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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."

Cuscuna also had another very specific motivation in putting out retrospective box sets from the Blue Note vaults. "I had found 30 minutes of unissued Thelonious Monk, but the language of the day was 40 minute LPs, so it was too little to put out as an LP. But this was some of the most important stuff I had ever found. And then it dawned on me that Blue Note had put out their Thelonious Monk records from the 78 era in a way that was all scrambled up over three LPs. There was with a master take on one LP and an alternate take on another LP, and all the sessions were mixed up, not in any order. And so, I thought, the way I'd love to hear this stuff would be in chronological order by session and then chronological order within the session, with all the alternate takes, all the unissued takes in one comprehensive set. And I mapped it out, and those Monk recordings would make a perfect four-LP set, unravelling everything and retransferring it, and making the sound absolutely great. I gradually became so obsessed with this idea that I called Charlie around midnight one night, and I told him I'd costed it all out, and I thought we could make our own label—a business operation of it—if we just sold limited editions by direct mail. We wouldn't have to deal with distributors or stores. The next morning, he came over, and I called a bunch of people to confirm my cost measures, and it all made sense. So for the next three weeks, we were hoping Capital would turn our proposal down, and eventually they did. And that was how Mosaic was born."

Cuscuna's original cost models actually turned out to be a bit optimistic, but this didn't really matter. "The way I had charted it out, I figured the Monk set with a limited edition of 5,000 copies would sell out in 18 months. Of course, it actually took about seven years. But that notwithstanding, we set out on the right course anyway, and we're just proud of the legacy that we created."

There have been bumps in the road along the way. "We had a nice ascent for a while, and then other things came up. One of the weirdest things was when Columbia put out the complete recordings of [blues guitarist] Robert Johnson. It was only two CDs, but they packaged it in a box with a booklet, and it started to sell in unprecedented numbers. In the first year it was like 150,000, and it ended up reaching 300,000. Then the word spread around the industry: box sets sell." This had a distinct downside for Mosaic. "For the next five years we had a hard time getting labels to license stuff to us. Someone in the licensing department would say, 'oh, a box set? Well, we might want to do that ourselves.' Then when the retail business started to tank, suddenly we were able to get stuff again. So, it's a roller coaster. You just ride it. You just brace yourself and hope for the best."

Outstanding examples from the Mosaic catalog come to mind easily for Cuscuna. "There are two categories of sets that are milestones in my mind. One is a very small category of artists like Tina Brooks and Herbie Nichols. By approaching their work with the box-set treatment—with in-depth research and a lot of unissued material—we were able to call an incredible amount of attention to two major artists that had earlier been marginal in terms of fame and recognition. One thing I learned when I started doing reissues is that, for the most part, you can't rewrite history. An album will only do as well proportionally as it did when it was originally released. You can put out Lee Morgan's Sidewinder, and it'll sell like crazy. Put out Lee Morgan's Search for the New Land, and it'll sell OK although it'll get great reviews. But with Tina Brooks and Herbie Nichols, we were able to rewrite history and make them more important. It was especially gratifying with Herbie Nichols. We were able to get so much unissued stuff out, and a lot of musicians—like Roswell Rudd, Geri Allen, Ben Allison, and Frank Kimbrough—started recording a lot of this newly discovered material and really getting him in circulation. It was really gratifying to work with the past and to have an effect upon the present musically and to have an effect on the historical positioning of those artists. That for me that is the most meaningful part of Mosaic."

The other category of standouts document the work of more well-known artists Cuscuna had in mind from the outset. "They were on the original list that we made at my girlfriend's table in Los Angeles in 1981. Just a wild list, a wish list, really. Some of the sets took ten to twelve years to come to fruition, but when they did, we were very proud of them, and the results were just extraordinary: the complete Serge Chaloff sessions, the 1940s Illinois Jacquet sessions, the Nat King Cole trio sessions on Capital, and the 1940s and early '50s T-Bone Walker sessions. Those were ones that I really worked on. If you analyzed it, I probably made about seven cents an hour on them. But the results were so great. The unissued stuff I found and the source material itself was so great. It was all just incredibly gratifying."

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."
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