Since the age of 13, radio and jazz have been the only things I've been interested in radio. - Ron Cuzner
Cuzner was 64. He had a long history of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. When his wife, Janet Cuzner, returned to their Brown Deer home late Thursday afternoon, she found her husband unresponsive on a couch where he had been sitting that morning.
His long career in Milwaukee radio officially ended in January 2002, when he finally hung up his headphones and ended a gig on WJZI-FM (93.3).
For those who love jazz, Cuzner was the reigning king, though often one in search of a kingdom on the radio dial.
"He certainly was a pioneer," said Howard Austin, a noted Milwaukee radio jazz disc jockey himself.
Over the years, Cuzner remained true to pure jazz, Austin said, calling his friend's death a major loss for the local jazz scene.
Cuzner's shows "maintained the integrity of the music itself," Austin said. "There was none of that pop-crossover stuff. It was a respite from fusion and garbage (jazz stations) began pushing."
His shows - virtually always called Ron Cuzner's the Dark Side, for the dark of the night - remained among the most distinctive on the Milwaukee dial.
The list of stations that Cuzner called home read like a bowl of alphabet soup, albeit heavy on the W's - among them WBZN-FM, WUWM-FM, WYMS-FM, WKLH-FM, WLUM-FM, the old WTOS-FM and WMGF-FM, WOKY-AM, WTMJ-AM and, of course, WFMR-FM.
All Cuzner ever wanted was the freedom to play his jazz, without a programmer determining his playlist. His collection of 20,000 albums was inspiration enough.
"There were no playlists," Cuzner once recalled fondly. "Each jock played what he wanted."
He was born Ronald Graham Cuzner to Ethel and Frederick Cuzner, growing up in Racine. He discovered radio at 10, first dreaming of being an actor.
Then came jazz.
"He had heard Basie as a young person and Ellington and latched onto the music," Janet Cuzner said. "He explored it further and further and shared that knowledge with others."
Created own persona
For Cuzner, jazz might as well have been the air he breathed. The boy who wanted to act ended up creating a radio persona of his very own, named to the "WAMI Hall of Fame" by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry last April.
"Since the age of 13, radio and jazz have been the only things I've been interested in," Cuzner said in 1987, as he returned to radio at WTMJ. "For me, being taken off the radio was like taking a carpenter's hands away."
Cuzner graduated from Racine Lutheran High School and worked at several factory jobs before coming to Milwaukee to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the early 1960s, his wife said.
While taking communications courses, Cuzner worked as a counselor at a local Boys Club. In 1968, he moved from public radio to his first job in commercial radio at the old WTOS-FM station.
Those who loved the music reveled in the master's knowledge of his subject.
"If Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world, Ron Cuzner is the greatest jazz aficionado," said Journal Sentinel president and publisher Keith Spore, who got to know Cuzner while writing a jazz column.
Cuzner was, he said, an encyclopedia of jazz.
"You could ask him the most obscure question, and he would know it," Spore said. "It would be right off the top of his head. He could tell you the date, the label and every musician who played. He was the greatest. We would talk every couple of months. I never knew anyone who knew as much as he did about a narrow field."
One of a kind
"With his omnipresent caps, his slow drawl and his deep love for jazz, Ron Cuzner was sui generis, one of a kind," said Mike Drew, a jazz fan and columnist for the Journal Sentinel.
"His contribution to young listeners' taste, and knowledge of the music and, indeed, to the survival of jazz here was prodigious," he said. "And no one in America had a hipper record collection."
Columnist Bill Janz called Cuzner "our guru of the cool, our maharishi of the hip."
Playing station politics, however, was never cool to Cuzner. When it came to reading news from the world of sports, the details were always decidedly sparse. Cuzner never mentioned scores, sometimes not even the team names.
"In baseball, Baltimore defeated New York. . . . Chicago defeated Los Angeles," he would say. Or maybe just: "There were many football games Friday night . . . some teams were victorious. . . . Others were not."
For Cuzner, if it wasn't jazz, why would anyone care?
We'll close this tribute with Cuzner's own warm wishes from The Dark Side he loved to share with his listeners.
"I sincerely hope you are warm tonight. . . . I sincerely hope you are together tonight . . . and I sincerely hope your cookie jar is filled to the very brim . . . with the cookies of your choice, of course."