Friday, March 07, 2014


Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear, published by ArtistShare, is the authorized biography of the record business legend whose astounding career spans more than 50 years. Author Dan Ouellette has painted the portrait of one of the recording industry's most notable figures, who has been responsible for signing an array of top-flight artists from his years at Columbia/CBS, Elektra/Elektra Musician and Blue Note, where he still serves as chairman emeritus.

The Lundvall biography has been published in an unorthodox way--bypassing brick-and-mortar book stores (which are sadly disappearing in much the same way that record stores dwindled in number)--and being made available for purchase as a 400+-page, 50+-photos soft-cover book through either the ArtistShare website, the project Facebook site,, or at special book parties and events.

The book opens with one of Bruce's favorite stories (when Charlie Parker walked out of the Open Door club with the young fan's pork pie hat) followed by chapters on Bruce's childhood as a lover of music (including his teenage escapades from New Jersey into the New York hotbed of jazz) and his introduction to working in the record business at Columbia in 1960.

Bruce Lundvall with Dexter Gordon
The Lundvall story is sketched chronologically, interspersed with chapters zeroing in on artists he signed, nurtured, promoted and in some cases discovered. Based on his recollections and on the reflections of those artists, there are in-depth "testifying" chapters on his relationship with Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Dexter Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Amos Lee, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Cassandra Wilson, Rubén Blades, Paquito D'Rivera, Richard Marx, Dave Koz, Terence Blanchard and Kurt Elling. While his favorite music is jazz, Bruce had the ears to recognize talent across the genres--from country to adult pop.

There's also a comprehensive overview of Bruce's bold decision to break the western hemisphere's Iron Curtain by organizing and staging the Havana Jam in Cuba in 1979 (35 years ago) -- thus opening the door to several Cuban artists to record and perform in the U.S. In addition, there's a chapter on the true story of his discovery of Whitney Houston and how record label politics stymied him from signing her (he did orchestrate her very first recording session, singing on a Bill Laswell Material song with Archie Shepp as guest soloist), and a chapter on Bruce's biggest regret: not signing singer Eva Cassidy.

Arriving in the 75th anniversary year of Blue Note Records, Playing by Ear comprehensively covers Bruce's leadership in continuing the legacy of the label with several chapters devoted to events and artists.

A current running throughout the book is the changing development of the recording business, with Bruce ("I'm an analog man in the digital age") reflecting on its future from the perspective of a music lover who started out buying shellac 78s and today finds him listening to MP3 files. The book ends with an afterword by Bruce about the state of the recording business.

"What's totally special about Bruce is how he put art first and allowed artists to follow their own paths," says Ouellette. "That's a rarity in the record business world. He never dictated a career direction or forced a musician to be someone else or record certain songs. He's managed to not only allow artists to follow their own passion and intuition, but also has a keen ear for music that has commercial potential. As Norah Jones so articulately says, 'They call Bruce the best ears in town.'"

Playing by Ear tells the story of a much-loved man who unlike his extroverted contemporaries such as Clive Davis and the late Ahmet Ertegun made his mark on the recording industry as a behind-the-scenes force who believed in the art. As he likes to say: "Life is short, art is long, jazz is forever."

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