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Milwaukee's Musical Mother Lode

Cujé Collection's trove of recordings at Marquette University

Jun. 22, 2011
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The Marquette University Raynor Memorial Libraries house several special collections, including the papers of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Catholic Worker Movement. Perhaps more surprising is the archive of Milwaukee music. The Jean Cujé Milwaukee Music Collection has amassed more than 2,000 CDs, LPs, 45s, 78s, cassettes and 8-tracks by musicians who have lived in town. Because of the collection, anyone with a Marquette library card can check out a Short Stuff album. Someone a world away can borrow the BoDeans on inter-library loan.

And there are additional materials in the collection available to scholars and researchers interested in investigating the sonic dimension of Milwaukee's culture.

“She was very loved—just a good person,” says the Cujé's collection development librarian, Bruce Cole, of the archive's namesake. Jean was a bassoonist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra who married Peter Cujé of the Milwaukee Symphony and taught music at MPS before coming to work at Marquette. When she died in 1992, the library's leaders pondered how to commemorate her. “Rather than the usual putting up a plaque, we decided we'd have a special collection of local music in her name as our contribution to her legacy,” Cole explains.

At first, no one imagined anything more than a small collection of classical LPs with ties to Milwaukee. “But the committee discussing the project decided to contact every musician listed in the Shepherd Express Band Guide, asking them to donate their recordings,” Cole recalls. “Lo and behold, a week later, in comes someone from the band Fuckface with their 45 for the collection. The circulation desk contacted me and said, 'This must be a mistake!'”

It was the first of many donations from Milwaukee musicians and collectors. The number of sound recordings has grown despite a limited budget for purchasing discs for the Cujé Collection. Along with sound recordings, Cole has amassed posters and fliers, reel-to-reel tape of radio shows by Bob Reitman and Ron Cuzner, promo kits and photos, newspaper clippings and copies of everything from short-lived mid-'60s music rags through the Bugle American and the Shepherd Express. Because of limited resources, the Cujé Collection can't pretend to be a complete repository—­a local music Library of Congress—but nonetheless it is a fascinating potpourri of Milwaukee history from the swing era through hip-hop.

Aside from occasional volunteer helpers, the Cujé Collection largely has been a one-man show, a labor of love for Cole, who began playing rock 'n' roll in Milwaukee bands during the early '60s. The Mills Music Library at UW-Madison also houses a large collection of Wisconsin sound recordings, but Cujé, Cole insists, is unique.

“There is some overlap with Mills, no doubt, but there is no collection anywhere like Cujé,” he says. “It's strictly dedicated to musicians who have lived and worked in Milwaukee. It's a treasure.”

Posters and other artifacts from the Cujé Collection will be on display in the lobby of the Marquette library June 22-24.

David Luhrssen is co-author of
Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times and has taught courses on popular music at MIAD and UW-Milwaukee.


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