Michael Cuscuna and the Mosaic Records Legacy

There’s probably no better memorial to the legacy of legendary producer Michael Cuscuna than the release, expected in June, of a seven-CD set titled Classic Bobby Hutcherson Blue Note Sessions 1963-1970 on the Mosaic Records label. Music from eleven sessions is captured, featuring Hutcherson as both leader and sideman, charting his tremendous musical growth throughout the 1960s.

Michael’s last completed project for Mosaic: the Bobby Hutcherson Blue Note Sessions 1963-1970. (courtesy mosaicrecords.com)

And Cuscuna shared a more personal involvement with this musician, writing, “We are all very lucky in life to find a few best friends, people with whom we connect on levels of love, empathy, sharing and friendship,” wrote Cuscuna. “Bobby Hutcherson was such a person in my life. Aside from being one of the most forward-thinking musicians in modern jazz and a startlingly original artist on his chosen instrument, his presence defined wisdom, humor and kindness. Bobby and I shared many projects together and a dozen or more close mutual friends, but he was one-of-a-kind. Whenever he played New York, he stayed at my apartment, and we were roommates for a wonderful week.”

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Cuscuna, who died in April, co-founded Mosaic Records in 1982 with Charlie Lourie, who at the time was head of marketing for Blue Note Records. Cuscuna was a Blue Note fan who discovered, in the course of conversations with jazz artists who had recorded for the label, that there had been many recording sessions the results of which remained unreleased.

“Soon I began writing down sketchy information from musicians about these unknown treasures in a notebook,” Cuscuna wrote. “The staggering amount of unissued material soon became evident, and I tried constantly to get into the vaults.” He wasn’t successful until he met Lourie in 1975 and shared a notebook filled with information about those elusive session. “There were far more unissued sessions than I had even imagined,” he discovered. “The only trouble was that all of the company files were lost or missing, and the tape boxes only had the recording date and the name of the leader. So began a long odyssey to unravel this mess and shape it into a body of work that could be released.”

He shepherded some of those sessions into double albums, but the label went through a quick succession of ownership changes that stymied a consistent re-release schedule, Lourie’s enthusiasm notwithstanding. Thus it was that the two decided to create their own label, and Mosaic Records was inaugurated with the release of The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, a four-LP set. The company has gone on to craft nearly 200 more limited-edition releases, all in the best sound quality possible, with authoritative liner notes written by the best scholars in the business. All of which led the New York Times to name Mosaic “the most distinctive reissue label in jazz.”


The company began with office and warehouse at Lourie’s house. “Charlie was the one that hired me,” said Wenzel, “and at first I rarely saw Michael. I would go to Charlie’s home on Strawberry Hill in Stamford, and we’d have coffee in the morning and talk over the day’s projects. And then I’d head down to the basement and do the packing and shipping. Michael was usually going off to Blue Note or wherever he was freelancing, so he was rarely there at the house. I saw him more once we moved to our first offices, on Melrose in Stamford in 1989.”

Soon after that, Fred Pustay was hired as chief financial officer, overseeing what was now a label with offshoots like Mosaic Select, which were 3-CD collections, and Mosaic Singles, which reissued significant one-disc sets. And there was True Blue Music, and internet-based sales arm, which offered, among other items, significant jazz sets from other labels.

As Wenzel recalled, “Fred told us that in order to make more money, we had to put out more products. And you need someone to help Michael with producing, because he can’t do it all. So Charlie and Michael were like, okay—who do you think we could get? And Fred said ‘You’ve got Scott right here. He’s got ten thousand 78s. He knows the music.’”

Wenzel’s first producing assignment was a box set of Mildred Bailey recordings. “I wasn’t really a Mildred fan, but I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ It turned out to be a 10-CD set. And I found out what people were raving about once I really dove into the music.”

Lourie died in 2000, a time when the label was experiencing impressive growth. It grew rockier in recent years, resulting in unavoidable downsizing efforts. Staff was cut back, and the company moved to a smaller office. But sales have since been growing, so it was all the more tragic for Wenzel to witness Cuscuna’s sudden decline.


“It was in August or September when he noticed that he was having little difficulty when he was eating,” said Wenzel, “and he was curious why he wasn’t able to swallow. It was a shock to hear he had what he had, which was esophageal cancer. And yet through all of the chemo and everything else, he thought he’d be able to … well, the doctor said it looks good, there’s a good possibility you’ll be able to come through all of this, so we’ll just take it a day at the time. And then it just spread all over him quickly. That was a shocker, how quickly it went.”

Michael Cuscuna (photo by Thomas Staudter)

As for the forthcoming Hutcherson release, “that was a total Michael thing,” Wenzel said. “In fact, when he started the chemo and radiation, he said, ‘In case something happens, I’ve got the Hutcherson ready to go. So just keep on it and send it in when it’s when it needs to be sent in.’ So this was his last completed project.”

But the label will continue to offer quality jazz reissues, adhering to the philosophy Cuscuna and Lourie devised. “We have a couple of Vanguard projects in progress that Michael and I worked on together, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done. The first one will be—I forget how many discs, probably seven, I guess, of the small group, material. They’re all things John Hammond produced, with artists like Vic Dickinson and Ruby Braff and Sir Charles Thompson. It’s mainstream swing of that period, which is the mid-’50s. And then we’ll have a later set strictly dealing with piano from people like Bobby Henderson and Mel Powell and Ellis Larkins.


“Another thing I’m working on now is a collection of small-group V-Discs. That will be out in the summer, I hope, featuring all sorts of small group things. And then next year, we’ll probably be putting together a V-Discs big band collection. It was owned by the government, so it’s all public domain.”

The US government’s V- (for victory) Disc program began in 1942, but took the form for which it’s best known a year later, when Lt. George Robert Vincent convinced his superiors to okay a project in which top musical artists of the day would record songs especially for those serving overseas. For contractual reasons, the records were supposed to be destroyed before their owners returned to the US. Not surprisingly, many of those records survived. The challenge has been to find ones that are in decent shape.

“Yeah, that’s really it,” said Wenzel. “I got some through Lloyd Rauch, a collector friend of mine, and some through Tony Janak (of Columbia Records), who was one of the guys who started the program during the war. He had some glass masters for V-Discs with Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey on them, and some Woody Herman, too. We transferred those just last week. And the rest of them are coming from 78s, which is okay, because 98 percent of them were vinyl so they could send them off to the servicemen without them breaking on the way.”


V-Discs are especially significant because the first few years of the program coincided with a recording ban called by James C. Petrillo, head of the musicians’ union, who believed the royalty structures for radio play were unfair. So, even as jazz went through some monumental changes, these were the only records that filled that gap. “Yeah,” Wenzel sighed wistfully. “I mean, it’s too bad that we don’t have the Earl Hines big band, for instance. But there’s Art Tatum, there’s plenty of Tatum, and some great playing by Bob Crosby’s Bobcats and other swing stars like Roy Eldridge.”

Earlier this year DownBeat Magazine honored Cuscuna with an award for his lifetime of achievement in the recording industry, which included producing more that 2,600 LPs and CDs, most of them reissues. Cuscuna is survived by his wife, Lisa; his children, Max and Lauren; and two grandchildren.

“When we moved to Melrose,” said Wenzel, “where I saw Mike a little bit more. I can still picture him the day we moved in. He brought his son, and Max brought his toys. And it was the first time I really saw Michael as a father. When you met him on a professional level, he could be sarcastic and kind of crunchy. But with his family—well, he was a very devoted family man. And that was a pleasure to see.”

B.A. Nilsson is a freelance writer and actor who lives in rural New York. His interest in vintage jazz long predates his marriage to a Paul Whiteman relative, and greatly helped in winning her affections.

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