The name Mike Cuozzo won't ring a bell with most jazz fans. The tenor saxophonist's discography is slim—just four known recording sessions, including two leadership dates, in 1955 and 1956 when he was 30 years old. And that was it. He left the jazz scene to become a building contractor in Caldwell, N.J., a move that likely came with the need to pay the family bills or a realization that organizing groups for recordings and landing spots on others' sessions was a heavy lift without a network of connected friends.
Cuozzo (pronounced COO-zo) was born in Newark, N.J., in 1925. He began his professional career with jazz clarinetist Joe Marsala and first recorded in Shep Fields's all-reed orchestra in the early 1940s. He also played in Elliot Lawrence's band in the early 1950s. Cuozzo recorded his first leadership album—Mighty Mike (Savoy)—in November 1955, backed by Eddie Costa (vib), Ronnie Ball (p), Vinnie Burke (b) and Kenny Clarke (d). Cuozzo's had a Lester Young sound with a Lennie Tristano vibe, delivering a smooth, inventive style on modernist tracks, blues and ballads. Relaxed and engaging.
In March 1956, Cuozzo recorded again for Savoy—this time as a sideman on Night People, a session led by bassist Mort Herbert, who would become a member of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars in 1958 and eventually deputy district attorney of Los Angeles. The band featured Don Stratton (tp), Mike Cuozzo (ts), Sahib Shihab (bar, fl), Ronnie Ball (p), Mort Herbert (b) and Kenny Clarke (d). This session is a little stronger and more creative than Mighty Mike in terms of the arrangements.
Cuozzo's last recording was Mike Cuozzo with the Costa-Burke Trio for Jubilee, backed by Eddie Costa (p), Vinnie Burke (b) and Nick Stabulas (d). That's it. There's not much on the web about Cuozzo, so I reached out to saxophonist Sol Schlinger, who also played in Fields's all-reed band:
"I was very young then, and for a young sax player starting out, Shep was a thrill. There were eight saxes in the band, and the charts were written by one guy—the drummer, Fred Noble. He was originally a New Jersey guy who eventually moved to Houston. Noble really understood the sax. Shep's thing at the time was his Rippling Rhythm, a goofy gimmick that had him blowing through a straw into a bowl of water to create a bubbling sound. Sort of an attempt to emulate Lawrence Welk. Actually, I was the one who had to come from my seat to bring him the bowl and straw. Today it seems pretty odd but back then it was normal. It was a happy thing that cheered people up. [Pictured above, Sol Schlinger]
"Shep shifting from that Rippling Rhythm thing to the all-reed band was pretty bold—and early, considering how many bands that came later would emphasize the sax section. We had a very good jazz player in that band—Tommy Lucas, an alto saxophonist. Mike Cuozzo was good, too. I remember his family had a car dealership in New Jersey. I went out there to buy a car from them, to be supportive of Mike. But that's all I really remember. I left for another opportunity and didn't stay in touch with Mike."
What's strange about all of this are Cuozzo's recordings. He was a gifted player. In fact, you could use his recordings in a blindfold test and blow friends away with the reveal after they guessed virtually everyone else. It's hard to imagine why in 1956, at the dawn of the 12-inch LP, Cuozzo would give up recording, since opportunities were plentiful for able players. A stark reminder that for every jazz artist we know and love, there were dozens if not hundreds who gave it up. Hopefully, a family member will read this post and contact me with the rest of the Mike Cuozzo story. If so, I'll share it with you.
JazzWax tracks: The Shep Fields recordings are available only on LP here. Cuozzo's leadership sessions—Mighty Mike and the Costa-Burke Trio albums—are available together on one download or CD, Mighty Mike Cuozzo (Fresh Sound), here. The Mort Herbert session is hidden on Sahib Shihab: Complete Sextets Sessions 1956-1957 (Fresh Sound) here. Cuozzo is on the first four tracks.
JazzWax clips: Here's Shep Fields's All-Reed Orchestra in the early 1940s. I can't tell if Cuozzo or Sol are in there...
Here's Cuozzo on What Is This Thing Called Love, from Mighty Mike (1955)...
Here's Lover Man with the Costa-Burke Trio in 1956 (you may need to turn up the volume a bit)...
A special JazzWax thanks to David Meiklejohn and David Langner.