Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records
[This interview was originally published in July 2000.]
Founded in 1983, Mosaic Records continues to set the standards as one of the finest reissue companies on the scene. Their definitive boxed sets have culled the vaults of such labels as Blue Note, Pacific Jazz, Capitol, CBS, Verve, Roulette, Decca, Atlantic, and Reprise. Some of the artists to have been represented by these luxury sets have included Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Shorty Rogers, Bud Powell, Tina Brooks, Larry Young, George Lewis, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, and many more too numerous to mention.
Mosaic is the brainchild of Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie, who both worked at Blue Note during a period when the label was in decline. As they tried to convince corporate powers to bring to light a good deal of unissued material that Cuscuna was discovering in the vault, the seeds were planted for what would become Mosaic and the ideal it represents- the issuing of definitive collections presented in logical and coherent fashion. While extensive and large boxed sets are now the norm, this was far from the case when Mosaic entered the market, making their advances even more impressive.
Produced in limited quantities (usually between 2,500 and 10,000 copies worldwide, depending on the particular set), each Mosaic set is housed in a 12 x 12 LP-sized box and includes a booklet with insightful commentary and a customary wealth of photos. In the case of Blue Note releases, Mosaic has done wonders for bringing Francis Wolff's wonderful session photos to light by including literally hundreds of them in the booklets of Blue Note sets.
As good as Mosaic sets look, sound quality is always of the highest quality and many of these collections have revived past material by clearing up previous abnormalities. Such was the case with the now out-of-print Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Solid State Recordings, which were originally cloaked in false echo and dated post-production.
Now that we've entered a new decade, Mosaic continues to be the reissue leader, with many exciting new comprehensive projects planned for 2000. But, more on that and a first-person account of the Mosaic philosophy will be found in my recent interview with Michael Cuscuna.
All About Jazz: How did you first get involved with the record industry and producing?
Michael Cuscuna: I was always interested in producing records. I'm not sure why. I started collecting records very early, even before jazz, R&B singles, from about the fourth grade on. I always knew I wanted to get involved in records and when I went to college I started doing college radio and in my spare time I got involved in producing jazz concerts at the Philadelphia College of Art, although I was going to college at the University of Pennsylvania. I also ended up starting to write for Jazz & Pop magazine and Down Beat and then one of the people I wrote an article about, Buddy Guy, knew that I wanted some day to produce records so when he was getting ready to do his last record for Vanguard he asked me if I wanted to produce the record with him. I did that. I did another Buddy Guy-Junior Wells album for Blue Thumb. So when I was in college I started producing records.
AAJ: Now you were also working in radio during this period too, correct?
MC: Yes, I had received an offer to go on commercial radio in Philadelphia and I took that. Radio was very easy work and short hours and a lot of fun and ridiculously good money for the time. I got an offer to then go to WPLJ in New York, which was a free form station at the time, and it was to do a morning talk and music show and I jumped at that. I couldn't wait to get back to New York because that's where all the music was. I did that for about a year and a half. Then, when radio started to get formatted, I bailed out and luckily at that time Atlantic was looking for another staff producer to handle overflow so Joel Dorn hired me at Atlantic to be a staff producer and at that point I got into producing full time.
AAJ: Tell us about how your stay at Atlantic would play a part in your later work and the formation of Mosaic.
MC: There were a lot of things that I had heard about that were unissued from various labels, including Atlantic. On days then that I didn't have a lot to do I would start ordering up tapes, listening to them, and gradually I got interested in doing reissues as well and finding unissued material. Even though it didn't come out at the time, actually I must have had boxed sets on the brain; I did a 14-LP boxed set of the complete Ray Charles that Atlantic didn't put out. After about two years, I left Atlantic and started doing freelance work while banging on the door at Blue Note, trying to get at all that unissued material that I knew was there, which finally happened in 1976.
AAJ: Wasn't it your current Mosaic partner, Charlie Lourie, who hired you at Blue Note?
MC: Yes, he and I had been friends and wanted to work together for years. Later on when Warner Brothers closed its jazz department, which Charlie was running at the time, he and I had nothing to do and so we petitioned Capitol to try to resurrect Blue Note, which was completely dormant at the time, and they said they probably weren't going to be ready for a couple of years. Of course, we couldn't wait for another two years, but in our proposal was a boxed set idea, The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, which was an idea I had because I had found about 30 minutes of unissued Monk. This wasn't enough for an album, but then it dawned on me that the way it was originally issued it was all scrambled up, so the best thing to do would be to tear it all apart, rebuild it, and make a boxed set and then I could include those 30 minutes of unissued things. So when the whole approach to Capitol to revitalize Blue Note fell through, I thought that maybe this boxed set thing could be a business unto itself.