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Blue Note at 70

Joel Roberts By

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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
No label in jazz can match the history and legacy of Blue Note Records. Since its founding in New York in 1939 by German emigre Alfred Lion, Blue Note has been associated with an amazing assortment of jazz luminaries including Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Ornette Coleman, among many others.

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."

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