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Bruce Lundvall, Former Blue Note Records Chief, Dies at 79

Brought the label back from dormancy to its present glory

Bruce Lundvall,Wynton Marsalis, Alain Simard, Andre Menard
Bruce Lundvall
Bruce Lundvall with Norah Jones at the 2014 Jazz Foundation of America loft part, NYC

Bruce Lundvall, whose five-decade music business career found him helming the storied Blue Note Records jazz label as well as the domestic division of Columbia Records, died May 19. The cause was complications from a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s disease. Lundvall was 79. His death was confirmed by Blue Note.

Lundvall is credited with signing, over the years, numerous top jazz artists including Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano and Dianne Reeves, as well as artists outside of the jazz realm such as Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Peter Tosh and Norah Jones.

Born in Englewood, N.J., on Sept. 13, 1935, Lundvall had developed an interest in jazz by age 10 and began collecting swing and, later, bebop records. By 15 he was attending jazz clubs in nearby New York to listen to artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Lundvall attempted to learn to play trumpet and piano, but by his own admission was not very successful. In 1953 he began attending Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, studying commerce and finance. He produced jazz concerts while at the school, as well as hosting a radio program.

Upon graduation, Lundvall sought an entry-level position at Blue Note Records’ New York headquarters, but was told there were no openings. Unable to find work he joined the Army. In 1960, upon his discharge, he took a job as a marketing trainee at Columbia Records, where a college friend, Michael Berniker, had gone to work. Lundvall stayed with Columbia for 21 years, ultimately ascending from vice president of marketing to the presidency of the domestic division of CBS Records, Columbia’s parent company at the time. At Columbia Lundvall was responsible for bringing Herbie Hancock’s electric music to the rock audience as well as for boosting the careers of artists as diverse as Phoebe Snow and Bruce Springsteen.

In 1979, Lundvall organized Havana Jam, the first jazz concert in Cuba in two decades to feature American artists.

In 1982 Lundvall went to Elektra/Asylum for three years, where he became senior vice president while heading up the new Elektra/Musician label. He went next, in 1984, to EMI, where he created the new Manhattan Records imprint and, partnered with producer Michael Cuscuna, revived Blue Note, which EMI had acquired. The jazz imprint had fallen into dormancy and Lundvall reactivated it, signing new artists (including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Michel Petrucciani, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood), some well outside the label’s iconic hard- and postbop purview (Bobby McFerrin, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green and Amos Lee), and giving a new home to veteran talents such as Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon. Other artists who recorded for Blue Note under Lundvall’s watch were Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Don Pullen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard and Jacky Terrasson. Lundvall also maintained the label’s rich catalog with a robust reissue series.

As president/CEO of Blue Note, leading its North American division, Lundvall turned Blue Note’s fortunes around, making it into one of the top jazz labels again. He left in 2010 when his health began to fail. Two years later the label’s presidency went to musician/producer Don Was.

Lundvall also served as chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and director of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). He won three Grammys, a Grammy Trustees Award and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America.

A definitive biography, Dan Ouellette’s Playing by Ear, was released last year. In August, Lundvall organized the Sunrise Senior Living Jazz Festival, an event featuring A-list talent like Jones, Reeves and Lovano, at his assisted-living facility in New Jersey. In January, he spoke and was honored at the Jazz Connect Conference in New York. He is the namesake of the conference’s Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award.

Often regarded as one of the last great record executives, Lundvall was known for his fairness and kindness, and for his willingness to nurture talent and take risks.

In an official statement from Blue Note, Was said, “Bruce was a one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life human being. His joie de vivre was equaled only by his love for music, impeccable taste and kind heart. He will be sorely missed by all of us who loved and admired him, but his spirit will live forever in the music of Blue Note Records.”

Originally Published