It isn’t often that musicians collectively respond with sadness to the death of a music executive, but that is precisely how the artists who knew Bruce Lundvall have reacted to the news of his passing this afternoon, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
A mass email from Blue Note announcing the event gives the basic facts:
“A self-described “failed saxophone player,” Bruce took an entry level marketing job at Columbia Records in 1960 and over the following two decades rose to lead the North American division of the label, signing artists including Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson. After launching the Elektra/Musician label in 1982, he received the offer of a lifetime in 1984 when EMI approached him about reviving Blue Note Records which had been dormant for several years. He jumped at the chance, partnering with producer Michael Cuscuna to bring back the label’s earlier stars like Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson & Jackie McLean, and signing new artists including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Michel Petrucciani, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.
Under Bruce’s stewardship Blue Note established itself as the most-respected and longest-running jazz label in the world. He presided over a prosperous nearly-30-year period of the label’s history, reaching commercial heights with artists including Bobby McFerrin, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green and Amos Lee, while recording some of the most important jazz artists of our time including Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Don Pullen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard, Jacky Terrasson, and many others.”
I didn’t know Mr. Lundvall very well, but had several occasions to hang out with him in one club or another, and, as consequentially, to interview him on several occasions about his life and times. One was a public interview before a rather large crowd at the National Jazz Museum In Harlem, of which I don’t have a tape. A couple of years earlier, on January 9, 2009, I interviewed him for a story in Jazziz at an Italian restaurant near the Blue Note offices. He drank three martinis without batting an eyelash, as he took on the questions. I had to cut 75% of the text for the piece; here’s the entire conversation.
Bruce Lundvall (Jan. 9, 2009):
TP: I’ve been trying to think of a phrase or two phrases to encapsulate my impressions of you.
TP: One is “survivor” and the other is someone who could be a master diplomat in your ability to balance the dictates of art and commerce. So let me ask you about that. You’ve survived in the record business, flourished in the record business, and made your mark on the record business for close to 50 years. Not an easy feat.
BRUCE: 49 actually.
TP: 49. Since 1960.
TP: I’d like to relate that to the state of things right now.
BRUCE: I’ll tell you on Tuesday, because I have an interview with my boss on Monday.
TP: Who is your boss?
BRUCE: Nick Gatfield. He’s the global head of A&R now. They’ve changed the structure of the company completely, as you probably know.
TP: Yes. But I don’t know exactly they’ve changed it and how it affects Blue Note.
BRUCE: Essentially, it affects Blue Note because Blue Note no longer has the staff that it used to. We have an A&R staff, and then we use the services of a marketing staff and the services of an international staff, etc., which handles Blue Note, Capitol, and Virgin. In other words, it’s sort of like a top-down… It would be like, in a way, recreating Columbia Records where they handle Epic and everything else… But Epic had its own staff, so it’s not a good analogy. But there is a common staff now to handle every one of the three major labels—if we’re talking about Blue Note as a major label, Blue Note-Manhattan. So they’ve taken away the idea of having a team of people who are just Blue Note. So Blue Note is now just essentially A&R. So Ian Ralfini runs Manhattan. I run the combination of Blue Note and Manhattan. Eli Wolf is the head of A&R for Blue Note. Lauren is his assistant. And Mike (?) is the guy who does A&R for Manhattan. So that’s kind of like our little staff of people. Then we use the services of people like Zack, J.R., Cem, and so on. Cem has other responsibilities than Blue Note, but only a few. It’s a different structure altogether, but it works the same way.
TP: And you report to Gatfield.
BRUCE: Yeah, Gatfield.
TP: That’s a private equity group?
BRUCE: No. Terra Firma is the private equity group that bought EMI last July and June. So now the guy who runs EMI is a guy named Elio Leoni-Sceti. They hired this guy who worked in a different business altogether to run EMI-Worldwide. So he is the ultimate boss. But the company is owned by Terra Firma. Leoni is a very smart Italian guy from Rome, who has lived in the States before, lives in London now. He is in charge of EMI-Worldwide, but reporting in to the board of Terra Firma.
TP: How long was the previous structure in place?
TP: How many different bosses have you worked for over the years?
BRUCE: At least 15 since I came here in ‘84. I’ve had various jobs. It’s always been Blue Note and Manhattan, and then at one point Capitol on the East Coast. I’ve had about 14 or 15 bosses, starting with Bhaskar Menon and Joe Smith… I don’t want to get into a whole list of people. I can’t remember them all.
TP: With all these different bosses, the label has retained a remarkable consistency as far as the face that it presents. It would seem from the outside to be fairly seamless.
BRUCE: We have been left alone for the most part. No one has ever told us to drop an artist. No one has ever told us we’re in trouble. We’ve always made a profit, too. We’ve had a profit every year since ‘85, which is amazing. The advent of the Blue Note catalog. The advent of Blue Note on CDs, of course—people buying their whole collection of LPs on CD. All that is past us now, but that was part of it. Then, of course, the phenomenon of Norah Jones, other phenomenons like US-3 and Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Things like that, that happened and had hits. The basic roster has done pretty well.
[ORDER: Bruce: caprese & orichette w/sausage & broccoli rabe]
TP: You just said that you’ve always made a profit, which would be the reason why you’ve always been left alone?
BRUCE: Well, it’s certainly one of the reasons, I think, with respect to what we do. I think we’ve brought some class to the company, and the fact that some artists really are prestigiously important and artistically important. That’s a good part of it. But the fact of the matter is, the target, it’s hard to say in… We started this in ‘85, when the first releases came out. Then we had Manhattan as our pop label as well. So on balance, Blue Note (not always Manhattan, but Blue Note) has had a profit in each of these years, and the combination has had a profit in most of the years. So therefore, we’re looked upon as a profitable resource for the company. Not like Capitol or Virgin—or Nashville, which is immensely profitable. But we’ve had those big years. When Norah had her big success, my God, we outbilled Capitol and Virgin, and had more of a profit as well. So that helps, certainly.
The fact of the matter is that they’re proud of the heritage of Blue Note and they’re proud of the artist roster that we have, so we’ve been pretty much left alone. Now it’s a little different, because the economy is tough, and they’re looking at every dime that’s being spent, which you have to do, so we don’t have quite the flexibility that we had before. But no one is saying, “You’ve got to get rid of these people” or anything like that, which is good.
TP: Two things come to mind. One is that your own personal management style must have something to do with it.
BRUCE: I can’t speak to that.
TP: Can you describe your management style, though?
BRUCE: Well, I think luck. First of all, I am mostly about music. I have done this long enough that I know about business, too, but I’m not a numbers guy really. But I know what it takes to make money and lose money on a record. The parameters of deals that we should be making. We don’t make any crazy deals. We don’t have any million dollars or anything like that, including the artists that we have on Manhattan. Well, maybe Sarah Brightman, but she pays her way. Those kinds of artists are much more expensive, but they’re profitable artists for us. But normally, we make reasonable deals, intelligent deals, and that’s part of it, and we try to keep our rosters manageable and not let it get too large. Very often, these pop labels, their artist rosters expand and become really bloated, and the cost is so high it’s crazy. That’s not the case any more, right now, but in the past that’s happened. But we’ve already kept our rosters pretty tight. In terms of the number of artists we’re carrying on the roster, we’re very selective.
TP: I’m noticing that there seem to be fewer artists than ten years ago, or is that a mis-assumption.
BRUCE: No, not really. If you just take Blue Note alone, which is what we’re really talking about… Manhattan had a lot of artists when it was a major pop label in New York. Now it’s a smaller… But Blue Note has been pretty much about the same. We have 22 to 25 artists on Blue Note right now. A few people are gone.
TP: But let’s get back to this management style issue. Was there anyone who mentored you, for instance, after whom you modeled yourself?
BRUCE: I had maybe four mentors in my lifetime in the business. The first one was John Hammond. We were very close. The second would be Joe Gallagher, who was head of marketing at Columbia Records and hired me. The third one would be Ken Clancy, who was the head of A&R at one point at Columbia, and then RCA. The fourth one would be…I’d say Clive probably, because Clive helped me a great deal. These are the people I learned the most from, I would say. And others as well.
TP: Did you model yourself after them, or was it always your own personality?
BRUCE: I think I tried to keep my own personality, but a lot of my points of view were either confirmed by the way they behaved or what they taught me. John Hammond was really interesting, because he said, “If you hear someone that’s original, don’t ask any other questions. Just sign the artist period. Don’t ask if it’s going to be successful on radio. Always ask, ‘Does this artist sound like somebody else?’ and if so, don’t bother.” Good lesson to learn. I didn’t learn that just sitting down in two or three words. But he set it by example. He was a guy who produced a lot of records. He wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer. Or, commercially speaking, he wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer, certainly. Stick with your convictions, and don’t be influenced by other people saying, you know, ‘You’re full of shit.” I remember when John Hammond came out with Bob Dylan, it became known as “Dylan’s Folly.” Everyone said, “He can’t sing, he can’t write, he can’t play the guitar, blah-blah-blah.” John said, “You’re wrong, he’s a genius and original,” and certainly he was exactly that. He was called “Hammond’s Folly” for the longest time. That happened with other artists with John, too.
TP: Forgive me for not knowing this, but at what time during your tenure at Columbia did you move into A&R and signing artists?
BRUCE: I became the General Manager of the Columbia label in 1970. That’s when I first started being able to sign some artists. The first artist I brought to Clive was Herbie Hancock when he was still on Warner Brothers. I said, “We’ve got to sign this guy.” I said, “Let’s sign him under the name Mwandishi.” That was his Swahili name; he had that group called Mwandishi. Clive wisely said, “Let’s wait til he gets off Warner Brothers.” As soon as he got off Warner Brothers, he was signed. Clive signed him, but I brought him to Clive. I brought Bill Evans to Clive, too. We signed Bill. I was the head of marketing then. The first successful artist I had who I signed on my own was Phoebe Snow. Before her first record came out, On Shelter, there was a lawsuit going out. It came out and did very well. But I had heard it was under litigation. I said, “Well, I have to have this artist.” And we did very well with her, too. We won the lawsuit and we put out two albums that were gold albums, and subsequently two more.
I made a lot of mistakes. Because shoemakers are supposed to stick to their last, as you know the old expression. When I thought I could sign rock-and-roll bands, and I fell on my face. I signed some. I won’t mention who they were, because no one in the world would ever remember except the artists themselves, if they’re still alive. But I was much better at signing, obviously, jazz artists, singer-songwriters, R&B artists, and country artists—of all things.
TP: It seems to me that one accomplishment we can attribute to you is helping to put hardcore mainstream jazz back on the map via large label representation, by signing Dexter Gordon in the mid ‘70s when it was against the grain. Now, this article is about Blue Note, but it’s also about you. I also realize that you’ve recounted this endless times before. But if you could speak to that. Also, during those years, since it pertains so much to your reign at Blue Note, your forays into Cuba and beginning your relationships with Cuban artists.
BRUCE: Obviously, my first love is straight-ahead, serious jazz music. Dexter Gordon was an artist I had never seen, but I had bought his 78s on Dial and Savoy as a kid, and then I bought all his LPs. But I’d never seen him. He was living in Copenhagen. In the Army, I was stationed in Germany, I went to Copenhagen to see Dexter, and he was away on tour. He wasn’t playing at Montmartre. So I missed him there.
I was at John McLaughlin’s wedding in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and I went to the reception, and a guy named Stan Snyder, who was my head of sales, who was a big jazz fan, said, “Dexter Gordon is playing at Storyville,” which was a club that Rigmor Newman was managing on 58th Street. I said, “oh, shit.” So I went there right away. We left the wedding, we made some feeble excuse to leave the wedding reception, and ran over there and caught the first set, or maybe the second set. Dexter was playing brilliantly, and I went backstage. I said, “You don’t know me, but you’re my hero. I want to sign you to Columbia Records.” All he said, “CBS” in that inimitable way. We came in the next day and we signed him.
I signed Stan Getz there, and I saw McCoy Tyner, and Arthur Blythe and Return to Forever. Bob James was a commercial signing. Al DiMeola. Woody Shaw.
TP: A real renaissance in the artistic aspect of the label.
BRUCE: Well, Columbia Records had a great history in jazz, after all, and it was dwindling. Everyone wanted rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll, and more rock-and-roll. I felt that my contribution could be where my heart was. Essentially, that’s what I did best. I loved that, so I wanted to have those artists on the label, and we did that. I had no resistance at all. The thing that made it interesting is that we didn’t have a jazz label. It was just Columbia Records. It was never the Columbia jazz label, not even a Legacy then. So in a way, when you had the kind of success that the company was having in rock-and-roll music and in pop music generally, if you signed Dexter Gordon, instead of signing 10,000 records, he might sell 40,000 or 50,000. The perception was that we could do anything better than anyone else. The company was an amazing company during those years in terms of their power in the marketplace. So very few of those artists lost money for us.
Who else did we sign? One record with what’s his name, the guitar player..oh my Lord. It doesn’t matter.
TP: In signing Dexter Gordon, you weren’t particularly making any calculations. It was Hammond’s dictum.
BRUCE: Yes, exactly right. I wanted quality, and I loved the music, and I loved Dexter Gordon’s playing, and I said, “My God…” When I heard him that night, there was just no question. No question. You know who called me the next day after he found out that we had signed him, was Ahmet Ertegun. He said, “You’ve done a completely great thing.” I said, “Mr. Ertegun…” I referred to him as Mr. Ertegun). I said, “I did? What did I do?” “You signed Dexter Gordon. We should have done it at Atlantic. We never thought of it, but you did it at Columbia Records.” “Yeah.” I didn’t think there was anything so special about it, but he thought it was. It was an amazing thing for a label like Columbia to sign Dexter Gordon. Dexter himself thought he was going to be signed to an independent jazz label.
TP: What you’re saying bears out that by 1976, you’d already lived through several eras of the music and made your impact felt. I don’t know if there’s anything to ask about that…
BRUCE: You have to remember that I started out as a marketing guy. I wanted to be in A&R, but I didn’t have any real credentials. So they put me in marketing, and I was in marketing up until I became the General Manager of the Columbia label, and then I learned how to sign artists. The first thing that I did, which was a terrible mistake, is… Chip Taylor was the artist, a pop artist who wrote “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” a very talented guy. I said, “We’ll make a four-album firm deal.” The head of business affairs said, “Lundvall, no-no-no!” I said, “What did I do wrong?” “You don’t make a one album firm deal; you make one album with options.” I said, “oh, shit, that’s right.” We got away with it anyway. Not four albums firm, but one album with options, with four options.
TP: How did the record business evolve vis-a-vis the culture of Columbia during the ‘60s?
BRUCE: When I was at Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson was the President of the company, who was a genius and a visionary man, and he felt that art precedes commerce always. You get the art right, the commerce will come with it. But we were late in rock-and-roll because Mitch Miller and the people who were in the A&R staff felt that rock-and-roll was trash. So we were rather late compared to Warner Brothers. We had Bob Dylan, we had Simon & Garfunkel, we had the Byrds, and we had Chad and Jeremy—those were the only rock-and-roll bands. And Paul Revere and the Raiders on Epic. That was the contemporary roster. There was a big battle going in the company. It was a very middle of the road company, with Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, Percy Faith, Jerry Vale, Steve and Eydie, and so on. Very middle of the road, and the A&R staff was very middle of the road for the most part also. The A&R staff was people like Bob Mersey(?—20:27) and Tony Altschuler and Mitch Miller and people like that, who were very much involved with the pop music of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and weren’t particularly fond of rock-and-roll music at all.
There was a time when we had an A&R meeting in Miami, and we had a system… The product managers were involved with the A&R department very closely, just doing the marketing after the records were done, and they were talking to the A&R people about the records while they were being made—which is something I think I had a lot to do with. So we were in Miami with a meeting of myself and a couple of the other product managers and the A&R staff, and a big fight ensued at this planning meeting over how deeply we should be involved in rock-and-roll. The young guys, of which I was one of them, all felt we were missing the boat completely, and the older A&R people were saying, “No, we shouldn’t get that deeply involved, because it’s not really good music,” and so on.
So it ended up with a lot of screaming and yelling, and Goddard had to come down from New York to resolve the issues. So Goddard said, right after that meeting, after he calmed everyone down with his great sense of humor and his great erudition, “We have to be in every area of music that counts” and so on, blah-blah. He said, “What I want to do is have at our Columbia Records convention at the Americana Hotel in New York next summer is have a contest, and have one night where we invite the winning high school attend at a gymnasium, and we’ll have all of our rock-and-roll acts.” The reaction was somewhat negative. It was “God, there will be a riot; we’ll have to wear plectron units and all that kind of stuff to police the building,” and all this shit.” “No-no, I’m not worried about that.”
So the convention came along, here it is, 1500 people world-wide, everybody in the company, all over the world, are at this convention. This one night… Every other night, it was Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, the Brothers Four, whoever the big artists were that were performing, on the normal nights, on the Americana stage. The other night, the rock-and-roll night, we all went to this gymnasium. We sat in the bleachers, but the kids were on the main floor—standing up, of course. We had Chad and Jeremy and the Byrds and Bob Dylan—it was three acts. The crowd went insane. And the man standing in front of the bandstand, wearing a safari jacket and moving with the music, was Goddard Lieberson. He changed the culture of the company without saying a single word. He was the one that got the company completely into rock-and-roll. In other words, “you see what the impact of this music is; you either get it or you don’t work here any more,” without saying that at all. I have to say, it was a genius stroke. You’ve got to be on board. Whether you really dug the music or not was immaterial, but it’s going where it’s going.
TP: One anecdote that I think is interesting, and also oft-told, is that directly out of college you went to the Blue Note office to ask for a job and were told it was a two-man show. I’d like you to relate that, but also ask if during the ‘60s you developed any relationship with Lion and Wolff.
BRUCE: No, I did not. The first time I ever saw Alfred Lion was at One Night at Birdland, when they were recording it live. I came home for a college weekend, and I was there. I saw the wires going into the kitchen. I said, “What’s going on there?” “Oh, they’re recording live.” So when you hear the applause for those passages, well, it’s my hand on that record!
So anyway, I was there, and I saw Alfred Lion—I didn’t meet him, but I saw him. What happened is that when I got out of college, I went directly to Alfred Lion’s office with my resume. No preceding phone call or setting up a meeting of any kind. I didn’t know any better. I was walking the streets of New York, looking for a job in the record business, and I started at Blue Note. He was very polite. As I recall, the meeting lasted, oh, 5 or 10 minutes. He said, “Just Frank Wolff and me; we do everything ourselves; we don’t need nobody.” I said, “I’ll work for nothing.” He said, “No, we don’t need nobody; it’s just Frank and I. We even put the records in the sleeves and ship them out ourselves.” I said, “Well, I’ll help you.” “We can’t. We can’t do it. I’m sorry.” He was very polite and very nice, but I was ushered out the door. Within five minutes, I was out with my resume in my hand. So I went to Columbia Records, I went to Capitol, I went to RCA—those three. No one was hiring anybody just out of college in those days, because you still had the draft in front of you—there was a mandatory draft in those days. Nobody had a training program either. So I was working for an advertising agency for a year, and then I was drafted myself and ended up going into the Army in 1958.
TP: Where were you stationed?
BRUCE: In Stuttgart. I was in the counter-intelligence agency.
TP: Good training for the record business.
BRUCE: Yeah, right. “Counter-intelligence” is correct, too. It was fun. I had the best time of my life. I was stationed in Stuttgart.
TP: Not so much towards the interview, but I know at the time a number of musicians were stationed in Germany, which made for a fairly active jazz scene.
BRUCE: Who was there at that point?
TP: Don Ellis, Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, people like Roscoe Mitchell and Albert Ayler were and intersected with the Germans… Various prehistories to careers.
BRUCE: Well, in basic training, I used to play a terrible alto saxophone. I’d go to the enlisted men’s club and play with Calvin Newborn. There was a great piano player from Brooklyn who made one record, not as a leader, but as a sideman—Ed Stoudt. A black dude. Good player.
TP: And you went back, and you went to Bucknell. You majored in what at Bucknell?
BRUCE: Commerce and finance.
TP: So you had a business training.
BRUCE: I spent more time with liberal arts courses. I was more interested in literature and philosophy and all that than music courses. But my major was because my father was insistent that I have a career. So I had a Bachelor of Science degree. But I was more interested in the liberal arts subjects, so I took a lot of those.
TP: Was your father a businessman?
BRUCE: He was an engineer, a mechanical engineer. He went to Stevens in Hoboken. He took me down to Stevens for a test, an aptitude test. I was able to con the test. I could tell. He wanted me to be an engineer more than anything else. I had no interest in the sciences at all. I was feeble when it came to math and all that stuff. So I took a preference test with a pin that you hit to answer whether I’d rather be this, this, or this. By the time it was done, I’d rather be… My father and I sat down with the shrink who read back the results. He said, “Your son’s first skills are in music, then literature,” and way down the list was sciences. I said, “Dad, I told you.” I could easily tell where these questions were leading. Because he really was insistent. He was really tough about it. “Be an engineer, a real man’s job.” “ I like this, Dad.”
Anyway, I was a business major. I booked concerts at Bucknell. Every time we’d get a chance, I’d go to Philadelphia to hear Clifford Brown or Brubeck, whoever was playing there, or I’d go home to New York and go to Birdland. Mike Berniker was my roommate. He was a fabulous A&R man. He did all the Streisand records, and he did a lot of jazz records for Epic, too, like One Foot In The Gutter and those things. We were college roommates. We used to share our jazz collection, and we used to run off and drive down to Philadelphia and see Clifford Brown and Max Roach and all that.
TP: So you were the hipsters of the school.
BRUCE: Yeah, we were the hipsters of the school. There was no interest in jazz there.
TP: It’s interesting, because in the ‘60s, while you were establishing your mark on Columbia, Blue Note was at least in its artistic prime, in a lot of ways, or the second wave of its artistic prime.
TP: You signed Bob Dylan in ‘64 or ‘65. There may have no better two-year period for Blue Note than those two years.
BRUCE: I didn’t get out as much. I was a new father. In ‘65, our first son was born. When I first got married, I had no money. I would go out as often as I could to see jazz in New York, but normally my wife would come with me. Then I went out to see jazz less frequently, because I had a kid, and when I was in New York, I was a 9-to-5’er. So there were people I really missed. Not missed, but I missed them live.
TP: One thing that Lion and Wolff did, it seems to me, and one reason why the musical production during the ‘60s is so consequential is that they went to the source and trusted the artists to record original music. They showed real faith in them, and it seems that this is something you’ve managed to do at Blue Note even in the changed environment of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the present. That’s a real continuity. I’d like to ask you about this and other continuities between the Lundvall Blue Note and the Lion-Wolff Blue Note.
BRUCE: The simple answer is that I believe that you have to give a real artist artistic freedom. You can’t tell them what to do, you can’t tell them how to make records, and you shouldn’t sign just marketing…we call them marketing…inconsequential marketing records. Marketing confections. I’ve done those in my career. You make real artistic records, and let the artist… The artist knows better than you do. You’re just a middleman. You make the right signing choices and let the artist have the freedom to make the record they believe in—within certain financial parameters, of course. That’s what Alfred and Frank did, I’m sure. That was a lesson I learned through John Hammond and through all the records I bought as a fan.
TP: But in the 1970s, it seems the prevailing ethos was not so much along those lines.
BRUCE: Well, you’re talking about the fusion era, too. We had Bitches Brew at Columbia Records with Miles. It was a landmark record. I signed Return to Forever. Clive…well, somebody else signed Mahavishnu. So we had some of the better examples of fusion music.
TP: Who signed Keith Jarrett, by the way?
BRUCE: Clive did, and dropped him. There was a moment in time, I think… I shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t want to disparage Clive. There was a moment in time where we had Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Mingus. They were all dropped in one day. How this happened, I have no idea. I think on the same day all of them were dropped at one point. Keith Jarrett called me… It was the only time I ever really spoke to the man. I was a marketing guy. “You fucking jerks,” and so on. I said, “Listen, I didn’t drop you; I had nothing to do with your contract at all.” But he was very angry at Columbia Records, that’s all.
Bill Evans, whom I had convinced Clive to sign (I was still in marketing then), had won a Grammy for the trio album. He made two albums, the trio album and an orchestral record…
TP: With Claus Ogermann?
BRUCE: Yeah. Anyway, he had won a Grammy for his first album, the trio record, and Columbia Records didn’t win any other Grammies of any consequence that year, and Clive (this is not for the article) walked right by him. Didn’t even say, “Congratulations.” He was so pissed off we didn’t win any pop awards. Bill started crying. I had to stay with him half the night—he and Helen Keane. He was just so upset. The man who’s the President of the company wouldn’t even say “congratulations.” I won this Grammy, one of the few Grammies had won that year. That’s the way it was.
I think what happened is that Clive thought he could do anything. He had all these successful rock-and-roll acts. He was the king of the hill. Therefore, if you sign the jazz artists who were important names, that someone else would tell him were important, that would be great.
TP: I don’t know how accurate Frederick Dannen’s book is, but grandiose notions, grandiose ambitions seemed rife in the overall culture of the record business during those years.
BRUCE: The idea that the executives are more important than the artists, yes.
TP: So you had no relationship with Lion and Wolff, other than that you were probably getting the records at the time.
BRUCE: I got all the records, but I didn’t really know them at all. I knew Ahmet. I knew Creed Taylor. I knew Bob Weinstock from Prestige. I knew Norman Granz. But for some reason, I just didn’t know them. They were rather private people. Apparently, Frank Wolff was a very private man, and Alfred was a shy fellow.
TP: Also, they were emigres, so perhaps felt a bit alienated from the mainstream culture.
BRUCE: Yes. I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I can’t give you an answer. I loved the label. It was always my absolute favorite label, my favorite jazz label by far. I would buy many of the records without even hearing them in the store, even at the time when you could listen to records in the store.
When I finally met Alfred, when we started Blue Note, for the first time really meeting him, we brought him in for the Town Hall concert, he asked me two questions. One, he said, “What are you going to do to make money?” “You’re asking me this? YOU are asking me what we’re going to do to make money, a man who did such great artistic records that probably didn’t make money?” That was the surprise first question. He said, “Yah, you’re owned by EMI, a big corporate company. What are you going to do? You have to make money, or Blue Note will be dead before you know it.”
TP: He experienced that with Liberty.
BRUCE: Sure. So I said, “Well, you’re completely right.” So the first artist that we signed was Stanley Jordan, who sold a half-a-million albums. Alfred loved Stanley’s playing. He thought he was a total original, which he was—but he had certain limitations; we’re not going to talk about him.
Then the second question was, “I want you to use guys who are going to go as far out as we did with Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and these people.” So we did a little bit of that. Not as much as I’d have liked.
TP: Well, you signed Don Pullen in the ‘80s.
BRUCE: Don Pullen George Adams. Andrew Hill we signed back. Andrew Hill was a request of Alfred at Mount Fuji. When he was invited to come to the first Mount Fuji Festival in ‘86, Andrew Hill had all new music, and he had a band with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, and so on. We went to a rehearsal in the afternoon which was extraordinary. Every musician was sitting there, in awe of what Andrew had created. Then came the concert the next afternoon, and there was a huge windstorm, and all the sheet music was blowing off the stage, and these guys were trying to play this very complex by memory. It was kind of disastrous, in a way. It still worked. But had the sheet music not blown away… It was really blowing off the stage. But 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.” And we did.
TP: Before we get to what you did with the label when you assumed your position, could you recount for me (I know it’s for the eight-millionth time) the circumstances that led to the label’s revival and your… You went to Elektra from Columbia, right…
BRUCE: Yeah. I started Elektra Musician…
TP: It was a great label.
BRUCE: Well, thank you. We tried real hard to do something fresh with it, the way we did the covers, the liner notes, and all that stuff. I was very proud of the label, and I was on the RIAA board. The RIAA had quarterly meetings, and we had a meeting down in Washington, and Bhaskar Menon was on the board as well, from Capitol Records. He said, “I’d like to have dinner with you tonight.” So we had dinner. He said, “How would you like to start Blue Note again? It’s been dormant now for about five years.” “What?” “Can you get out of your contract at Elektra?” I said, “Wait, wait, wait-wait.” I hesitated for a moment. I said, “This is my favorite label. Do you know how tempted I am to say yes right now? But I also do pop music on Elektra. I don’t want to stop doing that. I enjoy it.” He said, “Well, we need a catchment center on the East Coast.” “A catchment center? What is that?” “We have two labels on the West Coast, Capitol Records and EMI-America. We have no label on the East Coast. So we could start two labels. We could start Blue Note again and start an East Coast, fully-staffed pop label, not just a vanity label.” I said, “When we do we start?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” I said, “Michael Cuscuna and I. I want Michael to help me with Blue Note, because he knows… He has Mosaic, so I can’t hire him on staff, but I’d like to hire him as a consultant.”
TP: Did he already have Mosaic then?
BRUCE: Yes. I said, “We can hire him as a consultant.” He agreed to that. So Michael and I together started Blue Note, not just me alone.
TP: What was the original division of responsibility between the two of you?
BRUCE: There was none. Like Alfred and Frank, in a way. Well, I shouldn’t make any comparisons. The first question I said was, ‘How the fuck do I fill Alfred Lion’s shoes? I’m not qualified.” What a challenge. What an opportunity! My favorite label, and I’ve been asked to run it after all these years.” This is what I really wanted to do right 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 I wanted to keep doing other things, but I felt you stay true to the art that you grew up with and that you love still, the thing that moves you more than any other kind of music. So I had to do it. Anyway, I had to get out of my contract at Elektra, which had a year to go. So I went to a guy named David Horowitz, who was Steve Ross’ senior executive who handled all the record labels—Elektra, Warner’s and Atlantic. He said, “We don’t want you to leave. Krasnow and you have returned the label to profit.” Which we did. We’d lost a lot of money; we returned it to a profit, luckily, doing the Linda Ronstadt What’s New album and Dick Griffey’s label, Solar, having a lot of success. So we’re doing well, we’re making money again, and they didn’t want me to leave. I said, “I really don’t want to stay here. This is too small a company to have a Chairman and a President.” Krasnow was the Chairman, I was the President. We didn’t really get along very well.
Finally, David Horowitz said, “Look, we never someone to just work against their will. If you really want to talk that badly, you have to talk to… I’ll let Bob Krasnow make the decision.” I said, “oh, good.” I knew what Krasnow would say. I went to Krasnow and said, “I have this opportunity and I really have to take it now.” “You’re right! Good for you, man. Do it, do it!” He wanted me out of there, like, in a flash. By the end of the night, I was gone. I had my farewell party and I was gone.
One of the funniest things that happened was… Krasnow and I had an off-and-on relationship. Difficult man. Good music man, but a difficult guy. We got along, but just barely. So that night at the farewell party, Bill Berger… I don’t know if you know Bill Berger at all. An international guy with a good sense of humor. They had all this talk about me. He 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. [Berger: Senior Vice-President of International for Elektra Records and was responsible for all aspects of their artist’s foreign sales, foreign tours and marketing.]
TP: Is that a true story?
BRUCE: True story… I don’t know if it’s true or not. [LAUGHS] But I love that story. “Bruce, I have Michael Jackson on line one and Dexter Gordon on line two.” “Hi, Dex!”
TP: So at Blue Note, you have to form a roster and create a personality for the label, and the challenge not to make it a retro label, but to sort of be what Blue Note would be in its time.
BRUCE: Here’s what we did. Blue Note has to be a label of its time. So the first thing I thought of was: Well, we don’t have Frank Wolff’s photographs. We don’t have Reid Miles, because he’s now making television commercials, making a lot of money, and we can’t afford to hire him to design the covers. And Rudy Van Gelder can’t be the only engineer to make records with the Blue Note artists, because they have the freedom to be on any studio they want to. That’s very clear to me. So what do we do now? I thought we should have Reid Miles do all the covers so we had a consistency. But then I thought, “You know what? It will look like the old records maybe. So maybe it’s better not to have them. If we can’t afford Reid, we can’t afford him.” So I had to use different designers and so on to do the covers. Rudy understood that he couldn’t be the only studio in town. Frank and Alfred owned the label. It was their label; they could do what they wanted. Rudy was my favorite engineer. So some artists would like to record there, and others did not. So I had all these issues. It was really causing lots of problems, just thinking about, “What the hell do I do now?” The answer was, “Just do what you have to do. Be a label for the current time. Sign artists for the current period of time that are moving the music forward, who hopefully are quality artists, and change the cover design to whatever it has to be and go to whatever studio the artist wants to go to.” And they had the freedom to do it.
TP: 1985 is an interesting moment in jazz. Columbia had been in the forefront of the “Young Lions” phenomenon with Wynton Marsalis, and Art Blakey was resurgent and all these young artists were coming through that. Then the artists from the ‘70s fusion and avant-garde areas who were still popular and active, some of whom you signed. There were many factions and styles, some overlapping, some not. I’m interested in how you strategized.
BRUCE: What happened is, there were two artists who had come to me at Elektra-Musician who I wanted to sign, and Krasnow… I don’t want it mentioned in the article. But I was turned down. Put it that way. Jordan came to my office and played for me. He brought his guitar and his little amp on a Pullman cart from the railroad station, and played for me. I thought he was fairly outstanding, pretty unusual. Petrucciani I saw with Charles Lloyd. I thought this guy was an amazing player; long lines, a beautiful, conceptual player, a creative player.
The first artist I signed was probably Stanley, although it might have been Michel. I’m not sure. I knew about them, so those were the first two signings for Blue Note. Then Michael and I decided we should bring back the artists who were still relevant. So we signed Tony Williams, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, to make records again for Blue Note. Which made sense. Then we had the Town Hall concert in 1985, and we brought back as many artists as we could. Now, I told Cuscuna, “We’ve got to do this; we have to relaunch the label with a flair. Let’s have a concert. Do it at Town Hall. Bring back all the Blue Note artists from the past and bring all the new ones on stage that we’ve signed.” Cuscuna thought I was mad. But I said, “We’ve got to do this.”
So Michael did the whole thing. Then he said, “Let me get Alfred to come. His wife will never let him come to New York, because he’s got a bad heart, and half of it probably comes from his experiences with these artists through so many years of sessions every night, and all this stuff.” so I said, “Let’s send him a telegram.” So we sent Alfred a telegram, saying that we were having this concert on February 26th (I think it was, or 22nd, I’m not sure…) at Town Hall to celebrate the rebirth of Blue Note, and we want you to come as a guest of honor, and Rudy Van Gelder, and Reid Miles, and so on.”
The next day, I got a phone call at home. It was a Saturday. He said, “Bruce. It’s Alfred.” “Yes, Alfred. My God, it’s you.” He said, “Do you have a pen or pencil there, and a piece of paper?” I said, “Yes.” “Write this down. We have to have Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley…”—he listed all the tenor players that are on there. “Alto saxophone. Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson. Drums. Art Blakey.” He went on and on, the whole thing. I said, “I have a list here of about 50 different artists. I don’t think we can have that many of them. We’ll have as many as we can get.’ So we had 35 different musicians, including the newly-signed ones.
Alfred came to New York. We started with a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. At the beginning of the dinner, I saw a tear in Alfred’s eye. I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “You don’t understand that Ruth would never be allowed in this hotel when we had Blue Note.” She’s a black woman, a very light-skinned black woman. “This is the first time she’s ever eaten in this hotel; we always wanted to eat here.” A sad moment.
TP: A poignant moment.
BRUCE: Poignant is right. Then “What are you going to do? Are you going to make it commercial? Are you in tune with the times?” All that kind of stuff. We had a long, wonderful meeting. The next day at rehearsals, he brought his little camera. He had a reunion with all of his friends, Art Blakey and all of those guys, and they rehearsed into the night. Then the night came. It started at 8 o’clock and ended I think at 4 in the morning.
TP: I guess you didn’t care about the union overtime that night.
BRUCE: I said, “Fuck the union now. We’re too late. There’s nothing to do about it. We have three more acts to go on.” So it ended at 3 or 4 in the morning. The only artists who couldn’t play, who really wanted to play… There were two. Milt Jackson we failed to invite—bad mistake. Hank Mobley was too ill. He came and wanted to play alto saxophone, but he wasn’t very well.
TP: so that relaunched the label.
BRUCE: When the concert was over, we had a party with a jam session until 8 or 9 in the morning. It was incredible. Incredible memory. Walking out into the daylight, and “oh my God, what have we been through?”
TP: Some of those guys were used to those hours.
BRUCE: Oh, yeah. But just the idea of “What have we done here?” It took a while to really readjust that we’ve actually relaunched the label. It was great. Not all of the music was great, but most of it was at a high level. Art Blakey forgot his hearing aid. He didn’t hear the rhythm right at first, then he finally caught up right away. Cuscuna could tell you a lot about what happened on the stage and backstage. Then we gave an award to Alfred. I have a lovely tape of Alfred’s speech. Beautiful. He said, “Thirty-five years ago, Art Blakey asked me to be one of his little messengers. I tried to preach the good gospel of jazz for all this time, and I hope Art is happy.” A lovely thing, the way he said it, with the German accent and stuff. He became our spiritual godfather. He was on the phone for most of the week with us at least.
TP: When did he die?
BRUCE: ‘86 or ‘87.
TP: So not long…
BRUCE: No. We brought him to Mount Fuji for the festival. That was another festival. The Japanese were in awe of Blue Note records, which were licensed by King Records in Japan.
TP: They had all the unissued and out of print albums.
BRUCE: Right. All that.
TP: I recall seeing them at Soho Music Gallery in the early ‘80s, when people like John Zorn were fetishistically collecting all this stuff.
BRUCE: Oh, I know. So they decided they would put on a festival, a major television station there, at the foot of Mount Fuji, right at the base of Lake Yamanaka(?) looking out on Mount Fuji. They built this enormous stage, about the size of Woodstock, had a 7-camera shoot over three afternoons and two evenings, and on a smaller stage at the hotel for nighttime jam sessions after the major events were done. It was amazing! Alfred was the guest of honor. The moment that was poignant for me was when Alfred came out and was introduced for the first time—I think it was on Saturday afternoon. These people stood up, and something like 30,000 fans out there… It was like Woodstock. It was incredible. Standing, giving him a standing ovation that must have lasted fully 3 or 4 minutes. He was in tears. He said, “I’ve never been to Japan before, never in my life. To think that now, after all these years, they’d be honoring my label.” So it was a pretty amazing time.
TP: How was all this translating into sales and profitability at the beginning?
BRUCE: At the beginning, mainly it was coming from the reissues, obviously. Stanley Jordan was selling a lot of records. His record was on the Billboard jazz chart for a full year. 51 weeks. Not 52, but 51 weeks. Tom Noonan was running the charts then. Tom cheated us out of the last week. We could have had a full year!
Anyway, his record was selling. The reissues, obviously, of Sidewinder and Blue Train were the key, records that had been big in the past. Song For My Father.
TP: They were big in the past. But it seems that when they were reissued they became recognized as iconic.
BRUCE: Iconic. Exactly right.
TP: I don’t think they’d been iconic before then.
BRUCE: Probably not before then.
TP: So the brand took on an identity of its own. Joe Jackson ripped off the Sonny Rollins album cover. In the postmodern pop world, something about Blue Note resonated as a signifier.
BRUCE: Yes. It became extremely hip. Then 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 they sold extremely well in the U.K., and they sold a bit here.
TP: I’m going to ask a few of my talking points. One is how you reestablished the Blue Note brand to suit the climate of the early ‘80s. Not that you necessarily thought of it as a brand, but you were a marketing person.
BRUCE: I hate the word “brand”, by the way. It was clear to me that Stanley Jordan, for one, was an artist that had a young appeal—as well as good traditional appeal, to a degree, but certainly a young appeal. At the very least, we were very interested in reaching out to that, as well as retaining the serious, straight-ahead aspect of the label. Then Petrucciani became a bit of a phenomenon in his own way. Then later, Eliane Elias came to the label and she sold the Brazilian stuff very well. Later, in ‘89, Greg Osby did a hip-hop kind of record. We signed Medeski, Martin and Wood; I chased them around for a long time. Then Charlie Hunter. Then Dianne Reeves. Because after all, we didn’t have any… Alfred was not a big fan of vocalists, apparently. I never asked him about this. I should have. I should have, though. He preferred instrumentalists. He recorded one Sheila Jordan album, two albums by Dodo Greene, and that’s about it—unless Babs Gonzalez could be considered a serious singer (I don’t think so).
TP: Bill Henderson on the Horace Silver records.
BRUCE: Yes. But he was apparently not a big fan of vocalists. But it was second nature to me. When I heard Dianne Reeves for the first time… George Duke had called me and said, “You should sign my cousin, Dianne.” I said, “I don’t particularly like the record she made on Palo Alto. She’s a good singer, that’s for sure.” Well, I went to L.A. for a…outside the Wilshire Theater. There was a Duke Ellington tribute that they were videotaping and recording, that never came out, but Dianne Reeves was a guest vocalist on the night, and she sang two solo Ellington pieces and one duet with O.C. Smith, the R&B singer. I fell apart. I raced back to her dressing and I said, “You’re on Blue Note. I’ve got to sign you.” And we signed her then, in ‘87 or ‘88. She was the first major vocalist that we signed, and she’s been with us ever since.
After that, it was Rachelle Farrell, who is an amazing singer with an incredible voice, and she was very successful as well, selling half a million records. Although that was on Capitol; on Blue Note she sold several hundred thousand. Then I brought in Lena Horne at one point, and we made the last record of her career.
TP: Then Cassandra in 1993, who was very successful.
BRUCE: Very, very successful. Cassandra wanted to make a jazz album of R&B tunes. Actually, I heard her perform at an R&B club, owned by a former R&B singer, on 8th Avenue…B. Smith’s. Cassandra was singing upstairs. It was a fusion kind of thing. It was one of her downtown phases. She had a percussionist and a synthesizer player and a very 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 here. I want you. I signed you. You have a great voice, you write interesting songs. Let’s make an acoustic record. Can we do that?” She was a little insulted. We had a long meeting. “How about doing this album of R&B…” I said, “It’s been done before. It’s ok. I want to make sure you do an album that focuses on you, your voice, your songs, and I want it to be acoustic.” That was my contribution to her career, and that was it. So she came back to me in about a week with two songs, “Tupelo Honey” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, produced by Craig Street, who I didn’t know. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know who it was. He had produced a Jimi Hendrix concert and some other stuff. He was working in construction, living in the same building that she did in Harlem. He had broken his foot, so they used to hang out on the front porch and just talk about music. He’s the one that 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. So when she came in with this demo, I said, “Oh my God, this is the whole plot. We’ve found the plot. Or he did. Or the two of you did. This is the record.” The record was enormously successful for us.
TP: And it established a certain template for ‘90s pop music that remains today. It brings me to another question. Looking at it retrospectively, as someone who has been a fan of the music as long as you have and been involved in it professionally as long as you have… The sound of jazz was changing at the cusp of the ‘90s in a lot of different ways. The vocabulary was becoming more inclusive, more internationalized, with Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music entering the mainstream, hip-hop influences, and so on, and you signed Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Osby, Don Byron…
TP: Ron Carter, too.
BRUCE: We licensed Ron through the Japanese company.
TP: Weren’t Chucho and Gonzalo also through…
BRUCE: No. What happened is, when I was at Columbia Records, we did Havana Jam. I went down there and signed Irakere. I heard how great the musicians were in Cuba, and I became a huge fan of what was going on in Cuban music, and we signed Irakere to Columbia, with Jimmy Carter’s blessing, and we won a Latin Grammy with the first album of Irakere. So with Blue Note, I went back down there and signed Chucho, but I had to sign him through the Canadian company with the embargo. Charlie Haden brought me Gonzalo. He’d just come from the Montreal festival, where they’d done a series of nights dedicated to his music. One night he heard this Cuban pianist. He said, “Have you heard this kid?” I said, “No. Let me come…” Charlie Haden played me a tape. Gonzalo had just gotten off the plane after trying to get to Montreal through Kennedy Airport. They wouldn’t let him stay off the plane. They sent him back to Cuba, and he had a private plane. I heard him, and I thought, “This guy is unbelievable. I have to get down…” So we went down to Havana and signed him, but through the Japanese company, since we weren’t allowed.
TP: So you were able to leverage the international structure of EMI in a creative way.
BRUCE: We also made another album with Irakere. We made an album with Frank Emilio Flynn.
TP: Lovano came on board in 1990. Very long term relationships with these artists.
BRUCE: Well, yeah. The idea is to stay with them as long as you possibly can. Lovano has been with us now for 16 albums, something like that?
TP: I think this will be his 21st.
BRUCE: You’re right. Dianne Reeves since ‘87. Osby had a long run.
TP: So did Don Byron, and Gonzalo has been with you ever since…
BRUCE: Gonzalo ever since the beginning.
TP: Again, this comes back to balancing art and commerce. Through your acumen or luck or whatever it is, you found artists who sold large units, and used one to pay for another, or so it’s said. Is that how you were thinking about it? Speak a bit about the economics of creating art records.
BRUCE: Well, we’ll start with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as an example. We sold millions of records all over the world. It was a Blue Note record that we put out on the Manhattan label, because we didn’t think it should be in the jazz section of the store. We thought we had a it, and we did. But it was a Blue Note record, actually, because he was signed to Blue Note, but Manhattan was a sister label. It was a matter of marketing technique. We put it on Manhattan, because we didn’t want to be in the jazz section of the store; we wanted to be in the mainstream section of the record store.
Then came US-3 with “Cantaloupe Island,” which was ‘90 or something. That album sold at least 2 million copies. Then between that, we had Dianne Reeves’ very first record, which sold several hundred thousand. So we always had something going like that, starting with Stanley Jordan.
But I didn’t think of it in terms of paying the way for the other stuff. We were able to keep our budgets fairly tight. Some of the artists did lose some money—not a lot. Others made a small profit. It continues that way right now. When Norah Jones came around, she changed the paradigm of everything. That was one of those… People ask how I signed her. I say, “I returned a phone call.” “What do you mean, you returned a phone call.” I said, “So many people in our business are so arrogant, they don’t return phone calls. I return every phone call I ever get, by the end of the day, if possible, and by the end of the week, certainly.” I got a call from some woman in the royalty accounting department whom I didn’t even know. She was an accountant. I said, “Do we have a royalty problem?” She said, “No. I want you to hear this jazz artist that I found.” I said, “Ok, send me something.” She said, “No, I want you to meet her.” I said, “Ok, bring her in on Friday at the end of the day, when things are a little bit more quiet.” So Norah came in… This girl, Michelle White, who is in our royalty department, and like a lot of people in the royalty department you don’t know these people at all. It turns out that her husband, who is a jazz musician, has a downtown band, and Norah used to sit in with the band. He said, “Take her to Lundvall, who runs Blue Note.” Well, after hearing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” one time, I said, “You’re on Blue Note.” She said, “What?” I said, “I don’t even need to hear the other two songs.” I said, “Who’s the piano player? He’s a pretty good piano player.” She said, “Oh, it’s me.” “You’re on Blue Note. Get yourself an attorney.” That’s really how it happened. Then I listened to the other two songs, that were equally good. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” is the one that killed me. It’s a tough song to do. She did it better than almost anyone I ever heard. It was a demo. Then she played me “Walking My Baby Back Home,” which everyone does, and it was fine. Then there was a pop song.
While we waited for her to get a contract, we did a separate demo deal, so she could demonstrate some of the songs that she wanted to think about for her first album. Well, it was all over the place. There were pop songs, there was a Mose Allison song, there was a Hank Williams song, there was Ellington, there was Strayhorn, Bessie Smith (“Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”). They were all this (?—1:12:17), and they’re all terrific in their way. She demoed these songs in one night.
I said, “what kind of record do you really want to make?” She said, “This is the music I want to do.” Anyway, Arif Mardin produced the record, and it had a huge success—20 million records worldwide with that one record. It changed everything. 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.
TP: Is Van Morrison on Blue Note?
BRUCE: Was. One record came out on Blue Note. Looked like a Blue Note cover. That’s his history. He makes one record with each company, and then goes on to the next one. So he has a new one coming out on Manhattan, Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl.
TP: Al Green started resurrecting himself on the label.
BRUCE: We found out that Al Green was ready to make his first secular record in a lot of years. So Michael and I went to Memphis, and Willie Mitchell played us the record with Al. Al is incredible. We had dinner that night. Al was going to make this record on his own 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.”
The Anita Baker came along. 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.” She had a vanity label under her contract, but she said, “I want to be on Blue Note,” so she’s on Blue Note.
TP: So the bottom line is that Norah Jones opened the door for people to see you as a label that could handle them, market them.
BRUCE: They knew the quality of the label, the history of the label. “If I can be on this label, I add to the great quality and artistic history, and they can still sell as many records as Capitol can, or more. Or I want to be on the pop label.” That was really it. Norah Jones made that a very clear example.
TP: Do you think this develoment had something to do with the changing demographics of the listening audience, an aging audience with different tastes and aspirations?
BRUCE: I think so. I think people were getting tired of the quality of the music that 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.
TP: You also had Kurt Elling during these years.
BRUCE: I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich about the three most important jazz singers of the decade. It was Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Kurt Elling. I said, “Who the hell is Kurt Elling? I never heard of this guy.” So about a week later, I was going to the dentist’s in western New Jersey, and I was going through my bag to look for something to play, and picked a cassette—Kurt Elling. “This is the guy Howard Reich wrote about.. I was curious. I put it on and I went nuts. “Oh my God, this guy’s really fresh and very original.” so I went to the dentist’s office, got my novocaine and all that stuff, drove back to New York, and I’m still listening to it a second time, I’m going out of my mind. I see there’s a phone number on the cassette, and it might be his number, so I dialed it from the car phone. I said, “I’m looking for Kurt Elling.” He said, “This is Kurt.” “You don’t know me. My name is Bruce Lundvall; I’m with Blue Note records.” I said, “I love your record; I’m listening to it now,” and I played it back over the phone.” I said, “When can I see you? I want to see you perform?” “I’m playing Monday night at the Green Mill in Chicago.” This was a Thursday night. “I’ll be there.” “This is just an improvisational thing; it’s not anything planned.” “Even better. I’ll be there.”
So I went. I had Richard Morse with me, who I had signed to Manhattan Records— a pop artist. He lives in Chicago. A great cat. “You want to come with me?” We had dinner, and we went to see Kurt Elling at the Green Mill. Kurt Elling didn’t know who I was. After the first song, Richard said, “You’re going to sign him, aren’t you.” I said, “You’re fucking right, I am.” So we had a handshake then and there, and we signed him.
TP: You’re extremely hands-on.
TP: Well, not everyone who runs a larger label is as hands-on as you. I could be wrong about that.
BRUCE: 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? I’ve become a fairly decent delegator at this point in my career after all these years. I was never that good at delegating in the past. But I still want to keep my hand in. I don’t allow anyone to be signed who I don’t approve of. Eli Wolf is becoming a terrific A&R man for us. Terrific. He’s been doing this now for about ten years, and I trust his judgment. But we still work together like that. Michael and I work together like that.
I think what’s happened, in a strange way… I’m writing a little piece for a book that’s coming out in Germany of Frank Wolff’s photographs and Jimmy Katz’s photographs together, which ten years ago is the way we presented the sixtieth anniversary of Blue Note, with the box set and the booklet with his photographs of the current roster and Frank’s photographs of the past. I think Jimmy Katz is becoming our Frank Wolff photographer at Blue Note. He doesn’t do every cover by any means, but he’s fabulous.
It’s interesting, the way things come together in this manner. I feel we’re really a team. It’s not me. It’s a team of people that are friends, who respect one another, that work together very effectively. We have issues, too, that we have to face that are not so pleasant from time to time. But we do have a good team of people who respect one another, and are really first and foremost about the music. That’s what’s made it work. I’d really be embarrassed if I had to tell you that this has been a failure. It’s been successful commercially, it’s been successful artistically as far as I’m concerned. It will never be as successful as what Alfred Lion created in the first place.
TP: Why not? Why couldn’t it be?
BRUCE: I think he had artists that were so one-of-a-kind and had such giants. We have to see how many of our artists become that in time. We’ll see.
TP: What’s your sense of it?
BRUCE: My sense is that there are certain artists we have who will be recognized 30-40-50 years from now. Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano certainly, Gonzalo without question, Jason Moran certain, hopefully Glasper (we’ll see what happens). Who else am I missing?
TP: All of them are high quality artists.
BRUCE: Bill Charlap, too, in his own straight-ahead way, a conservative way, but what a masterful player.
TP: He’s serving as the face of your 70th anniversary at this point.
BRUCE: Yes. Well, he’s really the Musical Director of the Blue Note 7. He’s very anal. He’s very precise. Highly intelligent. So he’s brought a group of guys together in a way that they got very frustrated, but they respect him, and when it was done they said, “We like this record; thank god for Bill.” They all had their own ideas, but they respected him. He handled them very well.
TP: I think he got excellent training for that in booking the 92nd Street Y series.
BRUCE: Yes. He’s an amazing man. Wynton has been a joy to work with. I wish he worked only on making records, and not working on all these other things, like building Jazz at Lincoln Center. But he’s done an extraordinary piece of work with this music, no doubt about it. He’s a great player, no question about it. I wish he had more time to devote just simply to writing and playing.
TP: Then Terence Blanchard, who’s recorded at least one major work for you.
BRUCE: Oh, yeah. Not only that, we’ve signed two artists out of his band, Aaron Parks and Lionel Loueke. So here’s a guy who fosters young talent brilliantly. They’ve stuck with him.
TP: I think Terence hews closely to the Art Blakey dictum of nurturing young players.
BRUCE: Exactly right. When people say there’s no more Art Blakey around, or a school of Art Blakey or a school of Max Roach, or that kind of thing—well, there’s a school of Terence Blanchard.
TP: But again, without trying to butter you up too much…
BRUCE: You can keep doing that. It’s ok.
TP: Ok, I’ll butter you up. It seems that Blue Note under you has been uniquely receptive to the shifting winds. You’re not the most radical label, but in the ‘80s your roster included Don Pullen and James Newton, and Lovano and Gonzalo have done some pretty wild records, Osby never compromised on anything, Jason is conceptually venturesome, Don Byron as well.
BRUCE: You bet.
TP: Again, we get back to you as a kind of diplomat. Not quite akin to sustaining world peace…
BRUCE: World peace I can’t handle.
TP: …but keep the balance between the million-sellers and this sort of…
BRUCE: You have to do that. As Alfred suggested, what are you going to do that keeps the label profitable? Because if you’re not profitable, they’ll close you down. We’ve been profitable every year. Last year was a tough one. We lost a little money last year. That was the first time in… I have a 12-year running tab on our profitability, and we were profitable at least for 12 years. In the early years we were, too, but we were coalesced with the Manhattan label and so on. So we’re separated. We wrote a separate P&L on both labels.
TP: Your brand is so associated with the legacy of music in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the notion of back catalog.
TP: Now, it’s impossible not to notice that even an artist like Joe has only four albums listed on the website, none of Osby’s are listened, only two of Don Byron’s—at least as far as hardcopy.
BRUCE: They will be all available on the Internet.
TP: Let’s speak about the challenge of sustaining the label’s identity in an environment where economics don’t allow much back product to be in print.
BRUCE: The problem really is that there are no record stores any more. It’s as simple as that. Very few. Thank God for J&R Music World and places like that. Borders’ is on the threat of bankruptcy, and Tower is already gone. There are very few Virgin stores left anywhere. So it’s really a tough time for retail. Those are the retailers that carry catalog, carry Blue Note and carry classical music and everything else. They’re not here any more. So the Internet is the way forward. It has to be. There’s no other options. There’s a small market for vinyl. We’re doing vinyl again on a certain level. But we’re talking about something that’s small. Still, it’s encouraging to see that people like the quality of vinyl and they’re buying turntables again. It doesn’t surprise me, but in a way it does.
TP: Do you have any feelings about analog versus digital?
BRUCE: I love the sound of vinyl. I’ll be honest with you. I think the seeds of destruction were built into the CD itself. You get 79 minutes of music. That’s too much music. Less is more. What is art about? Less is always more. You always want the audience waiting for more. You buy an LP, you’ve got 17 minutes on a side, you can turn it over or not turn it over right away, you’ve got a 12″-by-12″ portrait, you had liner notes that you could read even when you got old and your eyes got bad. Now I have to read the notes with a magnifying glass. And the sound is not as good. It just isn’t. Put on an LP, and the warmth of the sound and quality of the sound is quite superior. Even when you hear scratches and ticks, it doesn’t bother you. We’re used to them; at least I was. But I think the CD, as much as it did for the music, it encouraged artists to do more music.
I remember when Stefon Harris said to me, “I filled out every second of music on this CD.” I said, “Why?” First of all, you play the vibraphone with overtones, and it’s very hard to listen to that much vibraphone. Secondly, you don’t have that much good music. I didn’t really say it to him this way. I was more diplomatic than that. But I said, “Less is more, Stefon. If you had five great songs and the record lasted 45 minutes, it would be worth more than the record is now, at 70-75 minutes or whatever.” Now, don’t use the artist’s name, if you don’t mind, but an artist on the label. But I think this is true.
Also, CDs have become very expendable. You come into the office and grab a bunch of CDs. You couldn’t carry that many LPs out of the office. I really think that it encourages artists to be a little sloppy. They think they’re being diligent by offering you more music. It’s funny. If you’re documenting a symphony orchestra or something like that, then a CD that can contain the entire symphony, that’s wonderful. But it’s too much to listen to. No one’s attention span is long enough to sustain listening to 79 minutes of everything.
TP: I think CDs have the advantage in documenting live performance, because it’s a more seamless experience.
BRUCE: That’s true. But 50 minutes is fine. It’s all you need. I’d say, “Oh God, that’s so great. I want to hear more. I wonder what the next one is going to be like.” Rather than being sated by all this endless, endless stuff. After a while, the quality fades.
TP: Your taste notwithstanding, you adapted.
BRUCE: Well, yes. I remember at Columbia Records going to the Museum of Modern Art. We were right around the corner, in the CBS Building in those days. So I’d get a couple of guys in the art department to have lunch at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’d walk around and discuss the exhibits. I like art very much. I remember John Berg, the Art Director, and a woman who was there, too, whose name I’ve forgotten now, saying, “This is terrible, this whole advent of the CD. It’s going to be 5″-by-5″, and you can’t design anything for that size. It’s not going to work, no one will see anything, the LP is perfect…” They were thinking of it in terms of design, as graphic artists. I said, “Technology is going to win; you can’t win this one. You’re right in many respects, but you’re going to have to learn to design for the 5″-by-5″ format.
TP: Apart from questions of CD design, we’re already speaking of old history with digital technology.
BRUCE: Oh, I know.
TP: I just want to note for the record that you grimaced when you said “Oh, I know.” Nonetheless, you’re adapting.
BRUCE: About 16% of our volume now comes from digital technology, 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. Still people are buying physical records. But it’s all going to turn digital at one point in time, I think. Not entirely so, but I think 90% of it will be downloading the Internet. So we have to adapt that way. I’m a little bit old for that. I’m not really a technological guy at all. It frustrates me very often, to see people downloading everything and walking around with Ipods. Yes, it’s good in a way, but I think the problem with the computer world is that people spend their time looking into a fucking computer screen, and they can’t even communicate verbally or write a note that you can make sense out of. It’s a weird experience. Frustrating for me. I still write everything down.
TP: You write longhand.
BRUCE: Yes, always. It’s not easy for me now, because I have a little pre-stage Parkinson’s, so my handwriting is very small and illegible. That’s why I talk this way. It’s very strange. Supposedly, it’s not going to get any worse. I take a couple of pills every day, and that’s about it. But it affects your handwriting, it affects your speech, it affects your walking.
TP: You seem to have the discipline to mask it.
BRUCE: That’s good. For three years, I’ve been doing this show on Sirius, on Channel 72, which I do pro bono, of course. But why not? To get an hour, three times a week on the air, promoting Blue Note Records? Why not? It’s not easy for me just to talk into a microphone without an audience, but fortunately, I’ve had good producers like Matt Abramowitz, and now I’ve got Mark Ruffin, since they converted with XM. But the other day I did a show, and I completely lost it in the middle of describing something I wanted to play. It was the last tune on the show. My words just got fuckin’ jumbled. What the fuck is going on? What’s that? I snap into this malady.
TP: It must be very frustrating, after being so in control in your world.
BRUCE: It is. But normally I’m ok, but it will happen when you least expect it. It just happens. Your mind is going faster than your mouth.
TP: Let’s speak a bit more about the implications of the digital world. What to do to ensure Blue Note is around for its 75th?
BRUCE: You find the best and most original artists you can possibly find, and you sign them, and you give them the freedom to make great records. And they’re out there. It’s always a surprise. People like Jenny Scheinman. Fucking incredible artist, by the way. Many, many others.
TP: Did you sign her?
TP: Who are some people out there whom you like?
BRUCE: There are a lot of people developing that I like. I haven’t found a tenor player that really strikes me now. Ravi Coltrane is coming into his own. I’m interested in him now, slowly, after the misjudgment of playing the same instrument his father did. He’s trying to develop now his own voice. But he’s been around for a bit.
Lizz Wright as a singer. She’s done three or four albums, but I think she’s got much more than she’s exhibited on record thus far.
TP: I don’t think she’s been produced properly.
BRUCE: No. Me either. Miguel Zenon. He’s got a great vision. Francisco Mela, this young drummer, is fabulous. I heard him before Joe. I heard him with Kenny Barron, and he just killed me! I thought, “Who the hell is this?” This guy has something special as a drummer. There’s a drummer named Willie Jones. I think the best trumpet player out there among the young guys, who is no longer a kid, is Roy Hargrove. He’s kind of stayed in one place, but still he’s a helluva player.
TP: Quickly, while the check comes, three signings you’re most proud of.
BRUCE: Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Joe Lovano. Not three. I have to give more than three. Jason Moran. Shit, man, that’s not fair. Bill Charlap I’m very proud of also. And Dianne Reeves. You have to include Dianne. She is the greatest singer around.
[END OF CONVERSATION]