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Michael Cuscuna Remembers Bruce Lundvall

9.13.35 – 5.19.15

Bruce Lundvall and Cassandra Wilson in 2003. Photo courtesy of Bruce Lundvall Archives
Bruce Lundvall (left) and Michael Cuscuna

Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.

In a business populated By colorful characters, Bruce Lundvall stood out. He was a man of his word with a great passion for and a deep sense of duty toward the art of music. He was tireless in supporting his artists and discovering new ones; he could hang out and club-hop like a 25-year-old (Swedish Viking genes). Nothing gave Bruce more pleasure than finding music that made a difference and getting it to the public. He had an amazing sense of humor (endearing in public and brutal in private) and great taste (in people, food and wine as well as music).

Bruce was a passionate jazz fan from childhood. After college and military service, he began knocking on the doors of various record companies. His first stop was Blue Note, his favorite label, but with a head count of seven they were fully staffed. His college friend Mike Berniker tipped him off to Columbia Records’ trainee program, and it was there, at the Rolls-Royce of record labels, that he began his career in sales in 1961. He probably would have preferred packing cartons at Blue Note, but under Columbia executive Bill Gallagher he learned the craft of sales and the art of marketing.

Columbia was at the time headed by the legendary Goddard Lieberson, a man who believed that intelligent risk and a commitment to culture and quality were the ingredients of success rather than detriments to it, and who proved it time after time. Bruce was profoundly influenced by Lieberson’s philosophy.

In little more than a dozen years after joining Columbia as a trainee, Lundvall was heading the label. In 1975 he became president of CBS Records, Inc., overseeing all of the corporation’s music divisions. As personal compensation for the added responsibility, he decided to beef up Columbia’s jazz roster. One of his first signings was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, followed in short order by Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Benny Golson and eventually Wynton Marsalis.

I was Dexter’s record producer, and that is how Bruce and I got to be friends. I remember Bruce, a failed tenor player like so many of us, being dazzled by Dexter. We’d go to Bruce’s office for a quick meeting that would stretch into hours. Dexter was not only a musical genius, he was also a worldly, extremely well-read raconteur with a caustic sense of humor: Bruce’s ideal. At one of those lengthy meetings, Bruce answered the phone and turned to us and said, “I gotta take this one. David Geffen is trying to woo James Taylor back to Warner Bros. Pain in the ass!” I asked if we should leave, and he said, “No! This won’t take long.”

In true Lieberson fashion, Bruce delivered the goods on Dexter. A resounding critical groundswell kicked Dexter’s career into high gear and his Columbia albums sold well beyond expectations. It became apparent to me that Bruce wasn’t just a great music guy; he heard like an A&R man and thought like a marketing expert.

In 1984, EMI Music head Bhaskar Menon offered him a dream job: start a New York-based pop label and revive Blue Note. Bruce asked me to come by for one of the early Manhattan/Blue Note meetings in the summer of 1984. At that meeting, Bruce came up with the idea of launching the new Blue Note with an all-star concert at the Town Hall in New York, using the great artists from the label’s rich past. Someone gave me a desk and a telephone and I started calling the musicians. At the end of that day, Bruce passed by and said, “We’re going to need some reissues. Can you do 20 for January?” Within a couple months I was producing records, doing jazz A&R, writing ads and solicitation copy and doing whatever else was needed. I was never officially hired or given a job description. Bruce was oriented toward results, not structure, and he never sweated the details. I loved that about him; it drove others mad.

Blue Note was Bruce’s home and dynasty for the rest of his life. Bruce loved music, but I truly believe he loved the artists themselves even more. He reveled in their personalities, their intellects and their unique perspectives. He created a wonderful environment for dozens of deserving artists-from Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves and Norah Jones to Don Pullen, Joe Lovano and Jason Moran. He gave many of us who worked with him the opportunity to make our dreams come true. He lived his life to the fullest, and we were all better off for it.

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