I Remember Bruce: On The Passing Of My Mentor

Arthur Blythe, Bruce Lundvall, Tony Purrone (Heath Brothers band), Percy Heath, Jimmy Heath, James “Blood” Ulmer, Dr. George Butler, and me in 1979.

Arthur Blythe, Bruce Lundvall, Tony Purrone (Heath Brothers band), Percy Heath, Jimmy Heath, James “Blood” Ulmer, Dr. George Butler, and me in 1979.

Bruce Lundvall, my friend of more than 40 years and the man who set my whole life’s career in motion, passed away this past May after fighting heroically with Parkinson’s Disease. Bruce was simply one of the most thoughtful and amazing human beings I have ever met.

I moved to New York City in 1974 and while working at Billboard I had reason to meet and become acquainted with many important people in the music business. Schooled as a journalist, I only wanted to write about music — that is until I had occasion to cross paths with then-president of CBS records Bruce Lundvall and famed A&R representative John Hammond, Sr. Thus would begin my journey in the music business. Both of them asked me if I was interested in working in talent discovery and I flatly said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

But that’s exactly where my latest heartbreak began. Bruce asked me to have lunch once a month and quietly worked his magic until I agreed to come work at Columbia Records in 1976.

After arriving at Columbia, he took me under his wing and I began to learn the business from one of it’s geniuses. Although Bruce and I shared a love for jazz — something that kept us bonded until his passing — we both loved all types of music. I have so many fond remembrances of our times spent together and of all the special things he did as my mentor and friend.

There were times when I would send him something in confidence and the next thing I knew he was passing it along to department heads, who sometimes would then want my own head! Or there were times in staff meetings, when I would get a response to my latest idea or note with a “Bruce” reply of ‘I am never going to speak to you again…and by the way, what did you think of my latest idea to have Miles [Davis] do something with Dexter [Gordon].” Thus was the way of my friend.

There wasn’t a day that went by in which Bruce didn’t call me to his office to bounce something off me. From the sublime to the silly to the amazingly clever, he was a mind constantly in motion.

My first project with Bruce was his “rediscovery” of Dexter Gordon (more below), and then we moved on to a monumental task. Called the Montreux Summit, only Bruce would dare mixing some of the giants of bebop and post-bop with the au courant stars of the jazz fusion movement. Thus began days of rehearsal in Switzerland that coupled electric guitarists Steve Khan and Eric Gale with Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz in a band led by keyboardist Bob James. I can remember Bruce’s laughter when the musicians hit their first note on-stage and the older players literally jumped out of their chairs at the wall of sound unleashed from the electric instruments. Just one of the many times Bruce laughed and what began as an “Bruce dream” became reality.

Like the famed “Havana Jam” in 1979. Bruce assembled a roster of superstars from the worlds of rock and roll (Billy Joel, Steven Stills, Rita Coolidge); country (Kris Kristofferson); fusion jazz (Weather Report); latin salsa (the Fania all-stars featuring Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe); contemporary jazz (Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Percy and Jimmy Heath, Woody Shaw, and many more); and a once-in-a-lifetime supergroup (composed of post-Miles fusion visionaries John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams). The Cuban government insisted that for each minute of “our music,” there had to be an equal amount of native “Cuban music.” Luckily Bruce had already signed Cuban super group “Irakere” (that included Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdes). You can imagine Bruce’s joy as he watched our charter flight turn to Cuba transform into a musical Noah’s Ark.

Besides three nights of amazing music by “our” musicians and “their” musicians, it still brings a smile to my face to remember a distinctly “Bruce moment.” We were being hosted by the cultural ministry at the Ernest Hemingway home when Bruce gave an eloquent speech about the cultural exchange and how it would bring about change to both our governments. Then the cultural minister responded that if the United States brought music, Cuba would bring music, and if the United states brought bombs, Cuba would bring bigger bombs. In that tense environment, leave it to Bruce to come up with the right response to make everyone laugh.

Several times I accompanied Bruce to the home of Miles Davis on the Upper West Side of NYC. Although the house was dark with its curtains shut all the time, Miles, then recovering from bad health, always perked up with he saw his friend Bruce. There was one instance of them talking about (of all people), Willie Nelson. (Miles would later entitle one of his songs, that I helped produce for release on Directions, after the country star.)

There were calls from Bruce to come to his office, where he would be holding court with an assortment of artists listening to the latest discoveries, whether new artists or recordings from Columbia’s amazing archives. (We worked together on creating the Contemporary Masters series that featured rare and/or unreleased sessions by everyone from Charlie Parker to Lester Young to Duke Ellington.) And while sitting for an hour in the waiting room alongside others anxiously waiting for their postponed meetings with Bruce, I would be summoned to go get an advance check for the artist in Bruce’s office. It was to the consternation of the financial folks, but Bruce always made sure that the artists got the money they deserved. But everyone loved “El Presidente,” so the check would be issued and Bruce was on to the next meeting that followed the exact same pattern.

Along the way, there were signings and records that may have had little financial upside, but Bruce felt that artists like Arthur Blythe and James Blood Ulmer were very important musicians and it was our duty to record and release their music — a very brave mood in the face of labels cutting back on the amount of releases.

I remember going to see a young Wynton Marsalis (then playing with Art Blakey) and how Bruce and Dr. George Butler (then head of Columbia Jazz) said we needed to sign this great talent on the spot.

One of my last sessions for Columbia (Bruce had convinced me to co-produce many artists as another set of ears) was done in support of famed record producer, Michael Cuscuna. Entitled “Gotham City,” Bruce asked Michael to assemble a Blue Note records-type session for Dexter Gordon’s latest, so the assembled musicians were Jazz Messengers leader/drummer Art Blakey, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s bassist Percy Heath, post-bebop pianist Cedar Walton, and trumpeter Woody Shaw with a very special guest, guitarist George Benson. It was an amazing experience and I like to believe that this was the precursor to Bruce getting his dream job years later — to reinvigorate Blue Note Records!

Although we officially parted ways as co-workers in 1980, when Elektra records decided to make Bruce the East Coast head and give him his own jazz imprint (Elektra Musician), we were in constant touch. When I left Columbia, Bruce was instrumental in getting me in the door as the Executive Director of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), calling then NARAS/Grammy chairman Al Schlesinger and telling him that I should be considered as its new president (bridesmaid results) and on and on.

For Bruce, he said that it was simply what friends do and I saw the same loyalty shown to all kinds of people. For example, CBS France’s Henri Renaud was treated like an afterthought until Bruce let the company president know that Henri was a famed post-war pianist who had performed and recorded with Clifford Brown.

Onward Bruce traveled to EMI, where he founded Manhattan Records and re-birthed Blue Note Records. All through this period, I was still lucky enough to have him on my speed dial to ask for advice, and for his part, he would call me up and excitedly recount the latest discovery of unreleased music or a new artist that he stumbled onto (on that count, the list is too long to name).

Around this time, I could see Bruce beginning to slow down, though this was only to a speed that was the norm for others. Yet, the triumphs continued. I clearly remember when producer Arif Mardin had been unceremoniously cut loose (after a string of many, many multi-platinum records). I sat with the two of them as Bruce spoke to Mardin about his newest discovery, Norah Jones, and the record she had delivered. Both felt that it did not reflect her immense talent, so Bruce had Arif recut the album. As everyone knows, it shot Norah to superstar status. Once again, Bruce had displayed loyalty towards an old friend. (And to Bruce, everyone was a friend for life as were there family members. To whit, Bruce never forgot ANYONE’S name.)

Sure there were other meetings, but then one day, Bruce told me has was having medical tests. The next thing I knew, he had the dreaded “family disease,” Parkinson’s, which had also taken his father’s life. At first, he soldiered on, even as his ability to speak became slurred. He remained independent to the end, once snapping at me when I tried to unscrew the top of a bottle of water for him.

One of the last encounters we enjoyed was in his office, when I was in-town for the memorial service for our mutual friend, Ralph MacDonald. I could easily notice the further damage being inflicted on Bruce and was compelled to open up my heart and tell him he was loved by me and everyone that knew him. As tears began to flow from my eyes, he said he was not done, yet. I tried to stay in-touch, but it became harder as he had trouble speaking on the phone and using his computer…and then I was told that he was put into a nursing home in New Jersey.

On a business trip to NYC several months ago, fellow Lundvall alumnus and great friend Gregg Geller told me he had been out to see Bruce several times and he would be glad to drive me to Jersey for a visit.

I dreaded the moment we drove up to the facility, dreaded the elevator ride to his floor, dreaded the knock on his door that went unanswered…but, then as Gregg and I entered the room, we heard Bruce in his now-very slurred speech tell us to come around the corner to his office. His family had gotten him the biggest room possible, and Bruce had a separate room with all kinds of music memorabilia, albums and CD’s, and an assortment of electronic equipment. For the next 90 minutes, Bruce proudly played us some amazing new music and asking us to identify the performer and composer. My fears abated when I realized that, though my mentor was confined to an electric cart and his speech was harder to understand, his mind was still so sharp. I quickly became engrossed in hearing describe everything he was involved in. Rather than feeling pity and resignation at having Parkinson’s, Bruce was talking about another Havana Jam in the coming year with a roster of superstars from every corner of the music world. When I left for the drive home, I told Gregg I was so glad that I came to see my young-at-heart friend. Though I had a tear in my eye, I felt that this would not be my last visit as the amazingly creative person I met when I moved to NYC was still a force to be reckoned with.

I had planned to return to NYC to meet with Bruce and others to remember the 1979 moments of Havana Jam for a new documentary being made by a Cuban filmmaker, but plans forced me to postpone. And then the depressing inevitable word began to circulate. My friend and mentor, Bruce Lundvall had passed away.

I loved Bruce Lundvall and will always hold him close to my heart. Though he has passed through our own world, he will live on forever as an example of peace, friendship, loyalty, dedication, and someone who could always put a smile on one’s face — even in moments of despair or crisis. In the words of one of his favorite comical geniuses — Bruce loved offbeat comedy, as witnessed by his Ernie Kovacs release — “There is standard for success in the entertainment medium, beat it to death if it succeeds.”

I’m sure Dexter, Mike Berniker, Henri and Prez were at those pearly gates to welcome Bruce. One day I hope to see my old friend again and listen to his newest musical discoveries in the great bye and bye.

- Jim Fishel, 2015

Jim Fishel