25 Years at Blue Note
Bruce Lundvall reflects on a quarter-century at the helm of jazz’s most storied label.
By Ted Panken
One week into his 49th year in the record business, 25 of them spent in the employ of EMI, Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall was anticipating a meeting with his latest boss. “I’ve had at least 15 bosses since I came here in ’84,” Lundvall said over lunch a block from EMI’s headquarters near Manhattan’s Madison Park. “I don’t want to get into a list of people. I can’t remember them all.”
In this case, Lundvall would be taking a meeting with Nick Gatfield, EMI’s global head of A&R for all of six months. A one-time saxophonist, as is Lundvall, Gatfield himself reports to Elio Leoni-Sceti, the head of EMI-Worldwide since July 2008.
If Lundvall felt any apprehension about his status at EMI, which was purchased last summer by Terra Firma, a private, UK-based equity group, which immediately streamlined by cutting 2,500 positions (as a result, Blue Note no longer has a marketing staff devoted exclusively to its interests), he was not about to show it. Indeed, lunch transpired at a pace akin to the two-martini affairs that were de rigueur in 1960, when Lundvall, then 24, went to work in the marketing department of Columbia Records, where, over the next decade, he reported to such industry legends as Goddard Lieberson, John Hammond and Clive Davis. As Columbia’s General Manager a decade later, he immediately placed his stamp on the label’s output, convincing Davis to sign Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans, while himself signing, among others, Phoebe Snow, Stan Getz, Return to Forever and James Taylor. Appointed President of CBS Records in 1976, when fusion reigned, he signed bebop tenor-saxophone icon Dexter Gordon, in the process bringing hardcore jazz out of subculture status and back onto the mainstream radar screen. By 1982, when Lundvall left Columbia to launch the Elektra-Musician label, Columbia’s roster included McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, Arthur Blythe, and Irakere, which he signed in 1978, launching the international visibility of Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdés, and helping to reintroduce Cuban and Afro-Caribbean influences into the general jazz conversation.
All this activity foreshadowed Lundvall’s 1984 relaunch of Blue Note, which had been dormant for close to a decade after its co-founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, concluded a glorious 30-year run. During his own quarter-century, while retaining the label’s ur-identity as a home for a hand-picked roster of uncompromising jazz artists to present original music and document their development, Lundvall kept the business profitable, working in synergy with Manhattan Records, which he also supervises, to bring Blue Note into the realm of sophisticated adult pop.
Lundvall’s 25th anniversary coincides with Blue Note’s 70th, a coincidence that offered a raison d’etre, were one needed, for a conversation on their intersecting histories and the label’s future in these perilous times.
JAZZIZ: You’ve had so many bosses, but Blue Note’s evolution over your tenure, at least to an outsider, seems fairly seamless.
Bruce Lundvall: We have been left alone for the most part. No one ever told us to drop an artist or that we’re in trouble. I think we’ve brought some class to the company, with prestigious artists. But the fact of the matter is, we’re looked upon as a profitable resource. Not like Capitol or Virgin – or Nashville, which is immensely profitable. But when Norah Jones had her big success, we out-billed Capitol and Virgin, and had a larger profit as well. Now the economy is tough, and they’re looking at every dime spent, which you have to do. So we don’t have quite the flexibility we had before.
Your management style must be a factor.
First, I am mostly about music. I’m not really a numbers guy. But I know what it takes to make money and lose money on a record. We don’t make crazy deals, including our artists on Manhattan, and we try to keep our rosters pretty tight. We have 22 to 25 artists on Blue Note right now. A few people are gone.
Lion and Wolff showed great faith in their artists. It seems this attitude also defines the Blue Note culture under Lundvall.
I believe you’re just a middleman. You make the right signing choices and give the artists freedom to make the record they believe in – within financial parameters, of course. That’s what Alfred and Frank did, I’m sure. I learned that lesson through John Hammond. Hammond said, “If you hear someone original, don’t ask any other questions. Just sign the artist, period. Always ask, ‘Does this artist sound like somebody else?’ If so, don’t bother.” Good lesson to learn. Stick with your convictions, and don’t be influenced by other people saying, ‘You’re full of shit.’
There’s an anecdote that directly out of college you went to the Blue Note office to ask Lion and Wolff for a job and were turned down. While you were at Columbia, did you develop any relationship with your predecessors?
I didn’t know them at all, though I bought all the records. I first really met Alfred after we relaunched Blue Note. He asked me two questions. The surprise first question was, “What are you going to do to make money? You’re owned by EMI, a big corporation. You have to make money, or Blue Note will be dead before you know it.” The first artist we signed was Stanley Jordan, who sold a half-million albums and was on the Billboard jazz chart for 51 weeks. Alfred loved Stanley’s playing. He thought he was a total original, which he was – but he had certain limitations.
Then Alfred said, “I want you to use guys who are going to go as far out as we did with Cecil Taylor and these people.” We did a bit of that. Not as much as I’d have liked. Alfred said, “The one guy I thought was a total original genius, like Monk and Herbie Nichols and Bud Powell, was Andrew Hill, and I really want you guys to sign him.”
What was the original division of responsibility between you and Michael Cuscuna?
There was none. Like Alfred and Frank, in a way. Well, I shouldn’t make any comparisons. My first question was, “How the fuck do I fill Alfred Lion’s shoes? I’m not qualified.” What a challenge. What an opportunity! This is what I really wanted to do when I left college. Now 27 years later, I had the chance to do it. I realized that my musical interests were focused essentially in jazz. I could do other things, and wanted to keep doing them, but I felt you stay true to the art you grew up with and love still, the thing that moves you more than any other kind of music.
When I left Elektra, I had a farewell party. Someone said, “I remember when Lundvall got two phone calls on two different lines. One was Michael Jackson, the other was Dexter Gordon. He picked up the phone, he said, ‘Hi, Dexter!’” That summed it up.
Is that a true story?
I don’t know if it’s true or not! But I love it.
How were sales and profitability at the beginning?
At the beginning, apart from Stanley Jordan, it mainly came from the reissues, like Sidewinder, Blue Train and Song For My Father, records that had been big in the past.
They may have been big in the past, but they took on iconic stature when reissued.
Iconic. Exactly right. It became extremely hip. The England company started to put out these crazy reissues, Blue Bossa, blue-this, blue-that, about 25 different releases, with hip artwork. They’re fun, and sold extremely well in the UK. They sold a bit here.
How did you account for the climate of the time in re-establishing the Blue Note brand?
I hate the word “brand.” Stanley Jordan, for one, had a young appeal, and we were interested in that market as well as retaining the label’s serious, straightahead aspect. Then Michel Petrucciani became a bit of a phenomenon. Later, we signed Eliane Elias, who sold the Brazilian stuff very well. In 1989, Greg Osby did a hip-hop kind of record. We signed Medeski, Martin and Wood; I chased them for a long time. Then Charlie Hunter. Also, Dianne Reeves. Alfred preferred instrumentalists. He recorded one Sheila Jordan album, two albums by Dodo Greene, and that’s about it – unless Babs Gonzales could be considered a serious singer (I don’t think so).
Bill Henderson on the Horace Silver records.
Yes. Alfred apparently was not a big fan of vocalists, but it was second nature to me. In the late ’80s, George Duke called and said, “You should sign my cousin, Dianne.” I didn’t particularly like the record she made on Palo Alto, but I went to L.A. for a Duke Ellington tribute that was videotaped and recorded, but never came out, on which Dianne Reeves was a guest vocalist. She sang two solo Ellington pieces and one duet with O.C. Smith, the R&B singer. I raced to her dressing room and said, “You’re on Blue Note. I’ve got to sign you.” She was the first major vocalist we signed, and her first record sold several hundred thousand copies. She’s been with us ever since.
Later, Rachelle Farrell, who is an amazing singer with an incredible voice, was very successful. Then I brought in Lena Horne, and we made the last record of her career.
Cassandra Wilson in 1993.
Very successful. I heard her perform during one of her Downtown phases, a fusion thing with a percussionist, a synthesizer player and a loud guitarist. They all but drowned her out. I met with her the next day. I said, “Cassandra, I didn’t sign a democratic group. I signed you. You have a great voice, you write interesting songs. Let’s make an acoustic record.” She was a little insulted. She wanted to make a jazz album of R&B tunes. I said, “It’s been done before. I want you to do an album that focuses on you, and I want it to be acoustic.” She came back to me in a week with “Tupelo Honey” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” produced by Craig Street, whom I didn’t know, though I’d heard the name. He was working in construction, living in the same building that she did in Harlem. He said to her, “Who were your influences when you were young? You like Joni Mitchell. Why don’t you do one of her songs?” And so on. When I heard this demo, I said, “This is the whole plot. This is the record.” That was my contribution to her career.
Later in the decade, I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich about the three most important jazz singers of the decade – Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling, whom I’d never heard of. About a week later, I played a cassette he’d sent me while I drove to the dentist, and went nuts at how fresh and original he was. Driving back, I dialed the phone number on the cassette from the car phone. “I’m looking for Kurt Elling.” “This is Kurt.” “You don’t know me. My name is Bruce Lundvall; I’m with Blue Note. I love your record. When can I see you perform?” “I’m playing Monday night at the Green Mill in Chicago.” This was a Thursday. “I’ll be there.” “This is just an improvisational thing.” “Even better.” I went, and we shook hands then and there.
Blue Note actively documented the changing sound of jazz at the cusp of the ’90s – the more inclusive vocabulary, Afro-Caribbean and hip-hop influences entering the mainstream, and so on. You signed Joe Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Greg Osby, Don Byron …
Chucho Valdés, too. When I was at Columbia, I heard how great the musicians were in Cuba, went there, and signed Irakere to Columbia, with Jimmy Carter’s blessing. We won a Latin Grammy with their first album. With Blue Note, I went back and signed Chucho through the Canadian company because of the embargo. Charlie Haden heard Gonzalo at the Montreal Festival and played me a tape. We went to Havana and signed him, but through the Japanese company.
Lovano came on board in 1990. You sustain long-term relationships.
The idea is to stay with them as long as you possibly can. Lovano has been with us for something like 20 albums. Dianne Reeves since ’87. Eliane [Elias] since the ’80s. Osby had a long run. Gonzalo since the beginning.
It’s said that, through acumen or luck or whatever it is, you found artists – Bobby McFerrin, US3 – who sold large units, and used them to pay for the other releases.
I didn’t think of it in terms of paying the way for the other stuff. We were able to keep budgets fairly tight. Some artists did lose some money – not a lot. Others made a small profit. It continues that way now.
Norah Jones changed the entire paradigm. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be on Blue Note, including Kenny Loggins, whom I knew from Columbia days. I said, “Listen, it’s still a jazz label.” So he came to us as a jazz artist. He didn’t make exactly a jazz record, but jazz-informed, yes.
Al Green joined the label.
We found out that Al Green was ready to make his first secular record in a lot of years. Michael and I went to Memphis, and had dinner with Al and Willie Mitchell. Al was going to make this record on his vanity label. By the end of the night we’d had a few drinks, and he said, “I think we should be on Blue Note.”
Anita Baker had a vanity label under her contract, but she wanted to be on the same label that had her favorite singers, Cassandra Wilson and “that young girl, what’s her name…” I said, “Norah Jones.” “That’s where I want to be.”
These people knew the label’s quality and history, and Norah made it clear to them that that we can sell as many records as Capitol can, or more.
Did your success with singers have anything to do with the changing demographics of the listening audience?
I think so. People were tiring of the quality of the music they were listening to. Norah summed it up pretty much with one album. Great voice, sensitive, intelligent, very musical, jazz-informed, and yet not inaccessible.
Not every head of a large label is as hands-on as you. I could be wrong.
No, they could be wrong by not being more hands-on. They have to be. If you love the music, you are hands on. Are you going to sit and let someone else do everything? After all these years, I’ve become a fairly decent delegator. In the past, I was never that good at delegating. But I still want to keep my hand in. I don’t allow anyone to be signed whom I don’t approve of.
I feel we’re a team of people who are friends, who respect one another, are first and foremost about the music, and work together very effectively – though from time to time, we have to face issues that are not so pleasant. I’d really be embarrassed if I had to tell you that this has been a failure. It’s been successful commercially and artistically as far as I’m concerned. But it will never be as successful as what Alfred Lion created. His artists were so one-of-a-kind, such giants. We have to see how many of our artists become that 30, 40, 50 years from now.
Your brand is so associated with the catalog from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but most of those albums are out of print. The website lists only four albums by Joe Lovano, none by Greg Osby, only two by Don Byron, a couple by Gonzalo Rubalcaba …
They will all be available on the Internet. The problem is that there are no longer record stores, retailers that carry catalog – Blue Note, classical music and everything else. The Internet has to be the way forward. There are no other options. There’s a small market for vinyl, which we’re doing. It’s encouraging to see that people like the quality of vinyl and are buying turntables again.
I think the seeds of destruction were built into the CD itself. Seventy-nine minutes of music is too much. What is art about? Less is always more. One artist told me, “I filled out every second of music on this CD.” I said, “Why? If you had five great songs and the record lasted 45 minutes, it would be worth more.” Artists think they’re being diligent by offering you more music, but I think it encourages them to be sloppy. If you’re documenting a symphony orchestra or a live performance, a CD can contain it, and that’s wonderful. But otherwise, rather than be sated by all this endless stuff, I want to say, “God, that’s great. I want to hear more. I wonder what the next one is going to be like.”
Taste notwithstanding, you adapted.
Well, yes. The CBS building was around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art, and I’d have lunch there with people from the art department, and we’d discuss the exhibits. Once the art director lamented the advent of the CD – you can’t design anything for 5-by-5, no one will see anything, the LP is perfect. He was thinking of it as a graphic artist. I said, “Technology is going to win. You may be right, but you’re going to have to learn to design for the 5-by-5 format.”
Apart from questions of design, the CD itself will soon be ancient history.
Oh, I know.
I just want to note for the record that you grimaced.
About 16 percent of our volume comes from the Internet. I don’t know how much downloading is done without paying for the music. Not too much in jazz, I don’t believe. People still are buying physical records. But at a certain point in time, I think 90 percent will be Internet downloading.
So what to do to ensure Blue Note is around for its 75th?
Find the best and most original artists you possibly can, sign them, and give them the freedom to make great records. They’re out there. It’s always a surprise.