Photo by Jimmy Katz                        

An interview with
Michael Cuscuna

By Beppe Colli
Nov. 2, 2008

Though in retrospect they are often seen as a dry decade (and a period of sterile self-indulgence), at best just good enough to function as a "guilty pleasure" under the "ironic" light of "it's so bad, it's good", the Seventies were a long period of stunning creativity, a true moment of "embarrassment of riches". This being true of both jazz and rock.

It's true that it was only at the end of that decade that the (so-called) "Punk-Jazz Connection" (whatever that means) appeared, but I think it can be said that - though the latter phenomenon, being "urban and American", got a lot of pages at a time when press still mattered - it was in the earlier period that both rock and jazz attained peaks of formal audacity that in many ways have yet to be surpassed (at least, by something sounding as fresh).

Though obvious reasons of cultural nature have contributed to this fact being consigned to oblivion, it was mainly rock fans in Continental Europe - already accustomed to the music of Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Faust and Henry Cow - that greeted with much enthusiasm the most daring experiments of US jazz musicians, showing no outrage when seeing the obvious links to "non-jazz" precursors.

In that time period, Anthony Braxton was a star. A special talent, sure, but it was also thanks to his being under contract to a mini-major of those times: Clive Davis's Arista. It's a period spanning (more or less) six years, from the sessions featured on New York, Fall 1974 (where a daring jazz quartet is followed by a saxophone quartet, and a clarinet/synth duo) to the composition appearing on For Two Pianos. Flanked by those albums are the quartets on Five Pieces 1975 and The Montreux/Berlin Concerts, the multifaceted Creative Orchestra Music 1976, the interrelation with Muhal Richard Abrams on Duets 1976, the difficult-to-describe (but not to listen to) For Trio, the Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979, and the monumental For Four Orchestras. All material appearing in the recently released Mosaic Records box set obviously titled The Complete Arista Recordings Of Anthony Braxton.

A co-founder of Mosaic Records together with the late Charlie Lourie, Michael Cuscuna is a Producer whose name any jazz fan worth his/her salt has seen at least once on the cover of a much-loved album (often alongside Executive Producer Steve Backer): Fanfare For The Warriors by The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Lester Bowie's albums on Muse, those on Arista Novus (think: Air and Muhal Richard Abrams), Braxton on Magenta... and on Arista.

I asked him for an interview, he accepted, and the interview was conducted by e-mail, last week.

As a first topic, I'd really like to know a bit about how you developed an interest in jazz, and music in general; also about the circumstances accounting for your transition from "fan" to writer and critic.

When I was about 10 years old, I started taking drum lessons. I loved R & B – Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, The Coasters etc., but started listening to Gene Krupa-Buddy Rich and Art Blakey records for the drum solos and eventually began to listen to and appreciate the music played before and after the drum solos.

I later took up the saxophone but could not improvise. So when I was in college, I began doing jazz on the university station in Philadelphia, working in a record store, meeting musicians and eventually writing for Jazz & Pop, Down Beat, Rolling Stone etc. through contacts that I had met. I also started to produce a couple of concerts and tried to help some groups that were without managers – Paul Bley's trio and Joe Henderson's sextet.

But I really wanted to produce records so I got lucky when Buddy Guy with whom I had become friends asked me if I wanted to produce his last album for Vanguard. We did another one for Blue Thumb. Then I produced some singer-songwriters Chris Smith and Bonnie Raitt, but during and after college I was offered high paying jobs as a disc jockey on free form FM underground rock radio.

At the end of 1971, free form radio was gone and all the FM stations had formats and playlists. So I quit radio. It wasn't fun or creative anymore. An old friend from Philadelphia Joel Dorn was looking for an assistant so I joined Atlantic Records as a staff producer. I got to work with a wide variety of artists from Dave Brubeck to Oscar Brown Jr. and was able to convince Atlantic to sign the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.

I'm positive that the first time I saw your name was as Producer on an album by The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Fanfare For The Warriors (a fantastic album, by the way, and one of the first jazz albums I ever bought). I'd like to know about how you came to know Anthony Braxton's music. What did you think of it?

I was corresponding with Bob Koester and Chuck Nessa at Delmark Records and they sent me the first AACM albums they made. It all fascinated me and I even took a trip to Chicago in the summer on 1968 to meet and hear a lot of the musicians like Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. I didn't meet Anthony at the time, but loved his first Delmark albums. All of the Chicago guys each had their own conception and sound and were so new and different than the New York avant garde. I became a fan of so many of these musicians.

I think that the first Arista album that I bought was The First Minute Of A New Day, the first one on that label by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. Later, I bought Patti Smith's first album, and an album by Lou Reed. The first Braxton on Arista that I bought was Five Pieces 1975. It always looked strange to me that somebody like Clive Davis would start a jazz subsection of a label that was obviously meant to be "commercial", and that he signed somebody whose music was as uncommercial as Braxton's. Talk about that.

Clive Davis was trying to build a major label quickly. So that meant signing established artists like the Kinks or The Grateful Dead and signing cutting-edge artists who had potential like Patti Smith and Gil Scott-Heron. It also meant having a full range of music so he made a deal with Steve Backer to start a jazz division. The Brecker Brothers were a success quickly and Clive allowed Steve to sign artists like Anthony Braxton as long as they brought good reviews and prestige to the label. I had convinced Anthony to move back to New York because I had offers for him from both Atlantic and Arista Records and I felt these opportunities might go away if he did not take advantage of them immediately. He chose Arista because Steve was so honest, believing and committed.

I think it can be said that when seen in a "jazz framework" Anthony Braxton appeared as a bizarre figure: he had studied mathematics and philosophy, played chess, smoked a pipe, and had strange diagrams for his song titles. Do you suppose that his being such an "unusual" figure for jazz played a part in the amount of attention he got from the press? Or was it just Arista's promotion dept. at work?

I think it was a combination of both. Anthony was getting known in jazz and contemporary classical circles and was very clear about what he wanted to accomplish from the beginning. I think it also helped that he was one of the first AACM musicians who played with nationally known and established jazz musicians instead of just forming groups with AACM members. His exposure with Circle (Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul) really helped him.

Steve strongly believed that this music could be accepted far better than it had been and worked hard to market this music and prove that it could sell well.

I don't have a clear idea of the way Braxton was considered in the "jazz press" proper, though I have the impression that his (three) quartet albums and his Creative Orchestra Music 1976 were greeted with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Am I wrong?

Yes, his three quartet albums and Creative Music Orchestra albums were greeted with raves. Critics who did not like or understand his music just didn't write about him.

If we consider the material he recorded for Arista, I think it can be said that his For Trio album is the moment when things changed. Coming from a "rock" background, when listening to For Trio I had only to determine if I liked that album, not whether it adhered to any accepted notion of what "jazz" was supposed to be. What was your perception of the way the jazz press reacted to it?

I don't remember what the reviews were like for this album. I've never been interested in what other writers think and, to this day, I rarely read reviews. I think features and interviews give the reader so much more.

I only got to know about the For Four Orchestras album by chance, and the very existence of the album For Two Pianos remained unknown to me until I bought the Graham Lock book, Forces In Motion, a few years later. So I assume that at that point Arista was not interested anymore, right?

Anthony's sales were slowing down but this was because the jazz public had a resistence to projects like these which were totally composed. As long as Steve Backer was there, Arista was interested. When he left the label, it was right around the time that Anthony's contract ended. So Anthony did not resign and other artists that Backer signed went elsewhere as well.

I've always been curious about the kind of contract that Braxton had signed. I mean, at first I thought that he could only record for Arista, but then I bought albums on Moers Music and Hat Art while he was still signed to Arista. Could you talk about this?

Those albums on other labels that were recorded while Anthony was on Arista came out after the Arista deal was over. His contract was exclusive. The material on Moers or Hat Art were cases where labels approached Anthony later with existing tapes and made deals with him to release the music.

I became aware of Mosaic Records thanks to the first Thelonious Monk box set (but too late to get it!), and I'm the proud owner of the second Monk box set, and of two Mingus box sets. Though I assume by now the story of Mosaic to be well-known, could you please give me a compact picture?

Well, in the early '80s the record business was in very bad shape. My friend Charlie Lourie who had worked at Blue Note and Warner Bros. and I were both out of work. We made a proposal to EMI to relaunch Blue Note but they were not yet ready to add a jazz division. Part of the proposal was box sets, specifically The Complete Blue Note Recordings Of Thelonious Monk. At some point, I realized that if we made these limited editions and sold them via direct mail only, these box sets could be a business in and of itself. So we started Mosaic Records.

If I remember correctly, years ago I was asked what box set I would like to see (and buy!) on Mosaic. I immediately wrote "Braxton on Arista", since in my opinion this was first-class material that in a way defined an era. But at the same time I was aware that - when seen in the context of what's considered to be "accessible" - this music is really bizarre, and quite difficult. Francis Davis has talked about "Ornette Coleman's Permanent Revolution". So I was really surprised to see this box set go on the drawing board, and now on sale. How risky a choice is it? Has the mainstream changed?

It is not risky in the sense that we will break even if we sell only 1000 sets. But of course we need every set to be profitable to pay salaries and costs. I think the set will do just fine. I had been trying to license this and other Arista material for a long time. But I never got an answer from the licensing people at RCA which had bought Arista. Then Sony and BMG merged. I had a good relationship with the Sony people and they were able to set up the deal to license Arista material. So I don't think the mainstream has changed. It was just a matter of finding people who would get the deal done!

As for my last question, I'd really like to ask you about memory. I mean, what Mosaic is doing is to preserve "important cultural artifacts" in a "physical" format. But, as you know, the "spirit of the age" goes in the opposite direction: impermanence and lack of memory, except for "nostalgia". Scanning the horizon, what's in store?

There is so much great recorded jazz in the 20th century that we will never be at a loss from projects from all eras of jazz. We are going to continue to produce important physical documents of this music. We are also going to start a series of LPs as well although the LPs and LP sets won't mirror the large CD sets.

I'm sure there is a small jazz audience for downloads, but most jazz fans want documentation, photography and information. I think physical formats will be with us for a long time.

Beppe Colli 2008 | Nov. 2, 2008