Notes and tones: Saying goodbye to jazz's friend, Michael Cuscuna

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Some deaths hit you harder than others.

Michael Cuscuna, one of the true modern jazz advocates — and, to me personally, heroes — died on April 20 at age 75, succumbing to cancer. His passing knocked me for a loop. It was, as it should have been, widely noted in major publications — and not only those with a jazz or music bent.

The New York Times, for instance, published a lengthy obituary with the headline: "Michael Cuscuna, Who Unearthed Hidden Jazz Gems, Dies at 75." The sub-head followed: “Possibly the most prolific archival record producer in history, he was a founder of the Mosaic label, which became the gold standard of jazz reissues.”

The obit offered much information and was delivered objectively, pointing out a number of Cuscuna’s accomplishments, but it didn’t do it for me.

More to my liking, in tone and content, was the commentary on the Blue Note Records website that Ashley Kahn, the noted author, journalist, and jazz/music lover composed. It began this way:

“It is not easy to bid farewell to a best friend, knowing that it’s a final goodbye. Michael Cuscuna 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 fifty 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.”

Kahn’s expressive commentary, which went into far greater detail, sporadically having his emotions bubble to the top, reflected my sadness learning Cuscuna had died. I was not a close friend, but our paths first crossed close to 40 years ago, sometime in the 1980s.

And they continued to cross intermittently, so much so that, when they did, we chatted with a sense of familiarity and informality. Enough so that I find my journalistic tendencies, using a last name when referencing people, is at odds with the conversational, simply using Michael. My inclination tells me we knew each other well enough I should employ the latter.

I first met Michael in the early '80s. Representing KOPN-FM at the time, I would visit record labels on trips to New York to request promotional copies of titles; at the time, Michael frequently worked out of Blue Note Records’ Manhattan offices.

He was generous to a fault; perhaps that was due to his early radio days, when he hosted shows on WMMR-FM in Philadelphia. I always returned with a great selection of titles from jazz’s most storied label.

When CDs came into play in 1985, it opened a whole new avenue for Michael, the archivist who, as Kahn described in his recount, knew the Blue Note catalog better than anyone. It brings to mind the cliched “like a kid in a candy store” mindset.

In the late '80s, I was in the midst of writing a series of articles on record producers for Audio Magazine. I proposed interviewing Michael, and they liked the idea. I loved doing those interviews because the magazine offered several thousand words' worth of space; I took full advantage to pick Michael’s brain, learning at that time of his meeting fellow producer Dick Waterman and collaborating with him on numerous records including Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up,” her first release.

My favorite jazz feature film is, by far, “’Round Midnight,” which stars saxophonist Dexter Gordon depicting a composite of a major jazz figure who, disenchanted with life in America — like many great jazz artists for real — moves to Europe and becomes an expatriate. It is life imitating art and art imitating life all rolled into one.

The film featured not just Gordon, but numerous jazz artists of the day, especially vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. I don’t want to give away the ending but, watching it for the first time, all of a sudden, there was Michael in the film, playing a fictional version of himself.

I don’t know if Gordon was Michael’s favorite artist, but he certainly was high on his list. Thanks to my younger brother David, Gordon remains high on my list to this day. Gordon did, in fact, move to Europe in the 1960s. When he returned to the United States in 1977, it was with great fanfare. His headlining sold-out weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard signaled a jazz highpoint of sorts.

Timed to the film’s release, Blue Note released “Our Man In ‘Round Midnight”: the cover featured Gordon, front and center. One day, visiting the label, I saw a movie-sized poster hanging in the hallway by the elevator banks. I asked Michael if I could have one — of course, he obliged. Two months ago, I gifted it to Hitt Records, so in some sort of way, it is back where it belongs.

Anyone who follows jazz — and many who don’t — are fully aware of Blue Note Records’ album covers — they are that distinctive. To a measurable extent, it is the graphics and fonts used; however, an even more essential element is Francis Wolff’s photographs that date to the label’s 1939 beginning, when he and Alfred Lion co-founded the now 85-year-old endeavor.

Upon Wolff’s passing, Michael became the caretaker of the photographs. So when the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series produced a series of annual jazz photography exhibits in the late 1990s, I asked Michael if he would come to Columbia, talk about Wolff and the Blue Note covers, run a slide show and visit the exhibit of 50-plus large-size prints that were placed in Boone County National Bank, now Central Bank of Boone County.

Being his generous self, he accepted the invitation, wryly stating upon his arrival, “Well, Jonathan” — that is what he called me — “You finally got me to Columbia.” Sure did.

Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Notes and tones: Saying goodbye to jazz's friend, Michael Cuscuna