Ron Cuzner: Behind the cool, eccentric facade, a people person

Cuzner hangin’ with a celebrated Milwaukee guitarist, Manty Ellis.

The sublime strains of Duke Ellington’s nocturnal reverie, “Solitude” faded away. A voice arose in your radio, now, a few minutes after midnight:

“Good morning! And welcome to Friday…Ron Cuzner is my name. And this is The Dark Side, The Dark Side of Friday…the fourth of February, nineteen seventy-seven. This is jazz.”

Today, on March twenty-seventh, two thousand and three, Ron Cuzner made his last earthly exit. I wanted to honor his memory with reflections and documents never before published, photographs of Cuzner and his milieu by jazz photographer and quiltmaker Charles Queen, which clearly blend artistry and Milwaukee cultural history. 1

Cuzner often declared on the air that Billy Higgins was his favorite drummer, and part of me suspects that Higgins was his favorite musician period, because, not unlike Higgins, Cuzner was a master of rhythmic phrasing, of textured dynamics…of nuanced articulation…of the pregnant pause…of the held-breath ellipsis.

If Cuzner’s breath and voice weren’t akin to a drummer’s, consider an artist’s paintbrush and oils. But his medium was modern, electronic. He was an original in the medium of Marconi…the radio. On a stage, as the city’s first-call jazz concert emcee, he was almost equally at home. He commanded the stage with an offhanded grace, even when you had to snicker when he stood before a crowd, say, at Jazz in the Park — in his sports-car driver cap, funky shirts, shorts, sneakers and white socks. He often said that if he had not discovered jazz and radio, he would’ve gone into theater.

Ron Cuzner warms up the crowd as (l-r) Berkeley Fudge, Manty Ellis, and Victor Soward prepare to perform at Jazz in the Park.

Fudge and Ellis jamming in the Park

A bassist performs in front of the iconic St. John’s Cathedral at Jazz in the Park

Yes, “Ronald Graham Cuzner” had an ego, but he enfolded himself into the music like a man embracing the vibration, the sumptuous arrangement, the paradiddle parade, the butterfly melody. These were his vibrations, he felt, and they were his audience’s. In other words, I’m probing for a clue to the man behind the stylish vocal curtain.

The curtain was significant, it was clearly presentational and, perhaps some thought “Here was a Wizard of Oz,” or just a wizard of odd. Like the art form he loved, he wasn’t the right thing for everyone. In a way, Ron kept himself inside his own world, the world of Monk’s ” ‘Round Midnight,” the ultimate 100-proof jazz ballad (or is that Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”?). At the same time, he loved sharing, saying, in effect, isn’t this hip, or magnificent, or sheer brilliance?

I hope this photo essay reveals something anew, because Cuzner was invisible in his element, on the airwaves, seeping his intoxication into your subconscious. He was constantly reaching out. And, I would posit, there was a people person — there, behind the stylized hipster.

Jazz record store owner Ron Cuzner (center) displaying his Milwaukee Gemeitlekiet with a record store employee (left) and jazz pianist Frank DeMiles.

Though he didn’t ask for callers like a talk show, he welcomed them, because he was human, and how many people aren’t lonely sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning? His classic time slot was midnight to 6 a.m. And any time I ever spoke with him, he was cool, and easy, but warm, like one last martini at closing time.

His playful friendliness was typified by a favorite line of his: “I sincerely hope you are warm tonight, and that you are together tonight, and that your cookie jar is filled to the very brim … with the cookies of your choice, of course.”

Cuzner (right) and his employee Sam Linde, welcome towering trumpeter Kaye Berigan, to the shop.

After you called him during his show for a request or a chat, he would often play a tune for you, but with a sly-but-personal manner. Many musicians especially may recall this post-chat Cuzner rap (fill in your name…): “It’s the suggestion of Kevin Lynch that you drive with caution this evening. You see, his life . . . may depend on it. A message of safety from Kevin Lynch and WFMR, Milwaukee.”

How cool is that? Huh? On one occasion I remember especially, we had a sweet little phone chat and then, immediately he played a tune from Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds album. I was so impressed by his tacit musical dedication because he nailed me and my taste, because he knew me. Of course, my work as a Milwaukee jazz journalist helped him know my tastes, too. He would later have the remarkable graciousness to recommend me to replace him as a jazz radio host, when he left WLUM, an urban radio station.

These photos notably include his last public “gig,” as a record shop owner, at Ron Cuzner’s Mainstream Jazz Cellar. The place is where Ron literally met his audiences, musicians and lovers of the music, and of the moon’s moody atmosphere.

It became a slice of local jazz history as he hosted chamber jazz events, like one jam featuring then-budding jazz musicians (left to right, below), now-internationally known pianist David Hazeltine (standing, left), and two of his Wisconsin Conservatory students Mark Davis and John Foshager.

For me, and many others, Cuzner oversaw a quietly great era for The Music, as the city’s nocturnal jazz spirit. At 6 a.m., he’d sign off the air with the sun-rising music of Don Shirley. If you weren’t in blissful slumber, all felt right with the world.

If you don’t believe me, or put “trust” in Cuzner because he had trust in you, to have the best of good nights, as in this stylish evening bon mot:

Perhaps Milwaukee’s most renowned contemporary jazz musician, multiple Grammy-winner Brian Lynch (above), frequented Cuzner’s Jazz Cellar back in the day.

Cuzner also drew a hip and sporty crowd, like former MU basketball great, Bo Ellis,(below).

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1 Mark Davis is now a distinguished Milwaukee jazz pianist and director of the Milwaukee Jazz Institute.

All photographs by and courtesy of Charles Queen. 

Maria Schneider strives to slay data dragons and earns two Grammies

Composer-arranger-bandleader Maria Schneider won two Grammy Awards for her album “Data Lords.” Courtesy the artsdesk.com

All praise Maria Schneider and her larger-than-life, intrepid orchestra! She just won two Grammy Awards for best instrumental composition (“Sputnik”) and best large ensemble recording, for Data Lords. Like a goddess sprouting heavy new wings, Schneider brilliantly ventured far beyond her comfort zone of nature-inspired jazz impressionism, in the Gil Evans tradition: Schneider Grammy announcement

Despite her clear and proud roots, Data Lords affirms her genius as a true original and her prominent place in jazz history. I never actually reviewed this album partly because I’ve given her so much blog and newspaper play over the years and I reviewed in-depth a live concert she performed while unveiling some of Data Lords material, before the album’s release.

Data Lords album cover

I chose Data Lords as my No. 2 album of the year in the NPR jazz critics poll largely because, to me, my top choice, Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, was too urgently relevant in light of last year’s world-wide racial-justice protests. August’s large ensemble album also carried massive musical weight on its own.

But Schneider’s every statement now virtually demands critical attention, not unlike John Coltrane and Miles Davis, avatars of the post-bop era. Data Lords revealed the fire, indignation and backbone of the music’s leading composer-arranger, fully wielding her past mastery of scoring for jazz orchestra, like a woman warrior leading troops. And, yes, Delacroix’s famous romantic painting “Liberty Leading the People,” comes to mind. And no album had more great music in 2020 than hers. As an artist who records on a self-created label (ArtistShare) and distributes independently, 1 she’s not only a self-made artist but extremely attuned to the role of “data lords,” the gigantic online media companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) that play a grossly outsize role in how we pursue and receive information on the Internet, and spend our money on cultural products or activity. In other words, Schneider asserts that they virtually lord over our lives because so many of us are now dominated by our involvement in online media.

The Grammy-winning composition “Sputnik” is part of the “protest” side of this two-CD recording, yet it retains the depth of textured and spiritual beauty that trademark her best work, while evoking a profound sense of angst and desolation. By nominally invoking a famous space travel vehicle, it suggests that we may need to travel to new realms far from “home” to regain truth, self-determination, sanity, freedom and societal-coherence – not overseen by the data lords. Here too, an allusion to the Underground Railroad and slavery hovers in the stratosphere. I suggest this not to equate the two, but to honor the cultural pervasiveness of that darkest chapter in this nation’s history.

Such elevated praise might indicate that this is The Maria Schneider Show with musician munchkins. But she chooses her world-class players with Ellingtonian acumen (here, among others, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry, Steve Wilson, Scott Robinson, Ryan Keberle, Gary Versace, Ben Monder, and the late Frank Kimbrough) and gives them many extended spotlights, which helps expand this to two discs, and there’s hardly a moment of seeming filler.

And Schneider rewards listeners for the facing the sometimes-dissonant challenges of the first CD, “The Digital World,” by reminding us of what she is fighting for, in “Our Natural World,” the gloriously beautiful second disc. Another implication, in these juxtaposed titles, is that data lords’ dominance affects our overall priorities and collective consciousness, perhaps to the detriment of addressing climate change, and the perils to the natural world.

Great art like Schneider’s does its extraordinary work on its own terms, while reaching out to us, to some degree. The cultural covenant is completed when we respond as we will, which that art itself is not responsible for, and yet which reflects its sometimes-uncanny powers of evocation, provocation, and communication.

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  1. Thanks to Ann Braithwaite and her staff, of Braithwaite & Katz Communications for their superb, dedicated promotion of Schneider, and many other independent artists and labels over many years.

 

A participating writer catches up with the 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

Maria Schneider conducts her jazz orchestra live at the Jazz Standard in New York. Photo by Dina Regine. Courtesy steptempest.org

My posting of National Public Radio’s Jazz Critics Poll for 2020 is belated partly because my Facebook page was in techno limbo for so long, and the various vagaries of life in a pandemic, and being 65-plus with asthma. Good news, I got my first vaccine this week, and my daily rhythms seem closer to normal. Maybe that’s good or not — disruption that leads to new inlets of creativity, productivity and health should also be considered. I’m still working out that tricky balance.

Anyway, I contributed to the NPR Critics Poll again, and the consensus choice for album of the year, Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, was my Number 2 choice. I heard her play some of that arrestingly layered and signifying music live a couple years ago at the Elmhurst Jazz Festival, and she’s clearly a major artist who’s still evolving with the times, and her own complex muse. The high concept album addresses the ways that huge electronic media companies have transformed our lives and ways of thinking and communicating, for better and worse.

Beyond that, none of the top ten consensus choices were among mine. Some of my choices made the consensus top 50. My choices depended partly on what I’ve heard versus other critics.

Here’s Francis Davis’s lead story on the 2020 Jazz Poll and the consensus top 50 albums: 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

And here’s my Top 10 list, at NPR’s website, along with the other critics’ lists: Kevin Lynch’s NPR Poll

(The Shepherd Express, No DepressionCulture Currents)

And here’s my list below:

The album cover for “Dialogues on Race: Vol. 1”

NEW RELEASES

  1. Gregg August, Dialogues on Race: Volume One (Iacuessa)
  2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (ArtistShare)
  3. SFJazz Collective, Live: SFJazz Center 2019: 50th Anniversary: Miles Davis In a Silent Way and Sly & the Family Stone Stand! (SFJazz)
  4. Adam Kolker, Lost (Sunnyside)
  5. Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)
  6. Greg Reitan, West 60th (Sunnyside)
  7. Lynne Arriale Trio, Chimes of Freedom (Challenge)
  8. Weird Turn Pro, Maul and Mezcal (Weird Turn Pro)
  9. Dayna Stephens, Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard (Contagious Music)
  10. Dave Douglas, Marching Music (Greenleaf Music)

REISSUES/HISTORICAL

  1. Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (1968, Impulse)
  2. Edward Simon, 25 Years (1995-2018, Ridgeway)
  3. Pharoah Sanders, Live in Paris 1975: Lost ORTF Recordings (Transversales Disque)

VOCAL

  • Kurt Elling, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition)

DEBUT

  • Emi Makabe, Anniversary (Greenleaf Music)

LATIN

  • Poncho Sanchez, Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante -19)

I believe my top choice, bassist-composer Gregg August’s astonishingly powerful and provocative Dialogues on Race, Vol. 1, should’ve rated much higher than 33 on the critics’ list. However, Dialogues has been nominated for a Grammy Award, a worthy honor. My rather outlier top-ten picks overall suggest to me that distribution of albums, especially indie-produced ones like this one, can be spotty, and that there appears to be too few of the 148 participating jazz journalists in the heartland area (Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa), though Chicago, of course, is well-represented. One’s locale, if not itinerant, determines sensibility to some degree, I believe. I’m Milwaukee-based with a strong Madison history, as well.

So I’m really glad that Madison friend and Strictly Jazz Sounds DJ Steve Braunginn included August’s Dialogues in his February 25th Black History Month radio program on Madison’s WORT, 89.9 FM, Here’s a link to the show’s announcement, and to the audio archives you can use to get to Steve’s Feb. 25th show:

Black History Month Pt. 2 on Strictly Jazz Sounds

That station’s Monday-through-Thursday afternoon jazz programming is the most consistent source of exposure of recorded jazz in Wisconsin (Braunginn alternates weeks of the Thursday 2 to 5 p.m. shift of Strictly Jazz Sounds with Jane Reynolds).

That’s not to minimize Dr. Sushi’s Free Jazz Barbecue from 9 a.m. to 12 noon Tuesdays on WMSE, 91.7 FM in Milwaukee. I’ve done a fair share of jazz radio programing in the past, so I’m sensitive to its role, especially in this era of online access to recorded music. I’m deeply grateful to these dedicated radio folks, including WORT’s Alexander Wilding-White (Mondays), and John Kraniak (Saturday morning). Research shows that radio remains a very popular medium, despite the the explosion of online media.

Nevertheless, Milwaukee misses longtime jazz DJ stalwarts Ron Cuzner, Howard Austin, Gene Johnson and others, and Madison misses Michael Hanson and Gary Alderman.

I did review a few of my Top Ten albums this year, Here’s my take on Gregg August’s Dialogue on Race:

Gregg August’s “Dialogues on Race” is jazz facing up to racial history and present

And Adam Kolker’s Lost:

Saxophonist Adam Kolker travels in the long shadows of Wayne Shorter

And Lynne Arriale’s Chimes of Freedom:

Jazz pianist Lynne Arriale’s “Chimes of Freedom” testifies to forsaken humanity

Perhaps I should be using this post to expand on my other poll choices. But you readers make your decisions on purchasing recordings most of all by hearing music, which my music writing strives to get you to do. And this poll is facilitated by the nation’s public radio network, which does fair justice to jazz elsewhere, in some of its interview features and jazz album reviews, though not much actual jazz music programming.

So I recommend listening to NPR, the aforementioned local jazz radio programs, as well as accessing recommended music samples online. If you’re interested in the programming and live beyond either WORT or WMSE’s relatively small Wisconsin broadcast range, the shows are streamable.

If anyone is curious beyond the three reviews above about the whys of my poll choices, I’d be happy to expand on them in a Facebook message or, preferably, an e-mail. I’m at kelynchmi@gmail.com. (Unfortunately, I need to fix this blog’s out-of-commission “comments” section below — apologies.)

A blog reflects a writer’s mood and mine today contemplates the connection between sonic media and The Music.

To that end, I will end by at least giving you a sample or two here:

From Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, Vol 1: “A Wreath for Emmett Till” 

From Lynne Arriale’s  Chimes of Freedom: “Chimes of Freedom”

The Lynne Arriale Trio (drummer E.J. Strickland, left, and bassist/co-producer Jasper Somsen, right) recording “Chimes of Freedom.” 

I’m a bit biased towards jazz with a social conscious. I think much of authentic instrumental jazz does have that, at least implicitly, as I explore in my forthcoming book (I promise!) Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. But these two pieces, with texts by Marilyn Nelson (“Wreath”), and the astonishing lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes” make that case more obviously. Dylan’s lines refract with a poetic density of images, but with clear pay-off kicker lines. It’s a lyric that, I believe, traverses the political spectrum. I mean, it’s the chimes of freedom, for a vast array of characters. Listen, think and feel.

It’s worth searching out the full lyrics of one of Dylan’s greatest opuses. Arriale’s version, sung by K.J. Denhert and beautiful as it is, only presents three of the six verses.

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Wisconsin’s great cranes announce spring’s prelude and summon an extraordinary memory

Wisconsin sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane arise recently. Photo by Mark Hoffman, courtesy The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel.

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Paul A. Smith’s excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story is on springtime when young (and aging) men’s fancy can turn to…cranes!

Yes, the natural romance is the mystique and magnificence of Wisconsin’s cranes – the sandhill and, now the reviving whooping crane. It’s well worth a read, here:

Cranes as Spring Harbinger

I was immediately struck by the photographer Mark Hoffman’s lead image (above) of ten sandhill cranes and one white whooping crane taking flight – and Smith’s story, because they swept me back to one of the most dramatically intimate experiences of my life.

They were hard times for me. I was recovering from a rather stunning divorce, initiated by my ex-spouse right when I felt I, and we, were finally emerging into the manageable light from the long, rather surreal darkness of my bilateral neuropathy, Continue reading