The Story Behind the Suit: Dan Ouellette on Bruce Lundvall
Nearly always dapper in a tailored jacket and tie, Bruce Lundvall lends positive meaning to the term “suit.” That’s what they used to call music-business executives, and Lundvall is an old-school record-company man in the best sense — in love with music, knowledgeable about it, interested in cultivating “artists” as opposed to “acts,” and willing to take chances. I got to know him in the mid-1980s, long after he’d risen from the Columbia Records marketing department to run the domestic operations of CBS Records, and after his stint as president of a reconstituted Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch label. He’d already taken the reins of a revived Blue Note label in the mid-’80s, and I was getting started writing about music. That’s around the same time that Dan Ouellette began writing for Down Beat magazine, and began a wide-ranging career as a music journalist and critic. Now Ouellette is working on “Playing by Ear,” documenting Lundvall’s 48-year career. (Lundvall isn’t quite retired: at 77, he still plays a role in the Blue Note office as Chairman Emeritus.)
The long and varied list of musicians Lundvall signed and worked with includes saxophonists Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, pianists McCoy Tyner and Bob James, and trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, among many others. His time at Blue Note fostered a nurturing home for the likes of pianist Jason Moran, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Greg Osby, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Norah Jones first auditioned on his office piano. Lundvall was especially instrumental throughout his career in bringing Cuban musicians to the U.S. market, most notably the pianist Chucho Valdés and the great Irakere band and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
The last time I hung out with Lundvall at length was at Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival. Late at night in the hotel bar, Lundvall regaled us with stories, including the details of the historic 1979 “Havana Jam,” the first concerts held in Cuba by American artists in two decades (which some artists dubbed “Bay of Gigs”). Lundvall had dreamed up that event and willed it to happen. But I was hungry for more than just important history. Lundvall is a terrific storyteller, with a memory for vivid and often ironic details, which makes me eager for his story told at length. And Ouellette is a writer of depth and compassion commensurate with Lundvall’s tale.
Ouellette is pursuing an interesting path. Just as he did with his previous Ron Carter biography, Oullette is developing this book through the fan-funded Artistshare website. Besides forgoing a traditional publisher and offering readers various forms of participation in the process, Ouellette is working on a nontraditional biography form, he says, inserting “snapshot” chapters within the narrative of Lundvall’s life story. “A reader can choose to read the entire story on Bruce's Elektra experience,” he says, “or choose to read the focused sections on Bobby McFerrin or Whitney Houston or Ruben Blades. This whole setup offers the reader options. Most people read a book cover to cover without skipping around. This format allows people to skip around at their leisure, kind of like someone listening to a CD and selecting different tracks to play versus the entire album.”
We talked via email about his relationship with Lundvall and the his interest in telling this story:
Did this project grow out of a relationship with Bruce? If so, when and how you first met him?
I've known Bruce for many years, maybe since the '90s when I was doing work for Blue Note Records. When I was living in San Francisco, I would hang out in the Blue Note offices whenever I would come to New York. When I moved to New York in '99, I continued to go to the offices. Bruce told me he liked my writing. In the Norah Jones days, I wrote two feature stories for Billboard on Bruce, which solidified our relationship further. But our best linking up was at the Barcelona Jazz Festival a few years ago. I was doing a Down Beat “Blindfold Test” with Chucho Valdés, and Bruce was interviewed about Blue Note. At the hotel, each morning we were both early risers and enjoyed long, leisurely breakfast chats. The next year he asked me to come to his office for a talk. That's when he asked if I would be interested in writing his story. Of course, I agreed.
What makes Bruce such a compelling figure? And is he the last of a dying breed?
As an executive who started his career at Columbia as a junior marketing guy, Bruce has great business savvy, even though oftentimes as he's gone up the executive ladder, he’s run into trouble with the bottom line. The bigger story is how passionate he is about music, specifically jazz, but certainly far beyond jazz as well. So, while he is so well known for his love of jazz (Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Moran, Cassandra Wilson, others), he was also responsible for giving Willie Nelson the step up he needed at a low point in his career, as well as discovering Norah Jones, Bobby McFerrin, Amos Lee and others. And he has big ears, or as Tommy LiPuma says, "big ears for raw talent." What I also find so remarkable about Bruce is that he is the rare record company executive who does not go around boasting about himself and his accomplishments, unlike most of the other so-called legends. He's just pleased that artists get the chance to express themselves. Is he the last of a dying breed? Certainly in the major labels, yes.
Does Bruce embody any qualities or characteristics of the jazz business or the music industry, and if so, how?
His perseverance to discover new voices, or as one of his mentors, John Hammond, put it, signing an original. Bruce says that Hammond couldn't predict a commercial hit, but he was brilliant at hearing the artistic originality of musicians: Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan (once called "Hammond's Folly" by label people, early in his Columbia recording career), Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan. So, the answer would have to be that Bruce doesn't fit the mold. He's willing to go out a limb to sign and develop an artist if he believes in them, unlike the music business today that wants a quick hit, a big buzz, and unlike a jazz business that often gets caught up in recycling the same thing, performed largely in the same way.
What if any impact do you think he had on the jazz world, or on any other music subculture?
Bruce is beloved in the jazz world. He's a hero for resuscitating the Blue Note Records brand and its huge catalog of jazz classics. He's also highly admired for his ability to mix the old (reissues) with the new (signing young artists in their day, such as Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Cassandra Wilson, many many others) and giving them the freedom to find their own voices, experiment with new directions, encouraging them to explore and, most importantly, to be out in the mix, taking in their shows in clubs and concert halls on a regular basis. This means a lot to the artists.
What has been most surprising thus far to you in terms of Bruce's story and character?
Lots of surprises. One: How, as president of Columbia he assembled an all-star cast of jazz artists and pop stars to break the cultural embargo in 1979 by producing Havana Jam — the first concerts in Cuba in nearly 20 years. Two: How Bruce "discovered" Whitney Houston and wanted to sign her to Elektra when he was president but got stuck in a political struggle at the label, which allowed Clive Davis to swoop in and sign her (Clive told me Bruce may have heard Whitney way before he did, but he claims that he discovered her because he signed her). Three: How his biggest regret was not signing Eva Cassidy right away: When he was ready to sign her, she was on her death bed and died shortly thereafter. It could well have influenced Bruce a few years later to trust his intuition and sign Norah Jones quickly. Four: How Bruce signed Ruben Blades for his seminal “Buscando America” album, a poignant socio-political album that proved to be a worldwide hit.
This is your second biography project via ArtistShare, right? Why did you go that route with Ron Carter? How did it work out, creatively and financially? Are you doing anything differently this time around?
I went the ArtistShare route after trying to go the traditional route. At a couple of publishing houses, I was being offered $5-7,000 as an advance and of course I knew from experience from an earlier book I had written that after all was said and done — advance, publicity, etc. — my returns would be miniscule (some 10-15 percent at the most of each copy sold) or nothing. Essentially I was looking at a model that was similar to recording artists who rarely see checks in the mail from sales. But I was looking at a substantially lower advance at the time. The hook with ArtistShare was that I had to manage my own website, filling it up with photos, videos, audio, blog entries, etc. and then promote the book to potential participants in exchange for seeing the Ron Carter story be published. I also had to deal with the nuts and bolts of taking my writing from word documents to book design (I have a friend who brilliantly pulled that off). Then I had to front the printing costs. I had to design my own marketing plan to see the book, focusing on the jazz and bass associations and the African-American community. It was a lot of work and a lot of money spent upfront, but at the end of the day, I was earning roughly 85 percent of sales through ArtistShare and Amazon. I think I turned a profit and at least felt so much better having control over the book and its future (I did two printings, and just recently sold the publishing rights to Ron so that the telling of his story will continue to be out there).
With the Lundvall project, what's particularly exciting is the video footage of the most important people in Bruce's signing career — including interviews with Willie Nelson (in his tour bus), Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Amos Lee, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Jason Moran, Paquito D'Rivera, Ruben Blades, Richard Marx, Dave Koz and others. Those interviews, available to high-end participants of the project, are particularly fascinating in the stories, insights and commentary on Bruce's contributions to the music world. But best of all for me has been the writing — always has, always will.