Keeping Blue Note in the green

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

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

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.

"This young kid nailed this song completely. And I said, 'How do you even know this song?' " he remembers of their first meeting, which came about when a Blue Note employee working on the business side - who didn't know Lundvall - brought Jones to his attention.

A fan of jazz since childhood, Lundvall was tapped to take over Blue Note in 1984, some years after it had changed hands and gone dormant. When he left Elektra (where he was president, and had started a jazz label) for EMI, it wasn't the first time he had looked to Blue Note for employment. After graduating from college in the late 1950s, he went to Mr. Lion looking for a job and was turned away, told that Lion and Mr. Wolff preferred to do things themselves. When Lundvall took over, he and Lion were in weekly contact about the label.

Lundvall says he sticks to the basics. "You don't always make great records, or great decisions," he explains. "But the best signing that you can possibly make is an artist that has originality and has a vision about what they want to do."

One of the label's top musicians, Joe Lovano, a Grammy-winning tenor saxophonist, has been with Blue Note for more than a decade. Now in his early 50s, he grew up listening to Blue Note artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and drummer Art Blakey.

What attracts him to the label, he says, is his rapport with Lundvall, who gives artists the freedom to make the albums they want and trusts the results will be good. "With Bruce, and Blue Note Records in particular through the years, I think the artists have really had a chance to be themselves."

It doesn't bother Mr. Lovano that the label is broadening its roster beyond traditional jazz musicians. "If they're going to be releasing old hits, and just reaching backwards, I'm not going to be so happy," he says. "But if they're going to create some new music and ... have a vision and idea about moving into tomorrow, that's what jazz is about."

Jazz writers, too, are fairly respectful of the label's recent decisions. Mr. Mandel says there are some who take issue with Jones being pushed as a jazz artist - arguing she doesn't swing or improvise. But there's more to the label than Norah, he suggests, pointing to its contemporary artists and lucrative catalog of classics.

"As long as they keep putting out Greg Osby records and they go back into their vaults and find an Andrew Hill record from 1969 that was never out before ... as long as Blue Note is doing that, I don't think there's going to be a whole lot of complaint," Mandel says.

The label has drawn criticism for some of its experiments, such as a hip-hop remix album by the group Us3 in the early 1990s. Still, Lundvall shows little sign of being intimidated by the "jazz police," as he calls purists. The label's credibility is hard to question, he says, pointing out that in the past couple of years he has signed Mr. Marsalis, and is nurturing young performers such as Jason Moran and Stephon Harris.

"If we're going to have a future in this business, we have to be very open-minded. I'm not saying that we make pop records," he says.

Lundvall sees his role as that of advocate or middleman. "The future of jazz comes not from me, it comes from the musicians."

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