Don Was, Dave McMurray Continue Telling Detroit’s Story

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There they were on stage again in Detroit. Nearly four decades after Don Was and Dave McMurray first worked together in the band Was (Not Was)—and after God knows how many one-nighters across the globe—the old friends were back in the heart of their hometown, making music together. Killing it, actually.

Was, 65, the bearded president of Blue Note Records and golden-eared producer with a mantle packed with Grammy Awards, locked into the pocket on electric bass while wearing his familiar cowboy hat and dark shades. McMurray, 63, a stalwart Detroit tenor saxophonist with a sound as a brawny as a V8-powered muscle car, played solos that made ears snap to attention.

McMurray and Was were among the Detroit musicians and singers performing July 14 as part of the 11th Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue in front of a packed Orchestra Hall. The revue topped off the annual Concert of Colors, a festival celebrating the cultural diversity of metro Detroit. Was curated the evening, establishing a theme—this year it was “Detroit Rocks”—and typically anchors the house band that backs featured guests. This year, for example, guitarist-vocalist Wayne Kramer, of MC5 fame, was among those paying tribute to Detroit’s rock legacy.

That legacy, of course, also includes Was (Not Was), the dance-rock-soul band with a surreal wit and sometimes funky, sometimes jazzy vibe that was founded by childhood friends Don Fagenson (rechristened Don Was) and David Weiss (David Was). McMurray, who remains based in Detroit, performed on the band’s first record in 1980, and he’s a regular in the Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue. But this year, there was a fresh subtext.

McMurray’s Music Is Life was released in May on Blue Note. The album, which honors the saxophonist’s jazz roots and eclectic outlook, features a rugged trio with fellow Detroiters Ibrahim Jones on bass and either Ron Otis or Jeff Canady on drums. A few electronic touches aside, the textures are acoustic and sinewy. McMurray delivers solos with gritty intensity and a blunt attack, and he avoids music-school patterns and jazz-funk clichés in favor of more idiosyncratic ideas. The saxophonist’s nine originals share space with a few covers, including songs by former Detroiters Jack White and George Clinton. McMurray produced the album, but Was engineered the release on Blue Note.

“You have no idea how much it means to me,” said Was. “Even if I didn’t know Dave and essentially grow up with him, I’d still be proud to have the record on the label. I think he probably belonged on the label 30 years ago.”

McMurray’s field of vision is wide. He played with Griot Galaxy, Detroit’s answer to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He also recorded with the late Geri Allen and logged many tours of duty with—wait for it—Kid Rock. The saxophonist has made a gaggle of recordings, but This Is Life has him as excited as a kid opening presents on Christmas.

“When they sent me the CD, I pulled it out and said, ‘There’s a Blue Note record with my name on it!’ I mean, I used to play Lee Morgan’s Live At The Lighthouse every day for four years straight. To be a part of that legacy is beyond belief.”

Prior to their performance, Was and McMurray discussed their shared history following a rehearsal at the Arab American National Museum, which produces the Concert of Colors and is in Dearborn, an inner-ring suburb of Detroit.

They make an entertaining pair visually and verbally. Each rocks a distinctive hair game. Was—most widely known for producing recordings by Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and countless others—sports feral locks and an untamed beard that suggest an unusually mellow Samson. McMurray, athletically built, has a bald pate, graying goatee and a thin ponytail that trails his head like an antenna. When they speak to each other, the conversation quickly can veer toward private jokes, knowing laughs and obscure references that bind members of a tribe.

Asked to share a crazy story from the road, Was ran silently through the catalog in his head before surrendering. “There are so many we can’t tell,” he said, laughing. Then in a conspiratorial whisper: “Everything you can imagine, man.”

“We had two busses at one point, because there were just so many of us,” he continued. “So, we divided it up. There was a weed bus and an alcohol bus, and occasionally someone would pass through a time warp and end up on the wrong bus.”

On a more serious note, Was offered a telling story from the first gig Was (Not Was) played on its inaugural 1981 tour. The group found itself in a Chicago ballroom, opening for a British synth-band. “No one knew who we were or cared about us,” Was said. “I remember we got to ‘Where Did Your Heart Go,’ and when Dave finished the instrumental break on that, we had ’em. We had nothing, and then he played, and then we had ’em for the whole night.”

Could McMurray have ever imagined back in the ’80s that his buddy might one day ascend to the presidency of Blue Note? The saxophonist giggled. “No, no, no,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine Don buckling down like that. But, musically, I could have seen him as president, because he knows so much music. He really knows.

Was’ affection for Detroit has played out on several fronts since he took the reins at Blue Note in 2012. In addition to Music Is Life, he spearheaded Detroit Jazz City, a 2015 release that showcased national stars with Motor City roots (James Carter, Sheila Jordan), heroes of the city’s current scene, like bassist Marion Hayden, and the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, as well as Blue Note catalog items by Detroit-bred icons, like Elvin Jones and Joe Henderson. (Proceeds from sales went to a noted social service agency in Detroit called Focus: Hope.) Recently, Was was back in a Detroit studio recording the James Carter Organ Trio for the label.

Detroit musicians show up on a striking number of classic Blue Note LPs. Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Doug Watkins, Louis Hayes, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell, Thad Jones and others were regulars. All this was in the musical air that Was and McMurray inhaled while growing up. So was John Lee Hooker, Motown, the MC5 and Sun Ra. All came with passion and a lack of pretense that defined this working-class city.

“There was a jambalaya of cultures in Detroit,” Was said. “We were exposed to everything—without judgement.” DB




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October 2018
Tia Fuller
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