American Routes Shortcuts: Michael Cuscuna

Feb 14, 2020

Michael Cuscuna
Credit American Routes

Our guest knows something of the mystical appeal of records; he's been a deejay in underground radio and a record producer in blues, jazz, and pop.  For many years Michael Cuscuna has dug deep in the vaults of record companies like Blue Note and Atlantic to put out specially designed and remastered collections of great jazz.  In 1982, he teamed up with Charlie Lourie to found Mosaic Records, which is part of the Blue Note Label Group.  Mosaic continues to be a front-runner in reissues, specializing in limited edition, mail-order-box sets.  Michael Cuscuna told us how he got the idea to start Mosaic Records while working at Atlantic.


Michael Cuscuna: During the quiet periods I started to go into the vaults and dig into like Coltrane tapes, and Atlantic at the time really wasn't interested in reissues, but it whetted my appetite for the fact that there's a lot of great stuff sitting in vaults that never got reissued for one reason or another, but not necessarily ‘cause the music failed; it just got put aside.  And my friend, Charlie Lourie, who had worked at Blue Note and then at Warner Bros., he got laid off, and so we concocted an idea to get Capital Records to resurrect Blue Note and do reissue series box sets, like the complete Thelonious Monk.  Capital turned us down and it dawned on me that maybe just this little box set part of our proposal could be a business unto itself if we made it mail-order and if we made it limited edition so people would tend to buy it more quickly and if we made it hand-numbered like lithos.

Nick Spitzer: Sort of like individual prints off of an important painting.

MC: Yeah, and all the things I wanted to do on Blue Note suddenly they were willing to lease it to me to do myself.

NS: Let's pick some favorite artists or sessions of yours here that have been reissued on Mosaic.

MC: For me, as a Blue Note junkie, there was one tenor saxophone player that I fell in love with the first time I heard him play; his name was Tina Brooks.  Not very well-known, faded away—

NS: A man named Tina Brooks?

MC: A man named Tina Brooks, yes.  He had a gorgeously warm, very human tone.  It was like listening to a very charismatic, articulate speaker.  But, when we started Mosaic, I looked at Charlie, and I said "Do you think we can get away with doing a complete Tina Brooks Blue Note set," and he said "Man, that's why we started this thing in the first place, so no one could tell us no," and I said "You're right, absolutely!"

NS: Let me pick one favorite of mine.  You reissued that Capitol period of the 1950's from Duke Ellington, and experiments with electronica, and sort of a rhythm & blues feel, and it's a whole 'nother mix of avant-garde-ism meets the blues than mood indigo would have ever told us.

MC: Yeah, that's part of the wonderful thing when you go into vaults 'cause you know what exists, but there's stuff that exists that you don't know about, and we came upon a small group session done in Chicago where he's playing the very electric piano that Sun Ra was using at the time to record on.  It just plays these two beautiful, hypnotic blues performances with just three horns and a rhythm section.  And that little, quiet gem to me was like the thing that made the whole experience of putting the set together worthwhile.

NS: Will records remain important?

MC: I think so.  It'll never be the big business it was, but it will always be important to people that want something more than a download or something on their hard drive in their computer.  There are certain records that just trigger a visceral reaction in you that speak to a time and place.  I mean I couldn't hear Charlie Brown by the Coasters without remembering what it was like to be eleven years old, but I just think it's capturing lighting in a bottle, and you can call upon it at any time.  And I think that's the real attraction of recorded music.

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