Michael Cuscuna, Grammy-Winning Producer and Titan of Jazz, Dies at 75

Michael Cuscuna, the three-time Grammy winner, Mosaic Records co-founder, historian and archivist who produced hundreds of jazz reissues and studio sessions during his career, has died. He was 75.

Cuscuna died Saturday of cancer at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, Grammy-winning recording artist Billy Vera, a longtime friend, announced.

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Cuscuna produced the 1970 album Buddy & the Juniors, featuring Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Junior Mance, for Vanguard Records, and 1972’s Give It Up, Bonnie Raitt’s lone gold album during her time at Warner Bros.

He produced reissues and studio sessions for Impulse, Atlantic, Arista, Muse, Elektra, Freedom, Novus and virtually the entire Blue Note catalog.

“Plainly stated, Blue Note Records would not exist as it does today without the passion & dedication of Michael Cuscuna,” execs from the label wrote on Instagram.

Readers of Blues & Rhythm magazine know his work in the blues field, which included box sets on T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown and the Otis Spann/Lightnin’ Hopkins Candid sessions.

Nominated nine times in all, Cuscuna received his Grammys in 1993, 1999 and 2002, respectively, for producing box sets of music from Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.

Born on Sept. 20, 1948, in Stamford, Connecticut, Cuscuna played drums, saxophone and flute while working in a local record shop. He was drawn to R&B before jazz became his greatest love.

As a radio DJ, his theme song was the novelty tune “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips, later covered by the Blues Brothers. When asked what was his favorite kind of music, he always answered, “Atlantic singles and Blue Note albums.”

He culled the Blue Note vaults for unissued treasures by such label masters as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Jimmy Smith as well as lesser-known performers including Quebec, Hank Mobley and Tina Brooks.

Also for Blue Note, he uncovered gems by Lester Young, Sonny Criss and Art Pepper, and his work on Michael Ruppli label discographies from company files was invaluable.

In later years, he gained ownership of Blue Note’s vast photographic library, licensing shots to books and films.

Without Mosaic — which he founded in 1982 with Charlie Lourie — the complete Roulette recordings of Count Basie, the complete Capitol Duke Ellington sessions and countless other gems might still be hidden away or lost forever, Vera noted.

Survivors include his wife, Lisa, children Max and Lauren and grandchildren Nicolas and Penelope.

“Michael and I were close friends for nearly 60 years,” Vera, who had a No. 1 song with “At This Moment” in 1987, said in a statement. “When back east, I stayed at his home, annoying Lisa, who put up with our often-sarcastic sense of humor. Our many lunches with [producer-discographer] Bob Porter were legendary for our obscurest dives into musical esoterica. The three of us adamantly refused to accept any dividing line between blues and jazz.

“In 1989, Blue Note chief Bruce Lundvall asked us to produce Lou Rawls. We gathered legends like Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Hank Crawford, David Newman, Benny Golson, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, reviving Lou’s career with the No. 1 jazz album At Last, followed by two more that landed in the top five. It was the greatest fun we ever had.”

Billy Vera and Michael Cuscuna
Michael Cuscuna and Billy Vera circa 1991

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