Don Was: Talkin’ Blue Note at 85

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“Being president of Blue Note has been one of the coolest things that ever happened to me,” Was said. “It’s a gas to serve as one of the caretakers of that legacy.”

(Photo: Myriam Santos)

Sitting with Don Was is a comfortable and unhurried exercise. He may seem slightly reserved at first, but ideas and insights pour with intensity once he’s in gear. He’s an easy laugh, too. In the closing weeks of last summer, in a modest Queens studio minutes after a recording session with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, Was agreed to sit down for a sprawling interview.

One could easily be distracted by his singular appearance — cowboy hat and dreadlocks, sunglasses and flip-flops — and more sidetracked by his storied, non-linear career. He achieved notoriety as a songwriter and bandleader with the Detroit-born, indie-spirited, jazz-inspired R&B group Was (Not Was); as a heavyweight producer for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, John Mayer and more; as a first-call bassist for Bobby Weir, Ringo Starr and various all-star tributes; and then, as the president of Blue Note Records for more than 13 years and counting.

The story of the leading-edge label has had many chapters. But a mere five individuals have been at the helm during its 85-year run, each leaving a significant mark on the Blue Note brand: Alfred Lion and then Frank Wolff (1939–’71), Dr. George Butler (’72–’77), Bruce Lundvall (’84–2010) and Was, since 2011. Each navigated the musical shifts and technological changes of their respective ages, while maintaining the label’s reputation for sonic excellence, dedication to the new talent as well as its rich and fabled catalogue. Each made sure the label remained profitable. (“What are you going to do to make money?” Lion asked Lundvall the first time they met. “You know, they will shut you down if you don’t make money.”)

In Was’ hands, Blue Note has stayed the course musically and financially, even as the marketplace shifted away from physical formats; streaming now accounts for a significant portion of the label’s annual revenue, though, as he reports, “We have a much higher ratio of physical [sales] to streaming compared to the music business as a whole. It goes with the type of music and the type of listeners. It’s not just old people.”

Was guided the label through COVID days as well, even as most record companies continued shifting their primary role to investing in and managing music rights rather than participating in creating new music. As Blue Note marks its 85th year, its roster of releases reveals its priority. The label continues to embrace established headliners like Charles Lloyd, Norah Jones and Bill Frisell; mid-careerists like Bill Charlap and Ethan Iverson; and younger arrivals like and Melissa Aldana, Julian Lage, Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins — all while keeping the door open to edgy, contemporary styles like ambient jazz, jazz/hip-hop, jazz/electronica and similar hybrids: Meshell Ndgeocello’s The Omnichord Real Book, Lophiile’s The Good Days Between and Cautious Clay’s Karpeh offer three extreme examples from last year, with more to come from DOMi & JD Beck. Further proof of Was’ willingness to keep the label’s range wide and far-reaching comes in the latest album by guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame.

In addition, the label celebrates its anniversary with various programs and collaborative efforts that mine the vaults, like a reissue of the fan-favorite, seven-LP box The Story Of Blue Note Records co-produced with the Vinyl Me, Please label (VMP), as well as Blue Note’s own ongoing Classic Vinyl Reissue and audiophile Tone Poet series. The upcoming A Night At The Village Vanguard: The Complete Masters, an expanded three-LP release of Sonny Rollins’ 1957 trio album, is a standout example of the latter; the liner notes include a conversation between Rollins and Was. Then there’s The Blue Note Quintet, a special 85th anniversary all-star band featuring Wilkins and Ross with Gerald Clayton, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer, with an album of original music due in November.

Truth be told, for those of a certain age, Was (Not Was) had been as influential as Miles, Mingus and the post-bop legacy. The group’s rotating lineup of Detroit players revisited the tune “Out Come The Freaks” on each successive album, and — on its 1988 breakout What Up Dog? — the fadeout to that tune sang the names of Leon Trotsky, John Coltrane, Che Guevara and Bud Powell. They celebrated America while side-eyeing its craziness. They had spoken-word pieces that made sense in the same way Charles Bukowski and James Ellroy did.

The following serves as an edited highlight reel of a whirling, three-hour conversation, starting with a discussion of that day’s Nduduzo Makhathini recording session.

Don Was: This is the first trio record we’ve done with Nduduzo — Francisco Mela on drums and Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere on bass, he’s also from South Africa [like Nduduzo] but grew up in Connecticut. Nduduzo’s had so many musicians playing with him and is such a humble, generous guy that he’s always held back as a pianist in order to feature the other musicians in his band. So this is the first chance we’ve really had to hear the full breadth of what he does. I know him much better from having heard him play over the last few days.

Yesterday we finished early and had an extra hour in the studio. So I asked him if he’d go out and record a solo piano ballad. He did, and it was absolutely beautiful. If we had done a Blindfold Test before yesterday, and if you’d played me that track, I don’t think I’d have identified Nduduzo as the artist. Listeners are in for a groovy surprise.

Ashley Kahn: So you felt OK asking him to do a ballad?

Was: Is it the equivalent of Alfred Lion telling an artist to cut something with a funky groove like “The Sidewinder”? Ha. Perhaps. But if Nduduzo didn’t want to do it, he didn’t have to! It wasn’t about sacrificing any kind of artistry. It was beautiful, soulful. After he played it, everybody in the room was choked up.

Kahn: Alfred Lion was someone who trained himself in the studio. Bruce [Lundvall] was not someone who was in the studio running sessions. But you’re someone who’s brought both performance and production experience to the chair at Blue Note.

Was: I guess that’s why they hired me. I’d been on the artist/producer side of the glass for 35 years before I started at Blue Note and had a sense of where record companies sometimes lose the thread and behave in counterproductive ways. Most of the problems stem from the same issue, which is a general lack of corporate empathy about how the creative mind works, how a musician operates. Here’s a mundane example: It can sometimes be counterproductive to tell an artist who is in the throes of creation that they must hand in their music by Oct. 20 or else they will suffer dire consequences. That’s just discouraging and confusing to someone who is focused on the noble pursuit of turning life into notes. I think it’s valuable to have someone of authority onboard who understands that mindset and is making sure the record company is encouraging rather than squelching creativity.

Kahn: You’ve mentioned before that you spend most of the time in the live room with the band and not the control room.

Was: I feel like I have to go to the same place the musicians are going to and hear what they’re hearing. When I come out into the big room and put on some cans, it’s very peaceful. The outside world is shut off, phones are turned off and you can focus on the things that really matter — like whether the music is truthful and expressive.

Kahn: How many Blue Note recordings do you personally produce?

Was: Maybe one a year or something. I don’t volunteer. We believe in signing people that we trust and then enabling them to manifest their dreams. Your best shot at getting something magnificent comes when you don’t water it down. Just trust the artist, man. But, if someone asks me to come in, and I feel that I can make a difference, it’s an honor to participate. I love making records.

That said, when I’m operating in my capacity as the record company guy, I’m very careful about unintentionally impacting the music. I wouldn’t want some cavalier remark to be misinterpreted as a direct order from the label brass. In fact, my tendency is to stay away from most sessions. When the record company president shows up, it usually stops the session cold and kills the creative momentum.

Kahn: From your position, even the slightest whisper can be heard with such volume. I guess it’s like being a parent with kids, learning to listen more than speaking.

Was: Treading lightly has its advantages. And you’re right: When I’m producing a record, I’m listening more than I’m saying anything. You need to be able to hear whether the music is communicating a feeling. Are the musicians weaving together or just spewing notes? Is the singer telling the story or just performing acrobatics? Being able to focus and hear what’s really going on requires conditioning and maintenance. It’s like being a pro athlete: You’ve got to stay in shape. Even in the off-season. That’s one reason I keep on playing bass and being in the studio.

The folks at Universal Music Group and Capitol Records have been extremely supportive of my performing and producing activities. They place a high premium on maintaining strong artistic instincts, which becomes an important counterbalance in an age when data analytics plays a larger role in informing creative decisions.

When they first offered me the gig, the most daunting consideration was that you only have “X” number of synapses that can fire at any one given time and the pathways that fall into disuse get closed down to make way for new functions. To perform the gig properly, I was gonna have to learn how to do things like read a P&L [profit and loss statement]. I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to rewire my head to perform these new left-brain actions, but something’s got to give. I’d learn to be a good executive but might never be able to write a song again. And, in this case, I had to learn to be more than just a good executive because I had to follow Bruce Lundvall, one of the most beloved and brilliant record men of all time. Among many other things, he had a skill set that I would never possess. He would answer emails within 30 seconds and with a definitive, thoughtful response as well. He was on the ball, super organized and very professional in a way that I thought I could never fucking be.

It took about five years to figure out how to be myself and succeed at this job without trying to be Bruce or Alfred or Dr. George Butler or anybody else. It’s important to learn how to do that no matter what goals you’re pursuing. If you’re a pianist with an upcoming booking at the Village Vanguard, don’t go out onstage and try to be Bill Evans. Your only prayer is to learn what you can from Bill and then to go out there and be the best possible version of you. It applies to everything in life, from dentistry to baseball to parenting. Unless, of course, you’re an impressionist like Rich Little. In that case, you’d better go out there and be the best Jimmy Stewart you can be!

Kahn: Take us back to the beginning of your association with Blue Note.

Was: When I first got hired, it seemed essential to figure out what it actually was about Blue Note’s records that makes them totally relevant 65, 75, 85 years later. There are just a small handful of labels with that kind of legacy: Chess, Motown, Stax. I believe you can trace it to our label’s manifesto that [Blue Note co-founder Max Margulis wrote], which Cem [Kurosman, Blue Note/Capitol vice-president of publicity] hipped me to on Day One on the job. In that mission statement, they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of authentic music and uncompromising artistic freedom of expression.

Blue Note’s legacy was created by musicians who studied everything that preceded them, mastered the fundamentals and then used that knowledge to create something brand new. That’s really the essence of the Blue Note ethos for me. Bruce understood that, too.

By the way, I first met Bruce while producing an Amos Lee record for Blue Note in 2007. Four years later, he was facing some formidable health challenges and wasn’t going to be able to continue running the company much longer. At that precise moment, fate dropped me in New York City to produce a John Mayer record. On a night off, we ventured uptown to see Gregory Porter perform at Smoke, and he was clearly one of the most formidable vocalists of all time. The next morning, I was having breakfast with an old friend named Dan McCarroll. I’d met him 20 years earlier when he was Sheryl Crow’s drummer, but he was now the president of Capitol Records. Over breakfast, I asked him if Blue Note was still a part of Capitol and, if so, I suggested that he sign Gregory. Dan said, “Well, maybe you should sign him,” and he offered me a job right there as Blue Note’s chief creative officer. I wouldn’t have to go to marketing meetings or anything. Just be a hovering presence to help define a future course for the label.

My goal in life had been to never have a job. I never considered playing music or producing records to be work, and, at 58, I was very close to making that pipe dream a reality. But the offer was irresistible. I’d bought my first Blue Note album, Joe Henderson’s Mode For Joe, in 1966 and had been a lifelong fan and collector of Blue Note’s vinyl releases. So, one day I showed up at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood and they gave me an office with a stereo and a computer on the desk and some pencils and a phone. Everyone else was based in New York and The Tower was deserted. There were like tumbleweeds blowing down the hallways. Six months later they had to find someone to replace Bruce, and I was promoted to president of the label. As I mentioned, following Bruce was rough. Impossible shoes to fill.

Kahn: And you’re wearing sandals.

Was: That made it even harder. It was a steep learning curve. Fortunately, they assigned a guy named Hank Forsyth to be Blue Note’s general manager and to teach me the ropes. Beautiful guy, a dear friend, super smart. He came from the finance world — although he is a highly knowledgeable music fan — and had been brought in by Roger Faxon to help develop the strategy that prepared EMI for resale.

Hank flew in along with a guy named Barak Moffitt who’s still at Universal. We locked the doors to my office for five days, lit candles, and they asked a million questions, trying to get me to string some ideas together into an overarching vision. How do we maintain the ethos of what, at that time, was a 72-year legacy? How will we sustain a vibrant and profitable company that still makes game-changing new music? What artists should we sign to reach that goal? I’d have been fired within a couple of months if those guys hadn’t provided that guidance.

A month later, I went to New York and met with the Blue Note team for the first time. We sat around a big marble table in a conference room that looked more like Carl Icahn’s office than a record company. It felt surreal, totally unfamiliar but high adventure, for sure. I walked in with my little handwritten list of goals — things like “Re-sign Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard,” “Sign Charles Lloyd when his deal with ECM is up,” “Create a website for the label,” “Triple down on vinyl catalog releases,” “Launch the Blue Note Review as a semi-annual subscription box.”

The wild thing is that we eventually hit about 95% of those benchmarks. The staff was incredibly welcoming and supportive, but somewhat wary about whether we’d be allowed to manifest any of those lofty dreams. They were also aware of something that I hadn’t previously been told about: There were some rogue elements within EMI who were looking to close down Blue Note, drop all of the current artists and turn it into a website that sold only catalog CDs and Blue Note T-shirts.

Kahn: Wait, what? This must’ve been a gut punch.

Was: I was horrified, man. I wasn’t hired to put Blue Note out to pasture. But, later that same afternoon, Robert Glasper came in and played the rough mixes to Black Radio — and it totally blew our minds. It was reminiscent of the first time I heard Pharoah Sanders’ Karma in that you could recognize all the roots underneath the music but nobody had ever strung those elements together quite like that before. It was a mind-blowing afternoon and, when I heard what Robert was doing along with what artists like Ambrose and Jason Moran were up to, I knew we had a solid contemporary jazz roster. Combined with Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash and Van Morrison — who were not necessarily making jazz records but were totally authentic, visionary artists in the tradition of the Blue Note Manifesto of 1939 — I knew we were gonna be fine on the new music front.

Kahn: How’s Blue Note doing in the age of streaming?

Was: We’re thriving. In terms of actual streaming, I’m receptive to any delivery-system partner that will get music into the hands of listeners and compensate the artists fairly. Streaming is still a work in progress, but it’s getting better, and I’m happy to work with anyone who is approaching music with basically good intentions. In the end, it’s all about the music, and I’m really proud of the music we’re releasing in 2024. I’d hold our frontline roster up to any period in the company’s history. We’re releasing more new music every year than Alfred ever did: 12 to 15 new albums this year by some brilliant artists. Maybe there will even be a few very cool surprises later in the year. Plus, two audiophile Tone Poet reissues every month and two of the Classic Vinyl reissues every month. That’s more than 60 titles this year.

Kahn: The run of Blue Note successes speaks for itself. No need to look back, but how do you feel now?

Was: I feel that being president of Blue Note has been one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. It’s a gas to serve as one of the caretakers of that legacy.

Kahn: Can you see doing it for another 13, 14, 15 years?

Was: Oh, man, let me die in my footsteps, like the Bob Dylan song says. I want to do this until I die. And I don’t want to die. DB



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