Obituary: Michael Cuscuna 

    The Connecticut-born jazz fan was the saviour of a wealth of forgotten, unreleased recordings and a champion of audiophile reissues

    Michael Cuscuna at the mixing desk. Photo from JJ Archive

    As early as his time at college at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Cuscuna was interested in jazz. He hosted jazz programmes on the university radio station and had a part-time job at ESP Disc Records. He soon turned to writing about the music for Downbeat and other jazz and pop magazines. He established himself as a producer throughout the 70s presenting concerts for Joe Henderson, Paul Bley and others and produced records for Atlantic Records, including albums by Dave Brubeck, Buddy Guy, Oscar Brown Jr and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

    Although he was busy as a record producer and disc jockey it was searching out and bring forgotten or, more importantly, previously unissued material to light that distinguished him. Although he worked with many labels and sought material from diverse sources it was his work with the famous and revered Blue Note label that yielded special results.

    For reasons now largely lost in the mists of time Blue Note missed out on releasing a considerable number of what proved to be important sessions, overlooked completely at the time they were recorded. Alfred Lion of Blue Note had many favourites that he recorded and some he gave the freedom to come in and record whenever they wished. Among those so privileged were Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Smith and a few others. Years later, Cuscuna dug out really good sessions from all of those named from the vaults and set about getting them all released.

    It wasn’t limited to big names: Cuscuna rescued splendid sessions by tenor sax man Tina Brooks, arranging for the three of his four Blue Note albums that had never been released to see the light of day. The same thing with pianist Sonny Clark – he arranged the issue of the previously unseen My Conception album on Blue Note and also one with Stanley Turrentine. New old jazz began to flood the market in the 1980s, most of it recorded 20 years or more earlier. Cuscuna not only arranged for this music to be released – he often wrote the sleeve notes.

    Getting the music out in good condition was part of the task. Cuscuna teamed up with Charlie Lourie, at the time Blue Note’s head of marketing, and they formed Mosaic, a company that became synonymous with really high-quality jazz sets, mostly box sets and limited editions. Michael combed the Blue Note vaults extensively and found more high-quality, unreleased music than he had imagined possible. He found all of Thelonious Monk’s 1940s and 50s music including 30 minutes of unreleased material. He made this his first box set for Mosaic.

    Michael considered getting this music out as essential for musicians and public alike. He said that jazz musicians depended on being able to converse with the past. “There was a whole young group in the early 80s of music students who became professional musicians that didn’t have access to this incredible body of work,” he told interviewer Bret Primack. “Once you make it available to them it sends out that information and that affects the future as much as it celebrates the past.”

    Michael made all that material he considered good available with box sets from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Tina Brooks, Sonny Clark and many others. During his searches he also discovered hundreds of photographs of the actual sessions taken by Francis Wolff, Alfred Lion’s partner. These became Mosaic Images, providing a pictorial image of hundreds of recording sessions. Downbeat‘s critics’ poll introduced a category for producers in 1979 and Michael won it three years running. His main interest, though, was always the music and the musicians that made it and rescuing much of it from the past and making it available for the present and the future. He is survived by his wife Lisa, his son Max, his daughter Lauren and two grandchildren.

    Michael Arthur Cuscuna, b. Stamford, Conn., 20 September 1948, d. Stamford, Conn., 20 April 2024.