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Mosaic Records: Making Jazz History

Bob Kenselaar By

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No one is more astonished by the longevity of Mosaic Records than Michael Cuscuna, the veteran record producer and one-time disc jockey who founded the label together with Charlie Lourie, a former clarinetist who worked in both jazz and classical contexts before becoming an executive at CBS records, Blue Note, and elsewhere. Arguably the premier reissue label in jazz, Mosaic Records issued the first of its limited edition box set recordings in 1983. Originally available through mail order only—at a time when music fans bought records almost exclusively at brick-and-mortar retail shops—Mosaic is renowned for its definitive editions that bring together all the existing recordings of individual jazz artists on a specific label or within a set time frame, accompanied by detailed essays by leading jazz scholars. The label's catalog includes major historic recordings by such musical icons as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Nat "King" Cole, as well as sets that call attention to the recorded legacies of lesser-known artists.

The thirtieth anniversary is indeed a surprise. "It snuck up on us actually," says Cuscuna. "And, for my money, it's quite a miracle. We've been on a roller coaster ride from the day we started. We just started with a small amount of savings of mine, and it took us two or three years to draw a salary. We were living mostly on credit cards. Then when it started rolling, and it was great."

Leading up to the founding of Mosaic, Cuscuna worked as a disk jockey briefly early in his career in Philadelphia and New York, and by the 1970s he was a producer for Atlantic Records, working on new recordings by such artists as Dave Brubeck and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. "I was actually always doing both new recordings and reissues. It was a juggling act. I started working with reissues when I had free time between recording projects. In those days at Atlantic, our offices were right down the hall from the recording studio. When I didn't have record dates to do, I called up tapes. I'd find out we had unreleased Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Warne Marsh, Chick Corea. I'd pull out stuff and think, this is great; maybe I can think of a way to put this out. And I did." When he left Atlantic, he did some freelance record producing for other labels, mostly new recordings. Ultimately, he also sought out work with Blue Note Records, aiming to unearth materials from its trove of unissued recordings.

Mosaic Records actually started as a side project for Cuscuna and Lourie, almost by accident. "Charlie and I had been friends since he was working at Blue Note around 1975. I convinced him to let me come in and go through the Blue Note vaults to look at its unissued material. We became best friends fairly quickly. We wanted to start a production company together. In 1981, Blue Note died completely. Horace Silver was the last artist on the label. He delivered his last album in the spring of '81. I was working on a series of previously unissued releases—two titles a month—and I put out my last album in the summer of '81."

Capital Records owned Blue Note by that time, and Cuscuna and Lourie approached the parent company about revitalizing the label. "We put together an eight-page proposal, and at the end of the last page, under 'catalog exploitation,' we said we'd also like to put definitive box sets, with booklets and complete annotations that would appeal to the collectors' market, although we didn't think it would be profitable. Of course, my inspiration had been the great multi-artist compilations with great booklets that Columbia did in the '60s: Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Jack Teagarden, a set on Swing Street, and various others."

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