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Keeping Blue Note in the green

The famed jazz label is riding high, thanks in large part to its CEO

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2004


When singer Norah Jones's debut album took off in 2002, selling millions worldwide, Bruce Lundvall's phone wouldn't stop ringing.

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The affable record executive is head of one of the best-known jazz labels in America, Blue Note Records. But the success of Ms. Jones's beguiling "Come Away With Me" brought artists from many other genres to his door. He found himself having to tell pop musicians and rock groups that he simply couldn't sign them.

"I had meetings with people and I got demos everyday - new people and quite established people," he recalls in an interview in his Manhattan office. "We're still a jazz label," he told them.

Several years later, Mr. Lundvall is still turning people away (he's recently disappointed Prince). But he's also signed Van Morrison, Al Green, and Anita Baker in the past few years - suggesting that an artist doesn't need the strictly jazz résumé of a Wynton Marsalis for Lundvall to say "yes."

Bringing in well-known artists with loose ties to jazz might seem like a highly commercial move, especially at a time when other major labels - Warner Brothers, Columbia - are phasing out or reducing their jazz offerings. But Blue Note, owned by another big company, EMI, is consistently profitable, and was so even before it struck gold - make that platinum - with Jones.

That financial stability gives Lundvall and the label's musicians the freedom to follow their vision and to take risks. It also means Blue Note is a force for enriching and continuing the genre. Last week, it picked up another award for Best Jazz Label from the Jazz Journalists Association - an indication that even with the addition of a broader range of artists, it hasn't lost its roots.

"Blue Note has a very long history in American jazz, and it's always stood for considerable integrity," says Howard Mandel, a freelance writer and president of the 500-member Jazz Journalists Association. "They have the most commitment to the music in many of its forms. There's very little overt attempt to commercialize the music. They are very honest about their approach whether it's Norah Jones or [alto saxophonist] Greg Osby."

Started in the 1930s by jazz enthusiast Alfred Lion, with the help of fellow German immigrant Francis Wolff, Blue Note has gone from being a beloved hobby to the darling of collectors and music critics worldwide. Stamped on most of its recordings is its longtime motto: "The Finest in Jazz since 1939."

Blue Note was known for its attention to quality music and to its artists.

"A lot of the original spirit endures," says Richard Cook, a British jazz journalist and author of the recent book, "Blue Note Records: A Biography." "The traditional idea of Blue Note is you take an artist and you nurture them. Frank Wolff and Alfred Lion had hardly any hit records, but they certainly gave artists the opportunity to build a catalog of significant work," he says.

Today, Lundvall insists on returning phone calls from people he doesn't know when they solicit him, for example. That's how a shy Jones wound up in his office with her recording of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," one of Lundvall's favorite jazz standards.