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Michael Cuscuna: In The Vault Playing God

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in December 2000.

Michael Cuscuna is one of the most important figures in the jazz reissue field today. He has been responsible for hundreds of releases for many companies, and he was fortunate to meet and befriend Alfred Lion during the final years of his life. He is an authority on Lion's life and work and on the recordings and history of the Blue Note label. Michael graciously agreed to talk with All About Jazz about Alfred Lion and Blue Note.

All About Jazz: Was the Spirituals to Swing concert the catalyzing impulse that moved Alfred Lion to found Blue Note Records, or had he harbored the desire to become a record producer and record company owner for some time beforehand?

Michael Cuscuna: That's an interesting thing. I never asked him that directly, but a guy who has been researching a lot of the first independent jazz labels believes that Alfred and Max Margolis that got the money going for Blue Note had already been planning to do something, and there were also Solo Art and Circle which were about to appear at that time, and the founders of these labels and Alfred and Max were all friends and all talking about recording the boogie-woogie piano players. These may have been ideas in incubation before that concert.

AAJ: Lion appeared to be a strong presence and force in the studio as a producer. Was he this way from the very beginning in the early sessions of boogie-woogie piano, hot jazz and modern jazz?

MC: I suspect so. The second set of sessions was the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, and this was almost all slow blues, and no musicians left to their own instincts would do an entire session of slow blues. So I think he was very much involved and coaching them about what he wanted from the session. If he had just left the guys alone they would have done a fairly well paced set, and they definitely would not have done two slow blues for two sides of a 78. And I think that the idea of Meade Lux Lewis performing variations of The Blues in many parts sounds more like an intellectual, pre-thought out idea, instead of what a boogie-woogie pianist would do, walking into a studio. Although it may have been Edmond Hall, I think that the Celeste Quartet with Meade Lux Lewis and Charlie Christian and the other group with Red Norvo and Teddy Wilson, these drummer-less bands were probably assembled from Alfred Lion's influence, because Alfred always liked things that were different and unusual.

AAJ: Did the practice of paid rehearsals begin early in the company's history, and did Alfred Lion always attend these rehearsals?

MC: I am not sure when they began, but he always attended the rehearsals, because he used to take notes on them. And my guess would be yes, paid rehearsals from the start, from the way that the records went down. Certainly by the time he was into bebop he was having rehearsals for record dates. And I don't know how innovative that is; in the modern jazz era it was something that was an outstanding feature of his company, as opposed to Savoy or Prestige. But that is basically methodology. I was amazed when I started to compare notes with Alfred how similar our working habits were, and it wasn't really anything I knew about when I started producing. It was just logical methodology to get the best out of a situation. And really, the key in jazz recording is to get as much done in front, before you get to the studio so that in the studio everybody can focus on the solos from a musician's standpoint. And from a producer's standpoint, you can make sure that the sound is going well and that psychologically everyone is happy and getting along. And if you do all your homework in advance on the sound, and the miking and that the material is all rehearsed and tight, then you can concentrate on what you should be doing, which is capturing the music as it happens and creating an atmosphere that will really work.

AAJ: I think it is unusual in a sense that, running a small independent record company, he actually financed these rehearsals. Other similar companies often did not for budgetary reasons. But as Alfred actually had a concept for each session and was not just recording blowing dates, or recording a working band swinging through their repertoire, it was somewhat necessary for him to have rehearsals beforehand to get his concept across and get the material together.

MC: Right. The main working band that he had was Horace Silver's. Horace is also a very methodical, compulsive Virgo, and he also put that kind of work into any session no matter what. I wonder how Alfred handled sessions with Art Blakey, whether he would go over the material in advance with Blakey and the band, or not. Lion may have done what a lot of us might do when producing someone: go to a lot of gigs.

I suspect that he may have done what a lot of us might do when producing someone ongoing: you spend an inordinate amount of time with him, and you go to a lot of his gigs. There are a lot of guys who play tunes, and by the time a record date rolls along they have forgotten about them. I'm glad that I was at certain gigs and said "What about this tune? Now, this one's really great and you haven't done this in a while." So it gets recorded, but it might have been forgotten forever if weren't around to pay attention to those things.

AAJ: Blue Note was financially imperiled at one point. What turned the tide to a more prosperous position?

MC: I think it was always touch and go at the beginning but he hit a real low point at the end of the 78 and beginning of the 10" LP era, because it had been hard for all the independent labels to go from singles in paper sleeves to suddenly producing artwork, and liner notes, and the printing runs involved. In hindsight we don't think much about this, but this was a major, major added cost of doing business. And that is why Alfred did not start putting out 10" LPs until 1951 even though they were introduced in 1949, I think.

He told me when the 12" LP came, and he had sweated blood to develop a catalog of about 80 to 85 10" LPs it was "Oh my God, I have got to retool!" What really turned the tide were the two 10" Horace Silver Quintet records that really caught fire and developed what we call the "Blue Note Sound" and were the birth of the Jazz Messengers. They turned the fortunes for him and Blakey and Silver.

He actually got a very piddling offer from Atlantic Records to buy him out in 1954, and he was almost tempted to take it. When you own your own business, especially in the jazz record business, no matter how much money comes in, you have to turn it all back into the business, and you put yourself on an allowance that is a lot stingier than it would be if someone else were your boss. That is part of the reason that he finally sold out to Liberty Records years later—ill health and this financial stress. Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, when they had Atlantic Records sold their publishing company which in the long term was a stupid move, but they sold it in 1959 because they were having all these hits with Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and the Coasters, but they didn't have a dime to show for it in their weekly income. They sold it so that they could simply get some cash for themselves. It's a lousy situation owning your own business. It is great to be your own boss, but then what a slavedriver your boss turns out to be!

AAJ: Alfred Lion's taste was known to be very refined and discriminating, and his standards were also well known to be very high and demanding. Were there any specific principles that he expressed that he followed in selecting artists to record, or selections to release, or styles to promote?

MC: No, only by elimination. A lot of the 120 or so sessions that I have dug up since the death of the original Blue Note, when you compare those against the sessions that did come out it is kind of revealing how high his standards were, because with the exception of some Grant Green and Lee Morgan sessions, where the stuff that I dug up is just as good as anything that came out—in those two cases there are commercial reasons why something else came out instead of those—other than these you can hear that his standards are high by listening to these sessions that just don't quite make it, that fall short. I don't know how in the day-to-day business he made decisions about who to record or not to record, but I do know that he trusted Ike Quebec and Art Blakey a lot and he relied on them to turn him on to people. And anyone in the record business relies on musicians to turn them on to other musicians. Alfred seemed to be very astute in the choices he made. Freddie Redd pulled his coat towards the Three Sounds; Lou Donaldson brought in Grant Green... Well, you know all the "who led who to who" stories.

Alfred's choices were very good. Of course we also tend to think about the stuff that lasts and that was good, and there were a lot of thing and players that didn't make it. Although they are nice records, he was never successful with Don Wilkerson, and in that place in time Wilkerson was the type of guy someone might say "We've got to market this guy, he's got the tenor solo on 'I've Got a Woman' and all these songs and we could really cross this guy over!" And so Alfred was not successful in this instance. And he felt that he did not have a good ear with vocalists, that is why he hardly ever recorded vocalists; he felt there were people who just knew that better, had better taste in that area. Blue Note Records has their share of records that were not very good, but I think on percentages their track record was a lot higher than anyone else's at the time.

AAJ: I agree. And I think that a lot of the items he decided not to release another company would have said. "We've paid for these; let's put them out."

MC: Absolutely! As we get further away from the music that was made, I have gotten, as you know, a little more lenient about what I would put out. When I first got into the Blue Note vaults, I would ask Wayne Shorter or Horace Silver to come over and listen to the stuff, their stuff or other people's, and there was a lot of stuff I put aside myself too. When Bruce Lundval restarted Blue Note in 1985, I took another look at it, and there was some more things that I thought were good. Like, for example, Hank Mobley's Far Away Lands. I had already put out a bunch of Mobley's that I thought were wonderful, sometimes slightly flawed in terms of execution, but wonderful, such as Third Season, A Slice Off the Top, and Another Workout, but Far Away Lands was the best of what was left of the unissued Hank, and I wanted to have a release of unissued material in the first year of the new Blue Note launch so suddenly I lowered my bar a little. And I knew Hank and I knew it was very unlikely at that time that he ever would play again. In light of that any Hank Mobley is better than a whole lot of other people. And so there become other reasons for reevaluating. The Blue Note bulletin board has also changed things. One guy asked about Grant Green's first session, with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. He wrote "How bad could it be for God's sakes with these four guys?" And I went back and listened to it, and yes, Grant is a little nervous and there are rough edges to it, but there's amazing Wynton Kelly and everyone does play well enough, and all those guys are all gone, we'll never hear from them again. And so I am going to put that out next year, because I listened to it again at his prompting. It's not embarrassing and it is historically important, and there are some wonderful moments on it.

For me, every year that goes by there are more and more reasons to put some of this stuff out that I might have overlooked twenty-five years ago. An interesting point is that sales are almost like the movie Groundhog Day—they keep repeating themselves. A reissue will only do relatively speaking as well as the original release did. It can't change history. If Leo Parker didn't sell when it first came out, you can put it out five more times and it won't sell again. The only people I have been able to make a difference with are Tina Brooks and Herbie Nichols. Somehow those broke through and set a historic precedence. But for the most part it is really amazing that no matter what a record did then it will automatically do about the same as a reissue.

AAJ: Do the reissues of Hank Mobley and Grant Green follow this trend?

MC: Grant does well, and he did well then. Even Mobley's '60s stuff sold well. When I put out his '60s stuff, that gets a decent reception. When I would try to put out the '50s stuff, it wouldn't sell and it would show up on the deletion list in about a year and a half, which is finally why I said "The heck with this" and put together the Mosaic set of the '50s Mobley. I thought "I am never going to get anywhere, I am never going to get all this stuff out at this rate," and that was the germ of the Mobley and Morgan '50s Mosaic sets. "Here is a way to get it out." Same thing with Lee Morgan. His '60s stuff sold the best, and that's what sells now; the '50s stuff didn't sell that well and doesn't sell that well now. His '70s stuff is sort of in between.

AAJ: It seems somewhat puzzling to me that so much of the sales and the fans are going for the '60s stuff, and not earlier sessions.

MC: Well you can sort of understand it with Mobley because he had a harder sound, he was more accessible. With Lee Morgan too, he had a lot of stuff with commercial backbeats, and the earlier stuff didn't, and the later stuff was very elongated. I suppose a lot of it is in the music itself and the normal human reaction to it.

AAJ: How important were Ike Quebec, and later Duke Pearson, in their roles as A and R directors and assistant producers?

MC: I think Ike was a guy there to sort of co-produce with Alfred, and smooth over any musical mistakes, and he was close to a lot of the younger musicians. He was kind of an Artists and Relations guy, and the guy who could read music and help keep the session on course. And of course he suggested a lot of artists too. Duke Pearson took on a bigger role, because one of his many abilities was as an arranger, and he was a heck of an arranger, and he was someone who could really put sessions together in a highly produced way. His involvement—not on every project but on certain projects ran much deeper. In a lot of ways he moved Alfred into new areas. For example, Christo Redentor: before The Sidewinder and before Song for my Father, that was the first real crossover success that Blue Note had. And the sextet/septet things that he did for himself and Stanley Turrentine, in many ways a hip jazz outgrowth of the '50s Ray Charles band—those were new sounds that he really put together.

AAJ: Which years were the most prosperous for Blue Note, and was this prosperity because of a few hit records, or a series of releases in a style that sold successfully?

MC: The biggest years for Blue Note were I think 1964, 1965 and 1966, when The Sidewinder exploded, and Song for My Father and all the albums that they put out attendant to those did well. Suddenly Blue Note was really a big deal. You saw more ads by them, you heard more spots on the radio by them, and Blue Note really meant something. And also that led to the time that Alfred then sold the label. I think that the pressure of it had a lot to do with the sale of the label too. Because once you have success and you are an independent label of any kind of music, you go through a series of independent distributors that cover different geographic areas, and you ship them records, and you want them to sell them so you ship them more, and they won't pay you for last release until you have a new release that they want. It is really a game of chasing your own tail. So the more successful he was, the more Alfred had to go out on a limb economically, and the more the pressure there was to match the success. That stress was part of his ill health at the time he sold out. Of course, I don't know what he would have done. Once he did sell and Frank Wolff and Duke Pearson continued on, the whole jazz scene really came apart. The New York scene was great with Slugs and the Vanguard, and a lot of things were happening in the New York club scene, but from a recording standpoint and at radio stations, the whole jazz world started to shrink. A lot of it was due to losing a large audience to what they now call album rock: Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, groups that suddenly were a lot more interesting than three minute pop records. That drained off a lot of the audience I think for jazz. People keep saying it was the Beatles. It wasn't the Beatles; thirteen-year-old girls wanted to buy Beatles 45s. It was something that happened much later that drew people that were interested in jazz music, drew them away from the jazz scene. If you look at any jazz label discography, at that point everything went in all directions, desperately trying to do whatever they could. At that point Frank Wolff was recording Ornette Coleman and Andrew Hill on one side of the coin, and on the other side he was trying to find the funkiest Lonnie Smith groove to put on record, and every effort to get new young guys like they used to do like the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, just fell flat. Suddenly there was no new blood. No way to get it going. Groups started to fall apart and have a hard time.

And then we fell into the '70s and fusion and jazz sort of skipped a generation. In 1985 Alfred said, "I don't know if I had stayed in the music business what I would be recording today." It did get a lot rougher. He really actually got out at the right time in a way.

AAJ: I think he did too. If he had been having health problems because of the stress of the business in the '60s, the '70s would have deep-sixed him.

MC: Although if he had waited a few more years... [Bob] Weinstock, for example, sold his [Prestige] label for a fortune. Alfred got chump change really.

AAJ: In the mid to late '60s Alfred Lion produced recordings influenced by the "New Thing." Was he fully interested in this type of jazz, or did he participate more to support the musicians involved and offer them a place to present this music? What really shocked me was when Lion came out with his first Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor records.

MC: That's a good question. He had been leading up to it, with Jackie McLean going in that direction, and he signed Andrew Hill in 1963, and Tony Williams and Sam Rivers, so it was a gradual thing. What really shocked me at the time was when he came out with his first Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor records, because usually talent at Blue Note was homegrown and this was one of the first times somebody that was already famous had come to Blue Note. And I am not sure why.

It may be at the time those guys were having a hard time getting recorded, and maybe he felt that they should be recorded and he made a deal with them. Someone who was on the scene then has said that he thought that what really drove Alfred out of the business was the stress of arguments with a lot of the avant-garde guys and that music, and yet when I told Alfred that I was going to put together the One Night With Blue Note concerts, one of the first things out of his mouth was "Oh you've got to get Cecil Taylor." So I don't that was totally accurate that particular perception, I think someone was putting their own views into it. He genuinely got into that music, and it is interesting because Cecil is the one guy that I would never expect Alfred to get into, simply because Cecil's sense of time is so unlike any sense of swing. You can understand Ornette and that gutbucket Texas blues sound, and people like Andrew who is an extension of hard bop, but Cecil really did surprise me.

AAJ: How do you think Alfred Lion would react now to the release of sessions and selections in the last decades that he had not wished to put out at the time of their creation?

MC: We talked about that one morning. His reaction was, "Some of that stuff, I don't know why I didn't release that at the time." In fact, that is how I got to know him. I grew up with Lion's records, and I was in his vault, playing God.

He was a recluse at the time. The only guy he would talk to was Horace Silver, and Horace said that he would get these records and start asking questions like "Who is this guy?" and "Why is he putting out these records? Do you know him?" Finally Horace gave him my number and he called one day and a relationship started up. But this was one guy I never thought I would meet. I grew up with his records, and I was in his vault playing God with his records, and I thought "It is a shame I will never meet him." But fortunately things changed and I did. A lot of it he couldn't remember. I asked him about specifics and he said he didn't know. He was surprised that there were instances where there were catalog numbers and album titles, and where the album covers even appeared on inner sleeves and were advertised, and the albums never came out. He said "No, I don't know why that would have been." Of course in the day to day of things a lot of stuff gets lost. He wasn't looking at it ten paces back as history, he was just dealing with it every day as it came along. And then with guys who had economic problems for obvious reasons would go in there and ask for advances and do record dates just to get the money and he recorded a lot more Grant Green and Lee Morgan than he could ever have issued. The surprise is that Frank Wolff and Duke Pearson later on when the pickings were slimmer never went in and used much of that. They did go in and dig some stuff out like the Grant Green with the cowboy tunes, and a couple of Art Blakey's and a couple of Jimmy Smith's, but for the most part they really didn't go back and use any of that at a time when I thought it would have been a good way to keep that pipeline going. Any of those Blue Note albums that I caused to come out later on anyone could have sat down and said "Here are the musical reasons this didn't come out, the rhythm section didn't quite gel, the ensembles are loose," or this was too hip and the guy was having a hit at the time. One of my favorite things that I found was [Lee Morgan's] Tomcat. People don't realize that the other album that Morgan recorded around the same time as Tomcat that fell into the cracks was Search for the New Land. That didn't come out until about five years after it was recorded for the same reason that Tomcat got shelved: The Sidewinder took off and they had to scramble into the studio and cut The Rumproller. And so be damned with these other two records; they weren't what the distributors are screaming for.

AAJ: He did support artist like Monk, Hill and Nichols by recording them and he had to have known that they would not sell.

MC: He hung on as long as he could. Fortunately Frank Wolff continued on with Andrew Hill, because Andrew was as close to Frank as he was to Alfred. Unfortunately a lot of Andrew's later stuff... we talked about that. I don't think I have ever put out any of Andrew's stuff without talking to him about it first. I asked him about some of this other stuff, and he said it was just a hard time to find people that could play the music the way he wanted, and to play with him long enough to make the music work. I get a lot of requests for Mosaic to do the second half of the Andrew Hill legacy. But unfortunately, it would be a lot of stuff that almost made it but with no masterpieces, and it would be a very lopsided body of work, lopsided by the absence of the really great stuff. There are good moments, but there is no Point of Departure. Andrew is hard to sell, and I think part of the reason is there is a darkness to his music. In the same way I think Herbie Nichols is hard because there is a density in his music, that wasn't in Monk's music. Monk has a happier more danceable side.

AAJ: What do you feel is the most vivid legacy of Alfred Lion and the most visible influence on the jazz recordings of today?

MC: Probably the Art Blakey/Horace Silver axis. Thirty-five years ago I would have said Jimmy Smith, because at that time the organ was sort of an industry unto itself and it had a powerful impact outside the jazz community. But I think the most lasting influence and you take it right up to the newest musicians today, or the guys who first came on the renaissance, the Wynton Marsalis' and the Benny Green's, is the writing and style and swing and style of playing that is credited as the Jazz Messenger style.

AAJ: I also think Alfred Lion has been an influence also on the way that jazz records are produced, in attempting to have a "company sound."

MC: Well that only really happened two more times that I can think of, and they are as different from Blue Note as anything could possibly be, and CTI and ECM are the only other labels I can think of where if you like that sound, you can buy the next CTI or ECM the way we used to buy Blue Notes blind. When I bought Una Mas and One Step Beyond I don't know that I had ever heard Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean. I bought them because they were the new Blue Notes. And that was at a time when every record was a major decision: it was lunch money.

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