In April, I posted on Mike Cuozzo, a superb, swinging saxophonist who recorded two swinging albums as a leader in 1955 and '56 and then stopped recording. Back in the spring, I called saxophonist Sol Schlinger, who told me that Cuozzo had owned a car dealership in New Jersey. And that was that—until several weeks ago, when I received an email from his son, Michael Cuozzo Jr., who offered a warm and informative portrait of his dad and sent along the photos you see in this post. [Pictured above, Mike Cuozzo with the Tommy Reynolds Band in the 1940s]
Here's Michael Cuozzo Jr. on the dad he and his family knew and loved...
"After years on the road with Shep Fields, playing for the U.S.O. during World War II, and the recordings he made in the mid-1950s, my dad decided he wanted a life that was more conducive to raising a family. Around 1957, he started a building/contracting company with his older brother in North Caldwell, N.J., where his family lived since 1945. [Photo above of the Shep Fields Orchestra in the 1940s with Mike Cuozzo on clarinet]
"My dad wasn't a trained builder/developer, but he was a natural businessman and recognized an opportunity when he saw one. He wasn't afraid of taking what he thought was a good risk. Around the time he made the two albums you mentioned in your post, my dad and his brother purchased some land in North Caldwell that had been for sale next to their family home. They became the contractors and hired workers to put up houses. [Photo above of bandleader Shep Fields and vocalist Jane Withers in the 1940s with Mike Cuozzo, left, wearing glasses]
"Dad designed a few mantelpieces and built-in china cabinets for some of these homes. He drew very well and enjoyed putting this sort of personal stamp on many of the homes he built. He also was an avid reader from the time he was a small boy and was, for the most part, a self-made man, having left high school before graduation to go on the road with the Fields band. [Photo above of Mike Cuozzo, right, with unidentified colleague aboard a ship en route to Europe at the end of World War II to play U.S.O. performances]
"From the late 1950s to the late '60s, Dad built many more homes and developments. Music opportunities continued to come in despite his new career. During the early '60s, he was contacted by the Tommy Reynolds Band and (I think) Elliot Lawrence to see if he was interested in going back out on the road. Dad declined, having already met and married my mother in 1958. His favorite hobby was photography. He built a darkroom in the basement of our house, complete with all the developing chemicals and equipment. It looked like a laboratory to me when I was a child. [Photo of the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra in the late 1940s with Mike Cuozzo third from right in the sax section]
"My dad had always been a sports-car enthusiast. He owned a 1954 Alfa Romeo Ghia [above] that had an all-aluminum body. Alfa only made a handful of these models. As far as we can recall, he purchased the car through a man he knew at the Lionel Train Co. Dad had bought a beautiful set of electric trains before I was born in 1960, and it was through that person that he found his way to the Alfa. Naturally, he also read many books on foreign autos.
"In 1957, my dad had built a VW-designed dealership facility (complete with showroom, garage and parts department). He then leased it to a VW dealer until 1970, when the dealer decided not to renew the lease because he wanted to relocate to a larger facility. With the dealership empty and in a great location, my dad and my uncle applied to Toyota Motors for a franchise. Since Toyota was in its relatively early stages, the company was looking for individuals with available facilities—especially ones that were stand-alone and not paired with a competing franchise. [Photo above of Mike Cuozzo in another sports car in the early 1950s]
"My dad put together a team of experienced automobile men to run the operation. As a new owner, he observed and learned very fast. The car business came along at just the right time. Dad was a smaller builder/developer and big investment groups had begun buying up land and putting up massive developments. After a good 13- year run at building, opportunities were becoming limited. [Photo above of Elliot Lawrence at the piano with Mike Cuozzo on clarinet in background]
"As I mentioned, dad never lost his love of music. After he came off the road in the late 1950s, he continued to play at nearby venues like the Meadowbrook Theater in Cedar Grove, N.J., where Tommy Dorsey and his band had been stationed for a while. In the late 1940s, Dorsey wanted my dad to join his orchestra, but dad was under contract with another band and had to fulfill that commitment. Dorsey could not wait for dad to be a 'free agent' and so they never got together. Dad played at the Meadowbrook up through the late 1970s and locally at Mayfair Farms in West Orange and many country clubs and ballrooms. [Photo above of Shep Fields with Mike Cuozzo, left]
"My dad was not relieved to get out of the music business. He just wanted to play music on his terms. He more than once said that when he was on the road, he was more or less confined to being a sideman. Coming off the road allowed him to play more jazz—his kind of music. He might have wanted to record a bit more, but I guess he had done a lot as a young, single musician, and found himself wanting a family. He had grown up in a large and very close family, and this was always a part of who he was. Dad continue to play through the early 1980s, when he learned a Japanese company had purchased the old Savoy and Jubilee labels and that his two albums were available on CD. He was overjoyed. [Photo above of Mike Cuozzo soloing in the Shep Fields band]
"In your post, you mentioned that Sol Schlinger said he purchased a Toyota Camry from my dad. I remember the day Sol called the dealership in the 1990s. He asked for “Mike Cuozzo,” but dad was not in so I took the call. Sol and I spoke about him and the old days on the road. It was a nice reunion when Sol came in a week later. My dad probably had not seen Sol since their days in the Shep Fields band. [Photo above of Mike Cuozzo on tenor sax with the Jerry Shard Orchestra during the 1960s]
"By then, my dad had stopped playing the sax in public. He had developed arthritis, and went through heart bypass surgery. The surgery saved his life and gave him to us for several more years, but it aged him considerably and took much of his energy. In October 2005, dad found out he needed heart-valve surgery. He weathered the operation, but suffered a series of complications. He was never able to leave the hospital. During his final illness, I would bring music CDs to the hospital for him to listen to. Dad was also a lover of classical music, especially the composers Ravel, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch. At that time, though, he expressed the desire to listen to his two albums from the 1950s. He passed away on April 2, 2006, just shy of his 81st birthday.
"At my dad’s funeral, I spoke and underscored how much I admired him for having been successful in three different fields of endeavor (music, real estate and automotive). Most people would have been happy with success on one career. My dad simply knew what he wanted, and then made up his mind to go out and make it happen. All this from a man who was anything but full of himself.
"I'm happy to report that we are still in business today, 44 years later. My brother and I now run the dealership—Caldwell Toyota. My brother and I also are musicians. I studied classical piano up through college, and my brother, who went more the route of my dad, became a fine jazz/rock guitarist who also writes music. Although our days are occupied with our families and running the car dealership we inherited, we too continue to make time for the great gift of music passed on to us from our dad.
"Dad did not like a lot of attention, and you would never have guessed from his personality and demeanor that he had accomplished so many things. He was quiet and never bragged about the good fortune he enjoyed. For me, this is the most important life lesson and example he set as a father."
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Mighty Mike Cuozzo (Fresh Sound)—a superb album that combines Mighty Mike (1955) and Mike Cuozzo with the Costa/Burke Trio (1956) here. You'll find that Cuozzo's tenor doesn't stop swinging and will remind you of Al Cohn's insistent, happy-go-lucky sound.
JazzWax clips: Here's Mike Cuozzo playing Nancy With the Laughing Face...
And here's Mike Cuozzo on Easy to Love...