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Good times roll at Blue Note

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Good times roll at Blue Note

Mike Zwerin IHT Wednesday, March 24, 2004

PARIS It might be said that Blue Note records is subsidized by an annuity from Norah Jones - a good singer, too often badmouthed - whose two albums together have surprisingly sold, so far, close to 25 million copies worldwide.

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Piracy, file-sharing, the maturation of the CD market and seismic structural changes in the record business notwithstanding, times appear to be good at Blue Note. Bruce Lundvall, 68, president and chief executive of EMI Jazz Classics - a group that also includes Angel, Virgin Classics, Roulette, Pacific Jazz and Manhattan - has been in the record business more than 40 years, 18 of them at the head of Blue Note. He was more than willing to tell the Norah Jones story - not, one suspects, for the first time:

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"She is signed to us for only one reason. I returned a phone call. The record business is famous for not returning calls. Maybe I don't get to it the same day, but I always return phone calls."

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This particular message was from a woman in the royalty department in the midtown office of the parent company, EMI. She said: "There's this jazz singer I'd like you to listen to."

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He said: "O.K. Send me something."

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She said: "No, I'd like to bring her down in person."

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Waiting in his lower Fifth Avenue office, a reluctant Lundvall was saying to himself: "Here comes another one." He was getting calls from "a lot of blond, buxom women who play the piano and sing badly trying to sound like Diana Krall. But in comes this petite girl with glasses, thin, very young, dressed down."

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He asked her to tell him about herself and she said she'd dropped out of North Texas State College, where she had been a voice major, and was doing Sunday brunches and local things around New York. The demo she had with her included the old Tommy Wolf/Fran Landesman hipster ode "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."

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Lundvall said: "She really nailed 'Spring.' I was...Wait a minute! That's a hard song to sing, the chord changes are tough, it's one of my favorite songs and I've never heard it sung better."

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He asked her who was playing piano and she said "me." Wondering what the odds were against a 20-year-old woman learning that song in the first place, he reflected for only a few beats before saying: "Look, you're on Blue Note. You are going to have to get an attorney, but I'm making a commitment now."

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Lundvall had somewhat similarly signed the singer Bobby McFerrin. Jones's unexpected success made it possible for him to sign Wynton Marsalis recently, as well. Lundvall is one of the few executives remaining with the necessary combination of ears, culture and clout to pull it off. Verve is pulling back from the jazz market and Warner Brothers has discontinued the Atlantic label.

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Years ago, when Charlie Haden called to recommend the young Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Lundvall flew to Havana to hear him. With the U.S. embargo it was not legal for the New York office of Blue Note to have a contract with Rubalcaba, and so he was signed to Blue Note Japan.

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This sort of enlightened entrepreneurship is one reason the company remains profitable and keeps winning polls as the jazz label of the year. There are about 20 new releases a year, plus 100 or so reissues, and the roster includes Cassandra Wilson, Terrence Blanchard, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Pat Martino, Jacky Terrasson and Greg Osby.

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Lundvall said that he is "trying hard to continue in the old Blue Note tradition." The company was founded in 1939 in New York by Alfred Lion, who was from Berlin. He was joined in New York by his childhood friend, a fellow Berliner and jazz fan named Francis Wolff.

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The partners were quick to recognize that LPs were the perfect carrier for jazz. For the first time, soloists had enough space to develop their ideas. (CDs allow for too much space, but that is another problem.) They set out to make as many jazz LPs as they could and cast them with always credible, often legendary, musicians who were hot at the moment and who liked to play together.

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It was a major part of the tonal fabric of the time and included Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Brother Jack McDuff, Hank Mobley, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Smith, Bud Powell and Sam Rivers. Some bands, hired on their way out of the clubs at the end of the evening, would record far into the morning in Rudy Van Gelder's studio across the river in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers grew out of a Blue Note session organized around Horace Silver.)

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"The wonderful thing about jazz is that it's forever," Lundvall said. "When you make a jazz record with a credible artist, it will sell not much, perhaps, but something in every part of the world. If you make the right choices, then 5, 10, 20 years from now you can reissue them."

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He continued, "We are creating future catalogs with our new releases. Our catalog is our most valuable asset. It's like an annuity."

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To celebrate Blue Note's 65th birthday, Blue Note France is producing a festival from April 4 to May 1 in various venues around Paris. It will feature Reeves, Wilson, Marsalis, and, among others, Erik Truffaz, Jason Moran, Patricia Barber, Stefano Di Battista, Medeski Martin and Wood and Bugz in the Attic. For more information, visit www.bluenotefrance.com.

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International Herald Tribune

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It was a major part of the tonal fabric of the time and included Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Brother Jack McDuff, Hank Mobley, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Smith, Bud Powell and Sam Rivers.

Sam Rivers! I would think the name Art Blakey would be better known, even in Paris, than Sam Rivers. Pretty cool though.

Is Norah still getting bad rap?

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