Bruce Lundvall, Long-Time Blue Note Records President, Dies

Record executive Bruce Lundvall, who revived the iconic Blue Note Records label in the mid-1980s and turned it into a major influence on the contemporary jazz scene during his 25 years as president, has died at age 79.

Lundvall died Tuesday at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey, of complications from a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s disease, Blue Note publicist Cem Kurosman said. He failed to regain consciousness from recent surgery.

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP, file
Posing for a photo in his office in New York.

In a music career spanning more than 50 years, Lundvall “discovered, signed, promoted and guided the careers of some of the most respected artists in the world,” Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

As a top executive at Columbia Records and Blue Note, Lundvall was responsible for signing and or nurturing the careers of Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Dianne Reeves, Richard Marx, Phoebe Snow, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and Norah Jones.

“My belief is that if you sign an individual artist, an artist that has their own sound, their own concept, and is doing something important musically, that in the end, you will win,” Lundvall said in a 2003 interview posted on the All About Jazz website.

After graduating from Bucknell University in the late 1950s, Lundvall was turned away when he went looking for an entry-level job at Blue Note. But in 1984, Lundvall and producer Michael Cuscuna were tapped to reactivate the dormant Blue Note label, which had been acquired by EMI. After taking over as president in 1985, he brought back some of the label’s earlier stars like Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner, while also signing new artists including singers Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

“Bruce not only loved the music; he loved the artists themselves and reveled in their company,” Cuscuna said in an email. “Bruce had a way of making dreams come true for himself and everyone around him.”

Lundvall’s biggest commercial success came when a woman in the label’s accounting department he had never met wanted him to meet a young singer she had heard in a local cafe.

A few days later, he had a nervous Jones in his office playing her demo tape. He signed her on the spot. Her multiplatinum 2002 debut album, Come Away With Me, won eight Grammys, including album of the year.

“I met Bruce on my 21st birthday and it was life changing,” Jones said in an email. “It would be easy to say that he gave me my career, but it goes beyond that. He guided me and helped me to make good decisions.

“When I was too green to make them, he told me the path to take, and when I figured out who I was as an artist he let me fly.”

Such successes enabled Lundvall to realize his dream of having the label represent some of the most influential jazz musicians representing the music’s future, including pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and guitarist Lionel Loueke.

A self-described “failed” saxophonist, Lundvall grew up in New Jersey and frequented New York jazz clubs as a teenager where he heard bebop legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1960, he got a job as a marketing trainee at Columbia Records and rose up the ranks to become president of the domestic division of its parent company, CBS Records, in the mid-1970s.

Lundvall played a crucial role in getting the label to release Hancock’s groundbreaking Headhunters electric jazz-fusion album, encouraged Springsteen on his breakthrough Born to Run album, and steered Snow onto the pop charts with her hit “Poetry Man.”

In 1979, Lundvall created the Havana Jam Festival that brought American jazz and pop musicians – including Weather Report, Billy Joel, Kris Kristofferson and the CBS Jazz All-Stars with Gordon and Getz – to Cuba for the first concerts in nearly two decades.

Lundvall left Blue Note in 2010 because of failing health. Two years later musician-producer Don Was succeeded him as president.

“Bruce was a one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life human being,” Was said in a statement. “His joie de vivre was equaled only by his love for music, impeccable taste and kind heart.”

Lundvall didn’t let his illness diminish his passion for jazz, organizing the Sunrise Senior Living Jazz Festival last August at his assisted living facility featuring Jones, Reeves and Lovano.

He is survived by his wife, Kay, their three sons and two grandchildren.