Bruce Lundvall '57
(Editor's Note: The following story is featured in the spring edition of Bucknell Magazine.)
By David Pulizzi '94
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Last June, Bruce Lundvall ’57, the much-respected president of the storied jazz label Blue Note Records, traveled from his home in Wyckoff, N.J., to Bucknell University to visit with some old friends and to accept the Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Chosen Profession.
Nattily attired, as usual, in a sharp suit and tie, Lundvall stood behind the lectern onstage at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts and, with characteristic wit, recounted his own professional genesis story. “My first memory,” he said, “was in high school, telling my father, ‘I want to be in the record business when I grow up.’He said, ‘Son, you’ll have to choose—one or the other.’”
Big laughs ensued, as Lundvall no doubt knew they would. He’s a famously charming man, accustomed to humbly acknowledging the grand, hard-earned success of his long and illustrious career, whether before a crowd of admiring classmates or in the presence of a lone admiring journalist from, say, Down Beat magazine or The New York Times.
In the jazz world especially, where Lundvall has long loomed as a bearded, stylishly bespectacled eminence of sorts, his reputation as a charismatic gentleman genius is unsurpassed. Singer Dianne Reeves, a mainstay on the Blue Note roster since 1988, typified the general sentiments of many when she recalled her reaction to Lundvall’s offer to sign her to the label. “I was thrilled,” she said. “I wanted to be part of anything that he was part of.”
When pressed, Lundvall’s memories predate the high school conversation he had with his father. He recalls early exposure to the big-band sounds of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton and to the great Harlem stride pianist Fats Waller.
He remembers being a boy of 12 or so, growing up in Cliffside Park, N.J., sitting alone in his father’s ’38 Plymouth, radio turned on and up, listening raptly to the intricate musings of jazz pianists Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Earl Garner, as they performed during live 15-minute broadcasts from New York City, that sprawling jazz metropolis poised restlessly just across the Hudson River from the Lundvall family’s suburban dwelling. He remembers borrowing a recording of the trailblazing bebop pianist Bud Powell from a friend a couple years later, then playing the platter for a week straight, over and over.
“I didn’t get it all,” he notes, with lingering fascination, “but I just loved it. After that, I started buying every bebop record you can imagine.”
Around this time, he also began playing the trumpet and piano by ear. “I desperately wanted to be a jazz musician,” he once remarked, “but I was no good.” He soon took up the saxophone, only to achieve equally unsatisfactory results.
In the summer of 1953, Lundvall arrived at Bucknell to study commerce and finance. In Lewisburg, he did what he could to scratch his jazz itch in a town where jazz hardly flourished. (“There weren’t many people into it, that’s for sure,” Lundvall says.) He produced a couple concerts that were staged in the Vaughan Literature Building and hosted a weekly jazz program on WVBU. Most significantly, he befriended Mike Berniker ’57, a fellow jazz enthusiast who would go on to forge his own admirable career as a producer in the music business.
The two met as incoming students during the first day of orientation week. “He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him,” Lundvall recalls. “But he was standing right next to me, and he began humming ‘Night in Tunisia.’ I said, ‘Are you a jazz fan?’ He said, ‘Yeah, are you?’ We became lifelong friends.”
Shortly before Lundvall graduated from Bucknell, he says, “All the major companies came around to interview people for jobs—Xerox, IBM, all the insurance companies, and so on. They would come on campus, looking for trainees. I was furious. I hated the interviews. I hated the whole process. I said, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff.’ I was a big record collector, a bad saxophone player, and all I wanted to do was be in the music business.”
With that in mind, he went to New York City, hoping to find an entry-level position at Blue Note Records, his favorite label. “And Alfred Lion was there,” Lundvall continues, recalling his first encounter with the German-born immigrant who, with financier and writer Max Margulis, co-founded Blue Note Records in 1939. “He ushered me to the door very politely, saying with this heavy German accent, ‘Vee don’t have jobs. It’s just Frank [Blue Note photographer Francis Wolf], me, and my vife.’ I said, ‘I’ll work for nothing.’ He said, ‘Ahh, vee don’t need you. Vee do all this ourselves.’”
Unable to find suitable employment in the record business, Lundvall enlisted in the Army. A day after his discharge, in 1960, he received a call from Berniker, who had been discharged from the Army three months earlier and who had since taken a job at Columbia Records in New York City.
“Well,” asked Berniker, “what do you want to do?” “Man,” Lundvall replied, “I want to do what you’re doing!” Berniker arranged for Lundvall to interview with Bill Gallagher, Columbia’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Lundvall recalls the brevity of the interview: “I showed him an article I had written for The Bucknellian about jazz, and, basically, I was hired.” Soon Lundvall began working as a trainee in the company’s marketing department. By the time he left the label 21 years later, he had become president of the domestic division of Columbia’s parent company CBS Records and had amassed for Columbia the largest and most diverse jazz roster in the business.
Hired by EMI
After working for a short stint as the president of another record company, Electra/Asylum, Lundvall was hired by EMI — which had acquired Blue Note in 1979, only to allow it to fall into dormancy soon thereafter — to revive its formerly prestigious jazz imprint. Since then, with steady resolve and an abiding respect for the legacy that Alfred Lion established during his 28-year tenure at Blue Note’s helm (Lion retired in 1967 and passed away 20 years later), Lundvall has managed to bring the label back to full, blooming life.
Today, at 72, Bruce Lundvall is right where he wants to be. As the officially titled president and CEO of EMI Jazz and Classics, he heads the world’s most renowned and historically important jazz label. He oversees a roster of 25 acts, including his most famous and profitable discovery, the wispy-voiced singer Norah Jones, whose three Blue Note albums have sold some 30 million copies worldwide since 2002.
He has three grown children, and he lives happily in Wyckoff, N. J., with his wife of 47 years, Katherine. On top of all that, he’s healthy and still relishes scouting for fresh talent at Manhattan jazz clubs once or twice a week.
Language of musicians
“Bruce speaks the language of musicians,” notes Dianne Reeves. “He’s all in the music; he’s part of the blood of it.”
Speaking about his status as a record-label executive, he informed the audience at the Alumni Awards ceremony last June, “I’m going to continue doing this until I hit the wrong side of the grass, I guess.” Then, wrapping up his acceptance speech, he left those assembled with this nugget of wisdom: “The one lesson I really learned in life is: Youth passes swiftly, but if you’re lucky, immaturity can last a lifetime.”
Contact: Division of Communications
Posted April 28, 2008