On Thurs., Nov. 3, he speaks at the 41st Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar, in the William Pitt Union at 7 p.m. This is the long version of the interview that Mike Shanley did with Cuscuna.Michael Cuscuna set the standard on box-set reissues when he launched Mosaic, a mail-order label that works in deluxe, comprehensive jazz re-releases. Released in limited editions, each set compiled a complete overview of a particular period in an artist's career, packing it in a 12-inch-by- 12-inch box, with a detailed booklet full of information that jazz geeks relish. Today, Mosaic still releases that package, though nearly all the sets appear on CD only. They've also branched out to include Mosaic Select and Mosaic Singles, which cover smaller scopes of releases. In addition to this extensive work, Cuscuna became the go-to guy for the numerous labels re-releasing their jazz back catalog.
On Thurs., Nov. 3, he speaks at the 41st Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar, in the William Pitt Union at 7 p.m. This is the long version of the interview that Mike Shanley did with Cuscuna.
You're the guy who listens to all the alternate takes to decide what goes on box sets and reissues. After hearing all that stuff, how do you keep from getting jaded?
Well, I don't think you ever get jaded when it's something you really love. But there is an overkill period. After almost every Mosaic set, there's a period of time after I finish working on a box where I don't want to hear that artist for at least four months. Ironically the only two artists I didn't feel that way about were two of the largest sets that I produced. One was the 18-CD Nat "King" Cole trio set. I got so deep into him that I never got tired of it. I just kept listening to him from the end of the project onward. And Count Basie. I did that complete Roulette [Records] live and studio boxes. Man, I love that band. It just swung like no other band. I can never get enough Basie, from the Lester Young-Jo Jones period, but also from the '50s and '60s.
For the most part, I experience overkill but I always bounce back. You never get jaded. What you do get is very exhausted, in the sense that [you're] listening intently. With reissues, the most exhaustive part is the decision making process -- listening to unreleased alternate takes and deciding if any are worthy of release. If they are, why? And then you have to play devil's advocate and say why not. Which is one reason I always try to get somebody who played on that record, or a younger musician who idolized that musician, to listen to any alternate takes that I want to put out, to see if they agree that it's worthy of release or if it shouldn't be.
That's one of the bigger responsibilities. If I put out music that is really unworthy or would embarrass the artist or make an artist unhappy, then I think that's the worst sin I could commit. I take the responsibility of what has been unissued, what has never come out. If I'm going to cause it to come out, I better have a very good reason.
The thing I love about Mosaic boxes is listening to the alternate takes and knowing what to listen for, because of what is written in the liner notes. Figuring that out must require a lot of concentration. Not so much with a Thelonious Monk set, where the songs where all three minutes, but with albums where the songs were longer.
Yeah, like a later Blue Note session. I think it's a soloist's phenomenon. With Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young [all saxophonists from the '30s and '40s], we have plenty of alternates, but if you're addressing a big band -- Maynard Ferguson or Count Basie or Duke Ellington -- alternate takes don't come into play that much because everyone is striving for the perfect take. And guys are replaying what worked on the previous take but making it better. So there's usually one good master take unless you have a really extraordinary soloist, like a Lester Young or a Wayne Shorter, where every time is something new and amazing.
The whole thing about alternate takes is that when CDs first came out, I started -- originally on Blue Note CDs -- to put an alternate take after the master take, because that's the way I like to listen to them, so I could compare them with a fresh memory. And I almost got lynched for that. So I eventually had to start putting them at the end of the disc. Which is fine because you can fast forward quickly if you want to hear them that way. I understand that a lot of people put the CD on and walk away and hear the album as it was. That's one thing that changed drastically.
You've worked on a lot of re-releases for pianist Andrew Hill.
Andrew's been one of my passions since the mid 1960s. And it's great because through Blue Note and even more so thru Mosaic, I've been able to get so much of his stuff out.
I remember talking to [Blue Note founder] Alfred Lion about [how there were] so many of the albums that I put out that [Lion] had produced 20 years earlier. I'd say, "Why didn't you put this out?" And he'd say, "I don't know, they sound great. I have no idea why I didn't get around to putting them out."
The same thing happened to me with Andrew Hill's material. There was a Mosaic Select with the rest of the unissued stuff, it was like a clean up project. Some of that stuff was like man this stuff is so great why didn't I want to put this out [on 19TK Hill box set]. And Andrew agreed. It's strange, but it's when you hear stuff. Your opinions change. There's no absolute in any decisions.
And there's so much of that stuff, it can be hard when you're weighing this sessions versus that session, and thinking about budgets too.
Oh yeah, well there's that! [Laughs] That didn't used to be the case but that's certainly the case now.
Rudy van Gelder [who engineered most of the sessions for labels like Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse!] once said that he's recorded so much music that he can't enjoy listening to it casually. Do you ever get that feeling?
Yeah. I rarely will go home and put on music if I'm working with it all day. I need a break from it. Or the other thing to do is if you're working on [progressive trumpeter] Charles Tolliver all day, the good thing to do is go home and listen to Aretha [Franklin]. Something that's really very different and always something that you've had nothing to do with. Then you can relax.
Sometimes if I'm driving in the car with the radio on, a song will have a tick in it, and when I hear that tick, every muscle in my body tightens. Then I realize, it's not my problem. I'm not listening to a test pressing. My body relaxes.
Speaking of Andrew Hill, do you think the Mosaic reissues helped regenerate his career in the final years of his life?
I think it helped, yeah. It was a confluence of a bunch of things. In the late '90s he put together this sextet that did Dusk on Palmetto [Records]. And it was just magical combination of people. It harkened back in the textures to Point of Departure [his best-known Blue Note album from 1964], but he just started writing music again like crazy. All wonderful. That really started a renaissance in his career and his work opportunities.
In 2000 Andrew called me out of the blue and said, "Remember that 11-piece band record we did? You listened to the tapes and said it was a train wreck? We've got to revisit that." And I said okay because a couple people who played on that record, Lenny White [drums] and Howard Johnson [tuba, bass clarinet], have always been asking me if they could hear it. So I ordered CD-Rs of this session. They sent them to me and I sent one to Andrew. And he called me and said, yeah you're right this is a mess. But I said let me listen one more time. And I listened and the reason it sounded like a mess was because only half of the stereo was feeding into the machine. You could hear a bunch of other instruments in the echo. I said, "This isn't the complete thing!" It was one of those rare Rudy Van Gelder [sessions] recorded on eight-track. I got the eight-tracks and put them on and it was great.
That was the album that became Passing Ships [released in 2003]. For better and for worse it was named album of the year everywhere from the New York Times to the jazz magazines. And I say for worse because it's kind of sad when a record made 30 years ago becomes record of the year. But that really helped him too. And that let me to revisit everything that's in the can. That's what that Mosaic Select was about. And I'm happy to say it was a 25-30 year odyssey but that's how long it took me to get every Andrew Hill session out, but I finally got them out.
Going back to the original tapes – where were they? Did Rudy keep them?
Cuscuna: No. Rudy never keeps tapes. I wish he did because there's some John Coltrane Impulse! stuff that's lost forever.
They were all at Blue Note in New York in the '60s and early '70s. Then around 1973 they all got shipped out to California because [the label] it was owned by United Artists. They've been in five different locations since that time, around the LA area. For the most part I've found every tape that should exist with five or six exceptions.
When you come to Pittsburgh, the title of your lecture is The Business of Jazz, right?
Cuscuna: I called Nathan [Davis, head of the Pitt Jazz Seminar] this morning and said, "There's a million different directions I could go on this." He said, "I want you to talk about reissues. How you do them, why you do them, all the stories about how they sell." That's basically what I'm going to talk about. It'll start with the Blue Notes and the Mosaics and the Columbia stuff with the Miles Davis sets, and also John Coltrane on Impulse!, which I worked on in the '70s and back to in the early '90s. There's a lot to talk about.
I'm sure I'll get bored with what I'm saying and veer off into other little anecdotes or opinions. [laughs] I'll probably just have a 10-word outline and go from there and encourage people to interrupt. There's no point in talking if people want to hear something else from you other than what you're talking about. I like feedback, you know.
Where is the jazz business – in a precarious state?
Cuscuna: The recorded music aspect of it is in extremely dire straits. But I find that there are more talented young musicians, top level musicians, coming up every day. And they're all finding work. And not just in New York clubs. They're getting sidemen gigs, going on tours and I think the state of jazz itself is very healthy. When you think of downbeat, JazzTimes, Jazzis, the amount of press that the jazz world supports is quite amazing to me.
The record companies are ailing. And there will be consequences for artists as a result of that. But the consequences for them will be, as well as mastering your instrument, you'll have to know how to record and produce your own record, have them pressed and sell them off the bandstand and on the internet, and you'll have to learn how to maintain your own website. Those are now as rudimentary as scales for a musician who wants to have a fulltime career. They'll become more and more important as time goes on. I don't know what the future will be, but I know that the skill set for musicians is going to triple.
With Mosaic are you still seeing people who are still interesting in the tactile experience of music, rather than just listening to downloads?
I don't know. Certainly for people my age and older, it's a big part of it. It took me three years without a functioning turntable in my house before I got rid of my record collection.
Nooooooooooooo! Even then I still have every Blue Note album.
OK. And everything I've worked on. But other than that, I got rid of everything. And I had country, blues, I had everything. But I miss the 12 X 12 field for cover art. I miss the 12X12 field for information and prose. Not just information and prose, but information and prose that you can actually read in a typeface that's legible, that's black type on white paper instead of orange type on green paper. I swear every art director in the CD world is completely illiterate because they have no respect for words or information. I miss that.
They keep talking about a resurgence of vinyl in all genres of music but it's still a very small select group. A lot of it is kids who like to make mix tapes and use turntables that way, like DJs. And then there's the other end of the spectrum, which is overly wealthy people who have $35,000 sound systems who want original pressings or 200-gram pressings. Those are two marginalized groups. I don't think vinyl's going to make a real comeback in any sense. I miss it. And I think anyone that was raised on it does too.
I'll tell you what I miss most from the LP era, is the lack of burnout. When you bought an LP, or just pulled it off your shelf, rarely did you play both sides. If you played one side, you'd play an 18, 20-minute program of music. When you get a new CD you pop it and when I see 74 minutes pop up, I think woah this is unbelievable. And unless I'm listening to a set that I'm working on, I've never gotten through a whole CD of anything! It's just a different way of listening now, and more exhaustive. I think a lot of young musicians don't help themselves. If I've never heard of you, but I heard something on the radio that I like, don't give me 74 minutes of originals, brand new music, with no anchors to compare you to someone else and get a fix on. Give me 60 minutes and make 20 minutes of it compositions I know, so I hear how you deal with something that I know.
In all your work, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
In the early days of Mosaic, I put out a ['60s tenor saxophonist] Tina Brooks set and a ['40s/'50s pianist] Herbie Nichols set. I learned long before even starting Mosaic, a reissue will only do as well as an album did when it was originally released. So if it was an obscure small seller, when you reissue it, it's still going to be an obscure small seller. You can't rewrite history with reissues, for the most part.
But somehow there was a confluence of young musicians and critics that were so receptive to those two sets, that we really elevated their status in the history of their music immeasurably. And I was proudest of that, of really taking two obscure guys and getting them into a more mainstream level in jazz history. And especially Herbie Nichols. Suddenly a lot of people like [pianist and University of Pittsburgh alum] Geri Allen were recording his tunes.
Not only did I get the music out and have it available, people are causing the music to live again in new ways. Booking the tide of history. That was probably the thing that gave me the most satisfaction.