Champion of Jazz Talent Brings His Work Home

Publish Date:

Friday, August 22, 2014 10:53 am EDT


News Organization:

New York Times

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He was a regular sight in the jazz clubs of Manhattan. Tall gentleman in glasses. Pinstriped suit. Neatly trimmed white beard. Often seated with business associates, but quiet, eyes trained on the stage. This was Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, checking up on the talent or taking stock of the scene.

A number of things have recently changed for Mr. Lundvall, 78, but not his evident passion for the music, nor the pride he takes in being associated with it. Since receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease within the last decade, he has ended his 25-year tenure at the helm of Blue Note, becoming a consultant and chairman emeritus.

And these days, it’s more of a production when he makes it out to a jazz club. Using a wheelchair, he attended a 75th-anniversary concert for the label at Town Hall in January — but didn’t travel to Washington four months later for a gala at the Kennedy Center.

“My wife and my neurologist urged me not to go,” he said by telephone this week, “because it wouldn’t be safe.” In June, after several falls at his home in northern New Jersey, he moved into an assisted-living center, Brighton Gardens of Saddle River.

Now, true to form, he has organized a musical summit there: the Sunrise Senior Living Jazz Festival, to be held in an outdoor tent this Sunday from 2 to 8 p.m. Its lineup will feature some of the artists Mr. Lundvall cultivated at Blue Note, notably the singers Dianne Reeves and Norah Jones, the pianists Chucho Valdés and Bill Charlap, and the saxophonists Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. Tickets are $79.67 ($158.34 for a V.I.P. package), with all proceeds benefiting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

The participation of these and other musicians, including the saxophonist Javon Jackson and the pianist Renee Rosnes, can be understood as a response to Mr. Lundvall’s dedication to his artists. Don Was, who succeeded him as label president in 2012, emphasized that point in an email. “I’ve been making records for 40 years and have never encountered a more beloved figure on the business side,” he wrote.

“When I started looking at the deals he’d made,” Mr. Was added, “it was clear that he’d always been the artist’s advocate: He was extremely generous to them and always on their side. The hallmark of his tenure is that he proved that you can do the right thing for the music and the musicians and still run a profitable company.”

Mr. Lundvall came to his profession as an amateur saxophonist and a die-hard fan, collecting 78 r.p.m. records and tuning in to Symphony Sid’s bebop-era radio show. He was an adolescent habitué of jazz clubs in New York and New Jersey and held an informal jazz salon in his attic in Bergen County, N.J., calling it Duke’s Club.

Early in “Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear,” an authorized biography by Dan Ouellette, published this year through ArtistShare, there’s a retelling of a conversation between a teenage Mr. Lundvall and his father, who was a mechanical engineer.

“Bruce told him, ‘When I grow up, I want to be in the record business.’ The reply: ‘Son, you’ll have to choose — one or the other.’ ”

Mr. Lundvall, blithely ignoring that advice, brought his enthusiasms with him to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he wrote about jazz for the college newspaper and hosted a weekly radio show. At one point, he visited the nearby Lewisburg Penitentiary, where the saxophonist Jimmy Heath was serving a sentence for drug possession; Mr. Heath had organized a prison big band, which Mr. Lundvall recorded and later played on his show.

After serving in the United States Army during the early stretch of the Cold War — he worked counterintelligence in Stuttgart, Germany — Mr. Lundvall talked his way into an entry-level job at Columbia Records. He remained there for more than 20 years, moving up the ranks to president, and signing not only jazz artists (like the saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz) but also an upstart singer-songwriter named Willie Nelson.

Mr. Lundvall left Columbia in 1982 to start an imprint of Elektra Records, Elektra Musician, on which he released the self-titled debut album by Bobby McFerrin, along with albums by Rubén Blades and an array of jazz artists. Two years later, Mr. Lundvall moved to Blue Note, with the mission of revitalizing a storied label that had gone fallow.

His stewardship was steady and often inspired, with a trail of consequential signings, including those of pacesetters like the alto saxophonist Greg Osby, the singers Cassandra Wilson and Kurt Elling and the pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran.

One of his greatest successes was Norah Jones, whose 2002 debut album, “Come Away With Me,” won eight Grammy Awards and has sold well over 10 million copies in the United States alone. Hindsight has made the signing of Ms. Jones seem like a sure bet, but it was a leap of faith at the time, and Mr. Lundvall was its driving force.

“I don’t know where I would be in the world of music without Bruce as my friend and champion,” Ms. Jones said at the Kennedy Center in May. She’ll play a 20-minute set on Sunday afternoon, between performances by the Bill Charlap Trio and a Joe Lovano quartet.

Despite the all-star lineup, the festival, a 40-minute drive from Midtown Manhattan, has struggled with advance ticket sales. “We came very close to canceling it,” Mr. Lundvall said by phone this week. “It was on and off and on again in the same day.”

But the realization of the festival, whatever the turnout, will mean that Mr. Lundvall has managed, briefly, to bring the jazz scene to him. Not that he otherwise feels excluded, as he hastened to clarify. “I’m still part of the Blue Note family,” he said. “And I’m still in the music business. I love it. It’s like the mob: Once you’re in, you can’t get out.”

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