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Norah Jones Pays Tribute to Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall at Farm Aid Benefit

Norah Jones
Ebet Roberts

Nora Jones performs at "An Evening with Farm Aid" dinner at the City Winery in New York City on May 19, 2015.

In a rare solo piano performance Tuesday night at New York’s City Winery, Norah Jones played a benefit to raise funds for Farm Aid, the music-industry-backed group that supports American farmers and the Good Food movement.

“This is the longest solo piano gig I’ve played since college,” Jones said after “Turn Me On” and “Painter Song” opened her set. “That’s the truth; I used to play every weekend in this restaurant.”

“So where’s my tip jar?” she joked.

Other moments of her performance were more somber.

Tuesday’s concert began hours after the news of the death of Bruce Lundvall, 79, the longtime president of Blue Note Records, who signed Jones to his label, where she released debut album Come Away With Me in 2002. The following year, Jones won five Grammy Awards, including best new artist and album of the year for Come Away With Me, which has sold more than 11.1 million copies, according to Nielsen Music.

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Jones paid tribute onstage to Lundvall without mentioning his name, in the best way possible: through a song. “I’ve got a song I want to do for a friend,” she said simply. Then she sang "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” a 1955 jazz classic popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. It was one of Lundvall’s favorite songs.

In a later email, Jones said:  “I met Bruce on my 21st birthday and it was life changing. It would be easy to say that he gave me my career, but it goes beyond that. He guided me and helped me to make good decisions. When I was too green to make them, he told me the path to take, and when I figured out who I was as an artist he let me fly.

“Mostly,” she added, “he was a great friend who taught me a lot about life in general. I will miss our four-hour lunches. Bruce's passing is a huge loss to our Blue Note family and the many who love him.”

Playing a gentle and generous set, Jones sat at her Yamaha piano in a summer dress, working the piano pedals in platform sandals, and drew from her albums ranging from her debut to her 2012 release Little Broken Hearts. And she gave a nod to Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson by adding  “Funny How Time Slips Away” to her set list.

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Farm Aid -- founded by Nelson 30 years ago in response to the farm foreclosure crisis of the 1980s and now led by Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews -- has staged the music industry’s longest-running concert for a cause for the past three decades. That cause has broadened in recent years to advocate for reform of the food system in America.

Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary concert will take place Sept. 19 in a city to be announced.

To mark its 30th year, Farm Aid is staging additional small benefit concerts for top supporters with events planned in Sonoma County, Calif., on Aug. 14 and Dallas on Oct. 8.

Since 1985, the organization has raised some $48 million to help keep family farmers on their land and has promoted a cultural shift in the country, toward the appreciation of food grown by family farmers, not corporations.

Welcoming those gathered for the benefit, Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar put the group’s achievements in perspective.

“We all know that Willie Nelson is a visionary,” she said. “He has been especially a visionary when it comes to his work with family famers. Three decades after Willie started Farm Aid, there’s a prime need for change in our food system. Willie did not know that would be the case 30 years ago. He simply felt the urgency to stand up for the little guy, in the way that he continues to do, raising his voice for others.”

Although many music business organizations feature fine food at their events, possibly none but Farm Aid also gives a shout-out to the individual who provided the food.

“Bob Walker, are you here?” asked Mugar, as one of the guests rose from his table. “That’s Bob Walker of Katchkie Farms, and Bob grew much of the food we’re enjoying here tonight.”

Walker’s Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, New York, is not only a certified organic farm, but is also home to the Sylvia Center, dedicated to educating children about sustainable agriculture. Mugar noted it as an example of the type of organization Farm Aid helps support.

In recent years, Farm Aid has drawn connections with other musical activists, and that continued Tuesday night, as Mugar welcomed promoter and entrepreneur Peter Shapiro.

Shapiro, founder of the environmentally designed Brooklyn Bowl venues and the chief architect of the Grateful Dead’s upcoming Fare Thee Well concerts, noted that he began his career only a few blocks from the City Winery, at the Wetlands Preserve.

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“Wetlands was a beat-up old rock club, right down there at the exit of the Holland Tunnel, at Hudson and Laight [Street],” recalled Shapiro. “There was something magical about that beat-up old rock club, and the magic was based on the theory that you can have fun at a rock and roll show while also getting educated.”

Wetlands, which was opened in 1989 by Larry Bloch and run by Shapiro from 1996 until it closed in 2001, was an activists’ gathering place as well as a night club. “Along the walls were pamphlets on a wide-rang of issues," recalled Shapiro, “typically related to environmental activism, but also animal rights and social rights.”

Shapiro praised Bloch, his mentor and a fellow Dead Head.

“A true story, " he recalled. "A lot of times he would do a job interview [and ask a candidate] 'What’s Jerry Garcia’s birthday?’” To those who answered correctly -- Aug. 1 -- Bloch quickly replied, “You’re hired!"

Quipped Shapiro:  “You just don’t see that at Live Nation or AEG."

“I learned everything I do today from Larry Bloch, who said, 'I started Wetlands with two passions in mind. One was my desire to entertain people. And the other was to be an environmental activist.’

“And he brought them together,” said Shapiro.

“And I think it a lot of ways, that’s what Farm Aid does with their events. They’re great events, you can have a lot of fun -- and they also mean something.”