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.
AAJ: And then that led to the birth of Mosaic?
MC: Yes, we costed it out and investigated everything and then that's how we started Mosaic. This was in 1982, but the records didn't come out until June of '83. It took that long to set up the business and get all the leases in order for licensing the first sets. Our first three releases were things that I had been researching in the Blue Note vaults- the Monk Blue Note, Gerry Mulligan and the Pacific Jazz stuff with Chet Baker, and the Albert Ammons/Meade Lux Lewis early Blue Notes. We struggled along working out of Charlie's apartment with no salary for about a year or so and gradually we were able to take a salary and make a go of it.
AAJ: Tell us about your current location and staffing.
MC: We moved out of Charlie's house in 1989 to the location where we are now (Stamford, Connecticut), which is a combination of an office and warehouse. At that point, we had two employees and now we are up to seven. We only grew when we needed to because it's not a business flowing in money.
AAJ: Obviously, you have established a client base that responds well to your product. What kind of people are your typical customers?
MC: We've got a lot of people that have been with us since the beginning and they order everything that comes out automatically. There are even a couple of people who'll order things in both configurations [vinyl and CD], if we put it out in both. We also have a faithful following, in one genre or another, that will buy everything that is mainstream or trad or hard bop or avant-garde. We wanted to diversify from the beginning. From having boogie-woogie and West Coast and hard bop we were able to get a real spread and maintain that.
AAJ: You have also been able to bring new light to neglected artists and in turn the momentum has lead Blue Note proper to release some great obscurities.
MC: Yeah, when we put out the Herbie Nichols, people had to gradually discover that stuff and I was just glad to have it out and I knew that when the lease ran out we'd be out of it and that would be that. But there was a real ground swell of demand for that stuff, we got request after request, and finally [Blue Note executives] Tom Evered and Bruce Lundvall said they'd try it on Blue Note. I never ever thought that stuff would have a second life and it has and it's stayed in print and I'm really happy about that. And a lot of the Tina Brooks are coming out separately.
AAJ: Please explain Mosaic's concept of the "limited edition."
MC: We wanted to make limited editions because our licenses were usually limited to three years. We wanted to let people know that in three to five years these things aren't going to be around and whatever is on their shopping list we wanted to get our stuff at the top of their list. So that's how we introduced the limited edition idea, which is now borrowed by Blue Note's Connoisseur series and Verve borrowed it for their Elite series. But, I tell people that in reality every jazz record is a limited edition because it will eventually go out-of-print.
AAJ: As your track record has shown, you do very well with your Blue Note compilations, but what kind of response have you had to the more traditional sets you've been working on lately?
MC: Not as well as the Blue Notes, but we still do pretty well. In fact, the great response to the Kid Ory set has surprised us.
AAJ: You have been involved for several years now in the repackaging of Miles Davis' great legacy of recordings on Columbia, issuing the vinyl versions of these boxed sets on Mosaic. Can you tell us about the experience of working with that classic material?
MC: That stuff was such a joy to work with; it was great. I tell you what, you go into the vaults and it never ceases to amaze me some of the things that happen over time. Like the Milestones album, a very important album; in '62 they put out an electronically re-channeled stereo version and by '67 all you could buy was the electronically re-channeled stereo. Then, of course, years later it came out in mono on CD. In the meantime, all these years, there have been three-track tapes of the whole album sitting there. They could have made a real beautiful sounding stereo at any point. I guess nobody looked for them; I don't know. Why it's a beautifully recorded date and Philly Joe is just so amazing on that.
AAJ: Can you share with us any news about upcoming Mosaic sets?
MC: Well, we just put out a Horace Parlan Blue Note set and a Woody Herman Capitol set. This month we'll also have out the Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson. It's one of those things where I had put out a couple single album reissues by Wilson and they didn't do well so I realized that the only way I'm going to get this stuff out is by doing it as a Mosaic. We also have an interesting thing that someone suggested to us. George Avakian, in the 10-inch LP days, had done a series of albums for Columbia called Piano Moods and it had a lot of middle-of-the-road piano players and cocktail piano players, but it also had Errol Garner, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy, and Joe Bushkin. So we've taken all the jazz Piano Moods 10-inch LP's and put them into a boxed set and added a couple of interesting obscure items, like the live Art Tatum, Ralph Sutton Plays Fats Waller, a Joe Sullivan album of previously unrecorded Fats Waller tunes, and Ahmad Jamal's first sessions. So that's like a kind of "swing" to "modern" piano boxed set.
AAJ: Do you have any other Mosaic projects waiting in the wings?
MC: I'm going to do a Joe Pass boxed set of Pacific Jazz stuff. That's some great stuff and there's an amazing amount of unreleased material. You know that album he did as a tribute to Django Reinhardt? Well that same band started the month before an album for Hank Williams and there's about four killer tracks like "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Jambalaya" and stuff; the same band playing jazz. I've also been playing with a package building a Pacific Jazz thing around the hard bop black groups at the time, which were kind of overshadowed. In September then we've got The Complete Columbia Mildred Bailey Recordings, which will be about eight or nine CD's. Then we're going to branch out a bit further into vocal land, just because we've received so many requests. We're going to do The Complete 1950-1960 Four Freshman Capitol Recordings. We've also got another Columbia set from members of the Eddie Condon gang from the '50s and early '60s. In September we're also going to be doing a Verve small group Johnny Hodges set covering 1956 to 1961, a great time period for him and there's also a lot of unissued stuff. There was a tremendous amount of unissued stuff, a lot of it didn't survive, but some of it did. There's plenty of Ben Webster on it, Lawrence Brown; it's just some great stuff.