A deep bow of respect for Bruce Lundvall, who passed away today at the age of 79 after a long struggle with Parkinsons. For anyone interested in learning about the life of this record label exec who did so much for jazz music and musicians, you might spend time with his autobiography, Playing By Ear, co-written with jazz journalist and author Dan Ouellette. I’m sure there will be many obits and stories in the days to come shared by those who knew and admired him, and I look forward to reading them.
For now, I just want to share a couple of stories that I think reveal something about the man and his passion for music. The first took place in 1997 when I was curating my annual Jazz Film Series at the Library of Congress. I had the opportunity to present a premiere of the new Don McGlynn documentary Dexter Gordon: More Than You Know, and I was looking for someone to come and introduce it that night. My first thought was jazz historian Michael Cuscuna, who co-founded Mosaic Records and produced so many great reissues from Blue Note and other label catalogs. When I called, Michael was open to the idea, but then suggested I ask Bruce Lundvall, since Dexter was Bruce’s favorite jazz musician. At that point I had never met Bruce and was a bit skeptical that the President of Blue Note Records would come to Washington on his own dime to introduce a film on Dexter Gordon, but Bruce immediately accepted and simply asked for the date, time and location.
For the screening we had a packed house in the theater, beyond packed, really, with people in seats, on the floor and in the aisles (good thing the Fire Marshall didn’t stop by). Bruce got up to speak and he didn’t have any prepared notes. He spoke from his heart about his relationship with Dexter and what his music meant to him. It was touching and funny and insightful; the perfect set-up for the film. At the conclusion, Bruce agreed to take some questions, and he told many great stories about the making of the film Round Midnight and the various projects he and Dexter worked on over the years. Everyone in the room was moved by the love expressed by Bruce and I’ll always be grateful for his generosity in coming and sharing.
The second story involved the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane tapes we found at the Library in 2005. After Ben Ratliff’s piece on the discovery appeared in the NY Times, every jazz label inquired how they might issue the recordings, but it was Blue Note that ended up signing with the Monk Estate for the release, in large part because Bruce, along with Michael Cuscuna and Tom Evered at the label, believed in the music. It wasn’t just about profit margin and the bottom line. The music itself meant something to them and it was so inspiring to see their excitement for the project. You can see Bruce talking about it in this short documentary made by the actress Kim Fields.
My last in-person experience with Bruce was at his home in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He told me he wanted to donate his papers to the Library of Congress Music Division, so we visited him to see what was there. Soon after we arrived, he took us to his “barn” behind the house where he kept his office. If was a very cozy space with lots of natural sunlight and the walls covered with photos, letters and original artist designs for album covers on the various labels Bruce ran. We had a great time going through photos identifying the subjects in them, which of course led to some off-the-record reminiscing. While walking back to the house, we spent some quality time playing with his dog (you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his four-legged friends) and made our goodbyes.
Bruce ended up donating not just the photos and paperwork from his home office, but many of the things he kept at his EMI office in Manhattan, including two large displays consisting of dozens of passport photos from various Blue Note artists, and a hilarious telegram Miles Davis sent to Bruce when he became head of CBS Records. With this last generous gesture, Bruce Lundvall reminded us once again what he dedicated his professional life to: signing great artists and preserving the legacy of the music he loved. He did it for decades with unwavering taste and integrity. Thank you, Bruce.