Mosaic Records: Making Jazz History
Cuscuna won a Grammy for best historical album for the Nat King Cole set in 1993, although he sees that as a fluke. "That was a Grammy because the Elvis Presley and Les Paul albums cancelled each other out. They were both nominated, and I thought, well, it's got to be Presley, but there were enough Les Paul votes that they undermined Presley, and Nat Cole came out on top." Cuscuna has also won Grammys for work outside of Mosaic, collaborating with Columbia Records producer Michael Brooks on recordings by Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. "The Miles sets were gratifying. That was something that actually came out of Mosaic. We had been trying to get the license for the Miles Davis material from Columbia, and I did all the research on them and everything, but I just couldn't get to first base. Everyone said, 'no, you can't deal with the Miles estate, and nobody at Columbia is going to say yes, giving away Miles.' So that was that. But then finally in the early '90s, Steve Berkowitz and Kevin Gore took over Columbia jazz, and they were having a meeting, saying they really wanted to redefine the whole body of Miles Davis's work. And Kevin Gore said, 'you know, the people who are the best at that are at Mosaic. Why don't we call Michael Cuscuna?' So he called me, and I said, 'I ain't turning this down, but I need something in exchange for Mosaic.' So we struck a deal where Mosaic put out the sets on vinyl, and the CD sets came out on Columbia. And that worked great. But for me, the main thing was just getting my hands on the Miles Davis stuff and getting it out as completely as possible with the best sounding masters."
Mosaic's most recent releases are in keeping with the traditions the label has established over the last three decades and, like all the others, have been in the works for years. With Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald: Decca Sessions, 1934-41, work on the recordings was done two years ago and the booklet was completed about a year and a half ago, but Cuscuna points out "the rights clearances from the major labels took forever, because there's nobody left working there. There have been so many cutbacks. There's nobody left in business affairs or licensing to officially do the work. Where we used to go to Universal or Sony and get four or five sets cleared a year, we're lucky if we get one a year now." Cuscuna had been wanting to do the Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald set for some time. "Part of the problem was that Ella Fitzgerald is so prominent, and her name is still seen as big in back catalog sales, but I think we finally convinced them that Ella Fitzgerald in the context of Chick Webb is totally different than Ella Fitzgerald from her days on Norman Granz's labels."