N.J. record exec stricken with Parkinson's organizes benefit featuring Norah Jones
SADDLE RIVER — By his own admission, his ears are easily his best asset.
Born in Englewood in 1935, Bruce Lundvall gained an appreciation for jazz music early in life.
But his parents weren't thrilled, Lundvall says. "My dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps as a mechanical engineer."
Lundvall had other plans. By the time he was 10 years old, he was a collector of swing era discs, including those by vibraphonist, pianist and percussionist Lionel Hampton. Lundvall would even trade in soda bottles to buy records.
And it was a borrowed Bud Powell record that got a preteen Lundvall hooked on bebop. "After that, I started buying every bebop record you can imagine," he says. By 1950, the 15-year-old Lundvall grew more ambitious with his musical intake: He would ride Port Authority buses from Glen Ridge into New York to sneak into famed jazz clubs on West 52nd Street to hear legends "Dizzy" Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
"I used to tell my dad to take me to 52nd Street. ... He thought I was nuts," Lundvall says. Jazz was radical, especially to his father, who did not understand Lundvall's attraction to a music genre whose contributors were mostly African American.
The early exposure, however, would prove beneficial. It helped Lundvall build a music career as a record label executive that spanned nearly half a century and resulted in his signing such musicians as Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, James Taylor, Peter Tosh, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Rachelle Ferrell, Joe Lovano and Norah Jones.
Some of these acts — including Reeves, Lovano and Jones — will headline a benefit concert Aug. 24 at Brighton Gardens of Saddle River Sunrise Senior Living Community, where Lundvall now lives. The 78-year-old moved there in April because of issues with Parkinson's disease; his wife, Kay, remains in their Wyckoff home.
Lundvall says he organized the event, which he named the Sunrise Senior Living Jazz Festival, because he wanted to bring jazz to the community. A portion of the proceeds from the event (the musicians all are donating their time) will go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson's.
As he tells it, Lundvall narrowly avoided pursuing a career in engineering, instead, earning a bachelor's degree in commerce and finance from Bucknell University. "When I was in high school, my dad didn't like the idea of me pursuing a career in music. He would say, 'You ought to be in a real business,'" Lundvall says. His father was also apprehensive of his son working closely with African-American musicians.
But as racial tensions eased and tolerance rose, his father relented.
On his first day of college, Lundvall met fellow student Michael Berniker, who would help him land his first position at Columbia Records and with whom he would later work with at EMI.
"I told them I'd work for nothing if they paid my bus fare into New York City," Lundvall says. He accepted a position in marketing, hopeful it would someday find him working closely with artists.
Lundvall spent 21 years at Columbia Records, advancing from vice president of marketing (1969) to vice president and general manager of the label (1974) to president of the domestic division of CBS records (1976). As his titles changed, so too, did Columbia's jazz roster, which was at its peak under his tenure.
In 1979, Lundvall organized Havana Jam — the first jazz concert in two decades to be held in Cuba, featuring American artists.
Through the years, he also worked closely with Miles Davis, who he says once told him, "If you ever need help with your black artists, call me."
In 1982, he became president of the Elektra/Musician label and senior vice president of Elektra/Asylum. The move gained him the freedom to discover new talent.
By 1984, Lundvall had accepted an offer to revive the Blue Note jazz label for EMI and to create Mahattan, an East Coast-based pop music label. Lundvall signed Natalie Cole, Richard Marx and Robbie Neville to Manhattan. He re-established Blue Note as a credible jazz label, signing several of its early stars, including Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard and Jimmy Smith.
One of his most memorable signings was that of Norah Jones, who, in her 2001 audition, sang Ella Fitzgerald's "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."
"She was very shy," Lundvall recalled at Brighton Gardens last week. "I asked her why she picked that song. She said she loved it and she'd been playing it for a long time." Jones' 2002 album, "Come Away With Me," would earn her five Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, as well as Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single "Don't Know Why."
Lundvall's family, including his wife of 54 years and sons Erik, Tor and Kurt, will be with him at the concert. While he admits the music business is not "easy for a marriage," Lundvall remains close to Kay, who visits him weekly.
As he reflects on his many years in the record business, Lundvall says his life can be summed up in one word: music.
"Everything in my life is music. I have a one-track mind."