Blue Note at 70
“ He's a major force in jazz and the music business. He loves music and understands the soul of the musician. He's one of a kind. Eliane Elias on Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall ”
While hundreds of jazz labels have come and gone over the past 70 years, Blue Note continues to survive and thrive with an impressive roster featuring some of today's most important jazz voices such as Terence Blanchard, Bill Charlap, Eliane Elias, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Moran, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Cassandra Wilson.
"We've always been driven by artists we believe in," said Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall, who has been at the label's helm since it was relaunched in 1984 after a brief hiatus. "We never panicked in bad times and tried to second guess the public, signing artists somebody else thinks can be 'hits.' That has derailed labels in terms of their marketing spending and their direction. We try to make as few bad decisions as possible."
To commemorate the label's 70th anniversary, as well as the 25th anniversary of its revival, a slew of special album releases, concerts and tributes are planned in New York and throughout the US and the world, including a salute to Blue Note at this month's Grammy Awards.
In February alone, as part of what's being billed as "Blue Note Records Takes New York," area jazz fans can look forward to performances at various local venues by label artists like Blanchard, Charlap, Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Lovano and Dianne Reeves (with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson (with Norah Jones) and Moran, among others.
Blue Note has also released Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, an eight-song disc revisiting some of the label's classic repertoire, by the Blue Note 7, an all-star septet led by pianist Bill Charlap and featuring Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton, Steve Wilson, Peter Bernstein, Peter Washington and Lewis Nash.
So why has Blue Note been so successful for so long? Much of the credit goes to Lundvall.
"He's the inspiration and force behind the label," said pianist-vocalist Elias, who has recorded 18 albums for Blue Note, including her latest, Bossa Nova Stories. "He's a major force in jazz and the music business. He loves music and understands the soul of the musician. He's one of a kind," Elias said.
That sentiment is echoed by another longtime Blue Note artist, saxophonist Lovano. "It's been a thrill and a pleasure to work with someone like Bruce," said Lovano, whose latest release, Symphonica, is his 20th for the label. "Bruce encouraged me to be myself."
Lovano said Lundvall "first heard me at Sweet Basil with the Peter Erskine band" around 1990. "I didn't know who he was, but from the first moments I walked into his office he really knew who I was. He was so warm, so incredible. I never had to prove myself."
For his part, Lundvall says his friendships with musicians are the things he cherishes most. "The best part of the job is hearing and facilitating great music and having relationships with so many wonderful artists," Lundvall said. "They are not just fantastic musicians; they are unique, interesting and brilliant people... It's been an honor and I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be doing this."
While it remains an artist-centered label, Blue Note has certainly changed since its heyday in the '50s and '60s when there was a clearly defined Blue Note sound, rooted in hard bop, as well as a Blue Note look thanks to the label's striking album design and photography. "There isn't a Blue Note sound today," said Lundvall. "It's a different world. We record a greater variety of music. Individual artists have preferences in studios, producers, album designers, etc. So it's not all Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff [label executive and photographer], Rudy Van Gelder [engineer] and Reid Miles [designer] and a circle of great New York-based jazz artists anymore."
For Elias, being a part of the Blue Note tradition "has been an incredible experience and a great honor." She says she feels "a responsibility to uphold the continuity" of the label. "I have always had so much respect for the quality" of the music Blue Note makes, she said. Elias grew up listening to Blue Note albums, which were very difficult to acquire in her native Brazil in the '70s. "My father would come back from trips to the US with stacks of Blue Note records I had requested," she said. "I had Herbie, Wynton Kelly, a lot of Bud Powell. I would devour Blue Note recordings of Bud Powell and Monk."
Lovano also grew up listening to classic Blue Note records, courtesy of his father, Cleveland saxophonist Tony "Big T" Lovano. "The records that stood out? Some of the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Live at Birdland and Live at Cafe Bohemia. Jimmy Smith, The Sermon. Blue Train... The history of Blue Note speaks for itself. It's documented in such an honest and beautiful way. The legacy of the label will live forever. Just mention the names and the sound comes through: Jackie McLean, you hear it; Jimmy Smith, you hear it."
Blue Note's legendary catalog remains a vital revenue stream for the label, but Lundvall also recognizes how essential it is for jazz itself and for the culture at large to keep such historic recordings before the public.
"From the time we restarted the label, its great catalog has been the profitable safety net throughout the years," Lundvall said. "It's also important to keep important music available, not just for fans but for young musicians coming up. They have to grasp the past in order to write the future."
L-R: Bruce Lundvall (CEO & President, Blue Note Label Group); Lionel Loueke; Eli Wolf (Vice President, A&R, Blue Note Records); and, Zach Hochkeppel (General Manager, Blue Note Records).
Blue Note has also enjoyed considerable commercial success in recent years with crossover artists, notably Norah Jones, as well as veterans like Van Morrison, Al Green and Anita Baker, who have extended the label's reach beyond a strictly jazz audience.
"Our crossover artists have been very important in terms of sales and in terms of doing quality projects in other adult music realms," said Lundvall. "The first time I heard Norah, I was knocked out by her sound, her phrasing and her unique delivery. I didn't see dollar signs. In fact, we thought the first album would be a great success if it sold 100,000 copies or so."
It went on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide, by far the best-seller in Blue Note history and one of the biggest-selling albums ever.
So what does the future hold for the longest- running label in jazz? Despite the recession, the challenge new technology poses for the music industry and the never-ending questions about how jazz can survive, Lundvall is optimistic.
"Methods of delivery and marketing may have changed, but it begins and ends with the music," he said. "We are in bad economic times in general and in the music industry in particular. But there is no shortage of great music and no shortage of fresh new voices emerging. Jazz will be just fine, thank you!"