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. 

What might we learn from a “conference of the birds”?

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All bird photos by Kevin Lynch

You never know what might arise in the eye and mind when you sit and watch other species interact.

Yesterday on the Milwaukee River I saw these photographed scenes, what the 12th-century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar (Attar of Nishapur) might have described as The Conference of the Birds, the title of his famous epic poem. The poem also inspired the great jazz bassist and bandleader Dave Holland, who titled one of his first albums Conference of the Birds, released on ECM in 1973 with wind players Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers and percussionist Barry Altschul (see previous post about Holland).

The title tune (linked here), by the way, evokes birds in a fairly peaceful manner, with the two wind players playing flutes. But listen beyond that, in the ensuing YouTube tracks from the album, for a more complex jazz interpretation of the aviary conference.

An early edition of Attar’s Conference of the Birds

The river scene I photographed is a commingling of seagulls and geese who seem to interact and confer in a fairly harmonious way, even though any given bird — especially the smaller gulls — were free to express their sometimes raucous feelings as they came and went (see first photo, at top).

It also brings to mind a metaphor I have working my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I argue for the historical underpinnings of that  titular concept in American culture and politics extensively in the book.
Here, I was primarily struck by the social harmony of the birds, even though there seems to be a Trump-like alpha-male honcho (self-designated?) — the big, fat goose standing on his big rock, at right.

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Later, after the gulls dispersed peaceably, I saw several of the geese gathered at the water’s edge (below) then they proceeded upstream a ways in an orderly, fluid and harmonious fashion (final photo). This suggests earthly inhabitants (think of courageous stream-defying salmon) are not simply mere subjects to the forces of nature. The question is how well we employ our energy and resources to our own ends, without damaging those natural forces, ie. the ecosystem that benefits and sustains all of life.

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Clearly this scene also suggests that there are tribes in the world of birds, just as there are in humanity, and that tribes tend to flock or stick together, and conform harmoniously with greater ease than do differing tribes in a conference.

But that first photograph suggests the noisy and messy democracy we try to maintain, just as birds maintain their multi-tribe conferences with a common value of enjoying and drawing proper value from our natural resources.

Oh, if human society were this seemingly coherent. But perhaps we can draw wisdom from the Sufi poet’s wide-ranging take on “the conference of the birds,” here translated as “Bird Parliament.”

The alpha goose might symbolize the god-like figure the birds do strive to follow in the poem’s beginning. However, this commentary by Nathan Suri is a reasonable interpretation of the epic poem, which suggests that Islam has something to teach us about our place in the universe. Suri posits the wisdom of a holistic humility: that the universe is “one of intrinsic value being in everyone.” Clearly this may not abide with the American notions of rugged individualism and exceptionalism, but it does not contradict the basic notion of democracy, with freedoms adhering to and enhancing a value system geared to the greater common good of the society and the planet.

Suri comments: “Throughout this entire work, Attar masterfully describes the nature of Islam in a metaphoric way through items easily visualized such as birds. Every anecdote and aspect of the story has its aspects in Islamic tradition. Most importantly, the very nature of the format and pictures presented are based in Attar’s Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam focusing on intrinsic value. The Way is the Sufi’s life, filled with trials and tribulations, in order to attain the realization to view and understanding the universe. The end of it being the annihilation of oneself into the universe merging one’s own energy with it returning your drop to the “ocean of Truth.” The end of the story is significantly profound with the birds realizing that the universe is not an external thing but one of intrinsic value being in everyone.”

Note that there is no earthly god or savior to lead us to a promised land, in this parable. Even American presidents have their limits, as well-intentioned, effective — or deluded — as they may be.

Note also how peaceful and striving for harmony this ancient Islam philosophy is and, I think, far more characteristic of the religion and culture than the extreme radicals we hear so much about.