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. 

Dreamland in Blu: Thelonious Monk Music Reimagined at Cloud Altitude

 

dream cloud

Dreamland’s cloud in Blu, 23-plus stories up.

This brief photo essay interprets the experience of hearing Dreamland, an imaginative and courageous ensemble which has worked hard in recent years to make much of the challenging Thelonious Monk repertoire alive for new listeners, and gratified old Monk fans.

Thelonious-Monk-UPI-Photo-Courtesy-of-the-heirs-of-W.-Eugene-Smith-and-the-Center-for-Creative-Photography-at-the-University-of-Arizona

The band Dreamland is named for an obscure Monk tune rediscovered by trumpeter/bandleader Jamie Breiwick. Monk often seemed to live in his own private dreamland. Photo by Eugene W. Smith, courtesy UPI. 

The band, conceived and led by trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, performed Friday night at Blu, the nightclub located on the 23rd floor of the Pfister Hotel,  with stunning views of the downtown Milwaukee lakefront.
I began taking a few photographs with no agenda. Gradually it seemed that the band’s ambition in reaching high to master and re-imagine Monk’s technically vexing yet uncannily charming and intriguing music — in such an atmospheric noir setting — was worth a visual treatment, or a dream sequence.

Such stimulating variables may be partly why they’re one of my favorite music groups. So, though a longtime arts and jazz writer, and because this concerns the architecture of Monk and of Milwaukee, I am in letting the dreamland images speak for themselves (for the most part), mindful of a famous Monk quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

dreamland dusk

Dreamland warms up the Blu night club audience shortly before dusk (L-R, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Clay Schaub, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, drummer Devin Drobka).

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From Blu’s windows, you see the counterpoint of classic and modern Milwaukee architecture, looking south toward the Hoan Bridge. 

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At least one couple seems transported by Dreamland.

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The still-rising Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance tower is illuminated by many stories of its construction lights on the right tower portion. At, right, the blue flame atop the iconic Milwaukee Gaslight Building forecasts the weather.

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Blu is the rhythm of drums deep in the night.

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Dreamland begins heating up as darkness as falls on Milwaukee. 

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From Blu we see the end of the I-94 expressway in the foreground, curving into the southbound Hoan Bridge harbor overpass. Many years ago, when the I-94 ramp remained an unfinished precipice high over the ground level, it was used as “the expressway to nowhere” in the precariously climactic closing car chase scene in the film “The Blues Brothers.”

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Trumpeter Breiwick uses his hand over his bell to bend a mournful note on a Monk ballad.

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Even the carpeting in Blu has a dancing, dreamlike quality.

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Jamie Breiwick performing, and radiating, “Light Blue.”

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Just maybe, this is how Thelonious Monk – a genius of dancing, songful abstraction – might have viewed Milwaukee’s south shoreline along the Hoan Bridge.

P.S. Well, I’m fudging a bit on my promise to let the photos do all the heavy lifting, such as it is. But I’ll add a few more comments about Dreamland, whom I profiled previously here:

Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick “dreams” of Thelonious Monk’s music

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Now the band sounds like they are making Monk’s music their own. It’s in the increasing ease of articulation of the vital and sometimes profound ideas contained in often-hazardous chord changes and rhythmic trip wires.
Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick continues to pursue his Miles Davis-cum-Don Cherry influences, often pushing plummy accents into a slippery swing and, like a master baker, he consistently kneads the thematic material into whole, rounded melodic ideas. As the bandleader, he’s also imaginative and intrepid in delving into the mysterioso depths of the Monk book. Breiwick has an assurance and dedication to the material that I think would’ve made Monk proud, even though he was known as an often-exacting bandleader.

And for my ears, Devin Drobka is an ideal drummer for this music. As a Berklee-trained musician and vibist, he understands the implications of the harmonic changes better than most drummers, which helps keep the music bubbling and percolating with the right aroma and savor. And on some tunes, like “Light Blue,” his drum solo built directly from the harmonic and melodic charms of the melody itself.

Here’s the band stretching out on “Light Blue” from a previous live date:

 

On a longer previous solo, drummer Drobka dazzled in quirky wavelengths. I declare that Thelonious Monk himself would’ve danced around his piano (a not-infrequent Monk behavior) in response to Drobka’s solo — bristling, sashaying, hiccuping, all amid a push-pull tempo tension. Then he’ll fling out a few fractured march rhythms. But few fractured marchers can also dance, like Drobka’s Monk march can.

Pianist Mark Davis is a somewhat more supple and fluent phraser than Monk himself typically was. And yet Davis’ playing leaps and lopes at times, which brings to mind to the magisterially buoyant hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark doing a Monk take. And Davis rarely misses a chance to insert an acerbic Monk accent — often a buzzingly discordant second interval.

Bassist Clay Schaub is relatively new to the band, as a replacement for John Price. But he’s an extremely capable and musical player in negotiating the often-tricky changes.

I see Dreamland staking out their own high ground in the crowded strata of Monk interpretation. Their intelligence, fearlessness, youth and fire will keep this dreamland afloat, growing and prospering in ways yet to be imagined.

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All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.