer, hosting and scripting material for National Public Radio's "Jazz Alive." But by 1981 that series was winding down, and America was in the midst of an economic recession. The record business was being severely affected, and jazz was the first category to be neglected at major record labels.
BIRTH OF BOXED SETS & MOSAIC RECORDS
In 1983, he and Lourie proposed to revitalized the Blue Note jazz department for its current owner, Capitol Records. Cuscuna had found exciting and unissued Thelonious Monk in Capitol's vaults, and felt it imperative to make these unissued masters heard . There was not enough material for an entire album, but driven to make this project happen, he decided the only way to rescue these historically important works was to assemble a box set of the 'complete' Monk on Blue Note. This challenged the label's current less-than-organized ideology by organizing the pianist/composers sessions. Fortunately Capitol turned down the proposal saying that their re-entry into jazz was premature. Cuscuna sketched out the cost of such a box set and called Charlie at midnight to say, “We gave away a great idea. This could be profitable, and we could do it ourselves." Mosaic Records was born as a limited edition, mail order only box set company the next day.
Cuscuna and Lourie began a record company that would be as pure and as far away from the 'industry' as possible. Direct mail was a way of avoiding distributor and retail and all the discounting and collection problems that go along with it. The limited edition idea came because they would have to make finite leases, and wanted record collectors to know that their deluxe sets would not be around forever!
BLUE NOTE LABEL REVIVAL
In late 1984, Capitol was ready to launch a New York based pop label, and hired Bruce Lundvall to create and run Manhattan Records. Part of his mandate was the reactivation of Blue Note. He brought Cuscuna in to launch a reissue series and produce One Night With Blue Note, an all star concert of Blue Note giants past and present.
The concert, which was recorded and video-taped led to the Japanese approaching Cuscuna to produce a one time only festival. The event was billed “The Mt. Fuji/Blue Note Jazz Festival” held at the base of the world famous mountain in 1986. The festival became an annual international event that ran for ten years. In 2014, Cuscuna and Jason Moran would go on to produce the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Although still working on Mosaic with Lourie, Cuscuna's involvement with Blue Note grew. Informally he grew into being Lundvall's assistant, A&R director and general troubleshooter, writing ads, producing new records, directing the reissue program, and coordinating special projects. Continuing to work in this capacity, he produced Lou Rawls, McCoy Tyner, Tony Williams, Dianne Reeves, Freddie Hubbard, Don Pullen, Andrew Hill, Joe Lovano, the Charles Tolliver Big Band and New Directions with Greg Osby, Stefon Harris and Jason Moran among others for the label. Among the artists he brought to the label are Andrew Hill, John Scofield and Al Green.
Freelance assignments also filled his schedule, like continuing to produce the Mt. Fuji Festival and coordinating reissues for RCA. The RCA reissues made for a sobering experience when he saw he was reissuing some of his own earlier Arista productions. From 1989 to 1992, he served as musical director for a series of jazz videos produced by SDR films for Pioneer Laser Discs. The series includes such artists as Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Dianne Reeves and Tony Williams. From 1992 through 1998, he also produced the Impulse reissue series for GRP Records. In 1995 Cuscuna designed a series of box sets to organize and document the considerable legacy of Miles Davis at Columbia from 1955 to 1970. He and saxophonist/arranger/producer Bob Belden produced nine sets in the series with Mosaic issuing an LP counterpart on some of the sets. In the early 2000’s, Cuscuna, Steve Berkowitz and Richard Seidel created a series of five box sets featuring live Miles Davis performances called the “Bootleg Series”.
When Down Beat's International Critics Poll created the category of 'Producer Of The Year' in 1979, Cuscuna was voted #1 for the first three years and has placed #1 or #2 ever since. The Blue Note Label: A Discography which Cuscuna co-authored with Michel Ruppli was published by Greenwood Press, in 1988 and was revised and expanded in 2001. Many of the albums Cuscuna produced received France's 'Grand Prix Du Disque' as well as Grammy nominations and 'Record of the Year' awards from Stereo Review and Down Beat. He has won Grammies in the Best Historical Album category for The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio (Mosaic) in 1992 and The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia) in 2001 and in the best liner notes category in 1998 for The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968 (Columbia/Mosaic).
While reissues for Mosaic currently dominate his time, he looks forward to freelance activities as a concert producer, journalist and a producer of new recordings. He has served as a primary consultant on Bertrand Tavernier’s film ‘Round Midnight and for Ken Burns on the documentary Ken Burns’s Jazz. He also produced many of the reissues that emanated from the series.
The late Nat Hentoff once wrote, “For generations to come, historians and listeners of jazz all over the world will be indebted to Michael Cuscuna because of his accomplishments as a record producer and protector of rare and important recordings, No one has matched what he has done for the music. There is a Duke Ellington composition titled, ‘What Am I Here For?’ Well, Michael Cuscuna knows exactly what he’s here for.”