This interview was originally conducted in May 2003.
When we learned of the U.S. release of Richard Cook's Blue Note Records: the Biography ,
and decided to do the book review and to interview Mr. Cook, we thought it would also be timely and interesting to get the perspective of the current CEO of the label, Bruce Lundvall. Bruce was a fledgling jazz fan when Blue Note came on the scene, loved Blue Note from the beginning, and even spoke to Alfred Lion about a job, but none was available at the time. Twenty plus years later, he took over Blue Note, and under his helm, it has earned a well deserved reputation as a recording company that retains its integrity and dedication to jazz at the same time that it turns a profit. Bruce comes across in the following interview as an astute business person, who thoroughly loves jazz and supports the musicians, and genuinely enjoys the mix of business, music, and friendships that his job has given him. All About Jazz:
Mr. Lundvall, I'm excited to do this interview with you, and I feel honored. I'm reviewing Richard Cook's new book Blue Note Records: The Biography,
and I thought that I would interview you as the CEO of Blue Note to get your perspective on the record company and its history, as well as the book. My first question is the inevitable, 'What are your all-time favorite Blue Note recordings?' Bruce Lundvall:
I knew you'd ask that! One Night with Blue Note
with Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, and Curly Russell. Dexter Gordon: Go!
. Obviously, Blue Trane.
Bud Powell: The Genius of Bud Powell.
And of course, the early Monk on Blue Note. And the Herbie Nichols recordings. He's fabulous, a real underrated artist, very original. Those are some of my real favorites. AAJ:
Have you read Cook's new 'biography' of Blue Note Records? BL:
Of course. AAJ:
What are some of your thoughts about the book? BL:
I think it's a very accurate chronological description of what went on all those years. It could've used some more anecdotes, and some day we'll have them. I think Richard did a great job. The only problem I had was when he described me as being 'portly.' (Laughter) AAJ:
That's a very important historical fact. (Laughter.) BL:
Very much so. AAJ:
Were there particular parts of the book that leaped out at you or brought back strong memories? BL:
Essentially, I thought he chronicled the Alfred Lion period very well. I knew Alfred for the last two years before he passed away, and he gave me much insight about how the company operated, and how hard it was. You know, they were always a couple of steps ahead of the creditors. Some of the stories, such as how they picked up John Coltrane at a drug store and brought him on the session with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley, and so on-those things are all true. But there's a bigger story to be told, I think, and I'm hopeful that at some point, it becomes an inclusive story, hopefully for our seventieth anniversary, which ain't too far away. That will bring the history of the label completely up to date. AAJ:
So there's a lot missing in the book? BL:
Oh, but that's OK! Cook basically chronicled the whole Lion-Wolff period, which is what needed to be done. But I would like to see at some point that the history is updated, because it has been a continuum. Yet Alfred is still our inspiration, obviously. AAJ:
What do you recall about the time in 1960 when you went to see Lion about a job with Blue Note, but nothing materialized for twenty-something years! BL:
What happened was that I was at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and, as would always happen with graduating seniors, you'd be interviewed by the big companies, such as IBM, Xerox, etc. So I went through a few of those, and I thought, 'This isn't what I want to do. I want to be in the record business.' I graduated in 1957, and started to look for a job in the record business. The first label I went to was Blue Note, and I just knocked on the door-I didn't even call them! I was very na've. All I remember was that Alfred Lion was there with a couple of people. He was very polite, and all he said, with his German accent, was 'Vee don't hire nobody-it's just Frank and me.' And that was that-I was out the door in five minutes! So for me to be running this label after all these years, it's thrilling. It was always my favorite label. You know, I would buy Blue Note recordings as a kid, without having to hear them first, because the quality was so consistently good. AAJ:
What was it about the quality of these recordings that led you and so many others to feel that they were the best? BL:
Well, this question has been discussed many times. For one thing, Lion always gave a full day of rehearsals, and he always had a concept in mind when he brought the musicians into the studio. They were never just 'blowing' sessions as some of the other labels had done. They were all planned. And he always had the best players. And Blue Note was always the company that seemed to find the next new musical voice. For example, I never heard of saxophonist Tina Brooks, but I bought the record and I said, my God, this guy is sort of like Mobley, but he's different! He's great! Lion would always come up with that sort of talent. So, the catalogue stands very much on its own. Of course, Prestige did some great records too, by the way. But during the forties and fifties, when I started buying my first LP's-one of the earliest I bought was the 10 inch LP of Bud Powell. Then I bought Herbie Nichols. I had to live with it for a month before I understood anything he was doing. I was a kid, just getting into this music. AAJ:
So Lion and Wolff had an instinct' BL:
They had a very good instinct, and they always had a good concept of what they wanted in the studio. And the sound quality was always first rate, obviously. And the pressings were always excellent. AAJ:
Speaking of the sound quality, we're talking here in large part about sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder. I wonder what you see as the special abilities and personal qualities of Rudy that led to such exceptional recordings. BL:
He knew how to 'mic' the artists. He said that Alfred told him what he wanted to hear, and Rudy delivered it. It was as much Alfred or a team. We spoke often to Rudy about this, and he said, 'Alfred knew what he wanted. He wanted that 'presence' of the drums, of the horns into the microphone, and he came up with a sound that was very much his own. And it made the recordings so exciting. Alfred was also the one that got the players inspired. I understand that he went to Harlem and other places to pick up the musicians, drive them over to New Jersey, get food and liquor for them. And he created a very friendly and warm atmosphere in the studio-and all the musicians said that as well. But Rudy was very much a stickler for sound. And he would not let anyone touch the board controls. I think he's still that way, today. And apparently, he did wear white gloves! There were times when he wouldn't let the musicians touch the piano unless the green light was on, etc! So he was very much a stickler. But he was a very wonderful man. I had dinner with him not long ago. AAJ:
What's Rudy doing these days? BL:
He's still recording in that studio in Englewood Cliffs. We (Blue Note) still use him from time to time. These days, it's difficult because artists have their own choice of studios, while in those days everything was recorded there. AAJ:
Let me ask you one more historical question, and then we'll bring it up to date. What inspired you to make the groundbreaking decision to bring Dexter Gordon onto the label in the 1980's? BL:
Well, Dexter was always one of my favorite players. When I was at Columbia Records, I'd never seen him play. I was at John McLaughlin's wedding reception at the Plaza Hotel, and a friend said, you know, Dexter Gordon is playing in town. I said, 'My God!' So we made an excuse to leave the reception, and ran over to this club on 57th Street, and there was Dexter with Woody Shaw, George Cables. He was incredible! So I went back stage and I said I want to sign you to Columbia Records. He replied, 'CBS?' ' hilarious, in that deep voice. So we signed him. And Dexter and I became very good friends over that time, so when I went over to Blue Note, we signed him on here. And it's sad, because he never recorded for us, except for Part II of the Round Midnight
Let's try to bring us up to date. We know that the hallmark of Blue Note Records is integrity. What has it been in your own life and experience that leads someone like yourself, who is in fact a business person, to put the quality of music equal to or above the financial considerations. What produced that idealism in a CEO such as yourself? BL:
My belief is that if you sign an individual artist, and artist that has their own sound, their own concept, and is doing something important musically, that in the end, you will win. Obviously, we have made commercial records just as Alfred did in his day, with the organ trios, etc. But we try to keep our roster focused on strong individual artists who are moving the music ahead. So well sign a Jason Moran or a Greg Osby. Or we'll stay with a Joe Lovano for a long time. Or we'll sign a Gonzalo Rubalcaba from Cuba, or a Patricia Barber. And I think the label has to speak to its time. It is an art form. And as long as we're making a profit for the company, and we have since we began, basically because of the great catalogue that Alfred built, I've never been bothered by the corporate 'suits'-Oh, you've got to drop this artist or that artist because he's losing money. We have some artists who are losing money for us, but they're so important because they're building a catalogue for the future. And that's what I'm really aiming at. And when we have a Cassandra Wilson who does sell a lot of records, or a Norah Jones, who sells millions of records-Dianne Reeves does very well for us. Medeski, Martin, and Wood sells and makes a profit. Lovano makes a profit. If you keep your eye on costs, and you don't do crazy things'I've seen it happen that when an artist gets hot, a record company pays a fortune for an album. Well, you can't do that in jazz, unless the artist is selling well enough to justify that. We have a very close relationship with the artists on the label. There are times, for example, when Joe Lovano has wanted to make a more financially ambitious record-like a big band or orchestrated record-he'll take a smaller advance. We can discuss it, because he knows he can trust me. And that we're not trying to get in the way of his creative vision.