Viewing the Bigger Picture

March 8, 2007

“The future of jazz lies in the hands of the performers,” notes Bruce Lundvall, president CEO of the Blue Note label group ( “Always it’s the artists who move the music forward, artistically and even commercially.We’re simply middle-men and go-betweens between the artist and the public.”

An industry veteran of over 45 years who has helmed no fewer than three major record labels and been instrumental in launching, re-launching, or kick starting the careers of countless legendary artists, Lundvall could accurately be described as something more than a “go-between.”During his stints at Columbia/CBS, Elektra/Asylum, and now Blue Note, Bruce has worked with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker, Andrew Hill, Medeski Martin and Wood, Cassandra Wilson, Stan Getz, James Taylor, and Norah Jones, to name but a few.

Miles Davis  Bruce Lundvall
Miles Davis with Bruce Lundvall in the 1970s

Hitting the Pavement
“I started out as a passionate jazz fan, a big record collector, and a very bad saxophone player,” Lundvall says with a laugh.“I had attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, majoring in commerce and finance, and I ended up going to those interviews that you go to when you’re a senior – Xerox, IBM, insurance companies, and all that – and I absolutely hated it.I wanted to be in the record business; that was all I wanted to do.”

Ironically, Bruce first sought employment – and was denied – at Blue Note.“I didn’t leave college with any type of trainee position at a label.I literally walked the streets, looking to get my foot in the door, and the first place that I went to was Blue Note, my favorite label.I saw [label co-founder] Alfred Lion, who was very polite, but he explained to me that it was just him and Frank Wolff who ran the label and he didn’t have room for anybody else; they weren’t hiring.I said that I’d work for practically nothing, but that was that – I was out the door in under five minutes!”

“I Ended Up Running the Company”
Though a position at Blue Note wasn’t yet in the cards for Lundvall, he landed a job at Columbia Records in June of 1960, after a two-year tour of duty in the army (counter-intelligence).

“I got my first job at Columbia as a trainee and eventually I ended up running the company – the domestic division – by 1977 or so,” he recalls.“I ran CBS for six years, but it became very highly politicized and I was becoming increasingly unhappy with having to be a referee between a lot of people who were having problems with one another, so I said ‘That’s it!’ I wanted to do something smaller, spend a little more time with my family, and I wanted to start a jazz label. Joe Smith, who was then the chairman of Elektra/Asylum, had been on my case to leave CBS for a long time, so I got in touch and said, ‘I’m ready to do it.'”

Lundvall used the opportunity to shape the label’s identity and put his own personal stamp on the type of organization it would become.“The Elektra Musician label was something that I created and it was pretty diverse.Everything from archival recordings that I bought – Charlie Parker, for example – to fusion records to straight-ahead jazz.Buddy Shaw was signed there, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard – it was a nice roster and we actually won DownBeat’s ‘Label of the Year’ in our first year, which was very gratifying.”

Cassandra Wilson and Lundvall
Cassandra Wilson and Lundvall

In 1984 – well over 20 years after first “applying” at the label – Bruce finally landed at Blue Note.

“Bhaskar Menon was the chairman of EMI [Blue Note’s parent company] at the time and he invited me to dinner.He asked if I wanted to start Blue Note, which had been dormant for ten years.Now, that was my favorite label, so I was very interested, but at the same time I had my own label, Elektra Musician, which was doing very well, so I wasn’t immediately sure.Bhaskar said, ‘Well, we want to start a pop label in New York, as well.We have two pop labels in California – Capitol and EMI America – but nothing in New York.’ So that became an opportunity that I just couldn’t refuse: starting a major pop label in New York – not a boutique label, but a fully staffed label – and restarting Blue Note.So I came on board in July of 1984 and the first Blue Note records came out in February of 1985.Our first signing was Stanley Jordan, whose first release earned a Gold Album.

“I decided ‘Manhattan’ would be a great name for an East Coast pop label and, lo and behold, it had never been used, so we went with it. We had a pretty good run with Manhattan Records in the early days with Richard Marx, Robbie Neville, and a whole bunch of other people.

“Here we are – we’re still doing Blue Note and I’m very proud of the roster.Now we have a full service adult music division and we’ve expanded Blue Note with Norah Jones, Anita Baker, Van Morrison, Al Green, and artists like that.I initially thought that we were going to get burned by the [jazz purist] critics for straying from straight-ahead jazz, but they thought, ‘Those are quality artists, so what’s the difference?To keep the jazz thing really active and vibrant Blue Note needs to do this.’Norah Jones and the success she’s achieved altered the whole landscape of the company and it was really a sea of change for us.I don’t view embracing an artist such as Norah as any type of ‘compromise’ – who would?”

Art vs. Commerce
As the above comments suggest, Lundvall hasn’t achieved his position solely though appreciation of music; he’s proven himself an astute businessman with a keen eye for industry trends and an understanding of how to craft a successful business model.

“We’ve got to find different ways of effectively marketing jazz because we’re not dealing with large numbers – and, in fact, the numbers are shrinking,” he points out.“You can get lucky with a Diana Krall or a Cassandra Wilson, but those are the exceptions.The instrumental artists have a tougher time and you have to do everything with an eye towards the bottom line.And you have to always consider the market as a world market – you need international support.That’s one of the great things about EMI, which is an international company based in London.We have people working Blue Note in literally every market in the world.”

Bruce’s business sense in no way conflicts with his love of music – on the contrary, his passion for the art form aids in viewing the larger picture and not always focusing on the quick fix or immediate financial return.“I’m a fan, first and foremost,” he says.“Some of these artists that I believe very strongly in, who we have on our roster, do not make money for us.They don’t lose a lot of money, but they usually break even or have a small loss.However, if they’re really unique, important artists, in the future you’ll have a catalog by these people that will continue selling 30, 40, 50 years from now.[The] larger picture is: you’re buying into an annuity here.”

Looking to the Future
As a key player in the music industry for nearly half a century, Lundvall’s take on the present state of the business is, not surprisingly, particularly perceptive: “There are so few jazz artists being signed by major labels now – there’s really no major label that has a jazz department anymore except us.At this point, Concord has become our major competition. The independent labels are very valid and I’m glad we have them.I do admire the smaller labels for supporting jazz because it’s a tough form of music to support, financially.

“These days people can make their own records and sell them on the Internet and so on, so that’s the innovation that’s happening that’s most important.For aspiring artists, I think the Internet is probably the way forward in many respects.Downloading music is a threat to the record industry, but there’s not an awful lot you can really do about that.People are essentially moral, though, and most will pay for their music. Sales through the Internet – iTunes and everything else – have increased pretty substantially over the last couple of years.Technology and the market are evolving just as jazz is evolving – jazz has always evolved.The details of the business may change, but the music’s not going away.”

Bruce Lundvall hosts The Blue Note Hour every Friday at 6pm (rebroadcast Sundays at 9am) on Sirius Satellite Radio

(, Channel 72: Pure the hands of the performers,” notes Bruce Lundvall, president CEO of the Blue Note label group (“Always it’s the artists who move the music forward, artistically and even commercially.We’re simply middle-men and go-betweens between the artist and the public.”

Leave a Comment