With legendary jazz label Blue Note celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, we sat down with Blue Note president Don Was to talk about his love of jazz and how he got involved with the label...
In a career spanning five decades, there isn't much that Don Was hasn't done. As a musician he's scored hits with his band Was Not Was, he's directed and produced a documentary on the life of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, won a BAFTA for his score to the film Backbeat and bagged several Grammys for his work as a producer, working with a long list of legendary artists that includes everyone from The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to Stone Temple Pilots and Iggy Pop.
His latest gig, however, has seen him step over to the other side of the music industry in his role as president of legendary jazz imprint Blue Note Records, a position he has held since 2012. This year the label celebrates its 80th anniversary with a string of remastered and reissued albums from jazz greats such as Chick Correa, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Gil Evans.
To celebrate Blue Note's 80th birthday we caught up with Don for a chat about growing up surrounded by music in Detroit, his role as Blue Note president and what the future holds for the legendary jazz imprint...
You grew up in Detroit in the 50s and 60s – what do you think it was about the city at that time that made it such a hotbed for different kinds of music?
“Well, after World War II the auto industry took off, so people from not just all over the United States but from all over the world came there and brought their cultures with them. So there was this very rich kind of jambalaya of everything. You know, the problems that Detroit is experiencing currently are all related to the dependence upon one industry. My parents were both teachers, but if auto sales were down, they'd lay off workers, who would move away to find other work, taking their kids with them. So then they'd start laying off teachers. And then barbers, waitresses, whatever."
“So everyone was dependent on the auto industry, and as a result, there really was no point in putting on any airs to the contrary. You would not benefit by leasing a Mercedes or something, there was nothing to prove, everyone knew! So you basically have a working-class town of no-bullshit people, and I think the music reflects that. There's a rawness to it. To me, it's best epitomised by John Lee Hooker. As raw as the blues can be, he was the rawest, man. And yet maybe the most soulful too."
It's not necessarily a city that people associate with the Blues though...
“No, but it was the same with the MC5 or The Stooges, or even Motown records, they've got that kind of... how did Bob Dylan describe his own music? It's metallic, there's a metallic sound to Motown. Or mercury, is that what he called it? He was talking about Blonde on Blonde I think. Anyway, it's raw and real, just like living there.”
Did you come from a musical family yourself? How did your passion for music begin?
“I don't know, man. All I can remember is playing. My parents had a piano, I played it. My dad gave me a guitar, I played it. It was always fun. And that's how you met girls! Just like everybody else. I was born in 1952 and there are really an inordinate amount of guys exactly my age that I know who are musicians. And that's because of this one moment where we saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, with all these girls screaming, and we all said 'I want that.' If you were a bit older, maybe you thought 'I want that, but I'm gonna back it up with a law degree, just in case', and if you were a little younger it maybe didn't look appealing to you. But at 12 years old we were just dumb enough to think we could do it.”
You've done a lot of work with [MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer over the years, did you know those guys and The Stooges growing up?
“No, not really. I mean I would go and see the MC5, The Stooges played at the high school next to mine and I would go see them too. I would go to a place called The Grande Ballroom in Detroit, where you'd have MC5 maybe open for Cream or somebody like that, but the first time I met Wayne was when I called him up to play on 'Wheel Me Out' with Was Not Was. I'd never met Iggy until they called me about producing them, that was in, like, 1989 or something.”
So how does somebody who grew up listening to The Stooges and MC5 end up taking an interest in jazz? What was the first jazz record that made an impression on you?
“The first time was in 1966. I mean, I'm sure I'd heard stuff before that, but the first time I was cognizant of hearing jazz was in 1966. I was 14 and my mom was driving me around doing errands. Dragging me around might be a better description, I was in a grumpy mood, being a real asshole, so she left me in the car with the keys so I could listen to the radio. I landed on the Detroit jazz station just as the solo was beginning on a song called 'Mode for Joe' by Joe Henderson, and he's doing these kind of anguished screams on the tenor sax."
“I'd never heard anyone get that sound out of an instrument, and I wasn't hearing the reeds or the pads, or even an instrument, really. I heard a voice, you know? A human cry. And that anguish was exactly how I was feeling on that day, it was like: 'Whoah! I can relate to that'. Then about 20 seconds in the drummer kicks in, Joe Chambers, and he starts swinging. The message I got from the music was how conversational it was, even though there were no lyrics. It was like he was saying 'Don, you've got to groove in the face of adversity'. It changed my mood immediately. Mom came back to the car and I was a nice kid again! And I was aware that the music had just altered my whole being. I wanted to hear more.”
How did you first become aware of Blue Note as a label?
“After that, I got this little FM radio and just started listening in the house, and I kind of found that of the stuff I was digging, an inordinate number of them came from this one little label out of New York. So I bought a few of these records, and I just loved them. I loved the artwork, I just felt like I was a part of something that was cool. But I wanted more, I wanted to live it."
Did you start collecting the records after that?
“We started getting on buses, we were too young to drive, and we'd call around the city. At that time, record stores were not chain stores, every store had its own personality that reflected the owner's taste, or at least his sense of what he was going to be able to sell. The jazz section was usually small, maybe just one container, and it would be completely different from store to store, really eclectic."
"I remember calling around to see who had Larry Young's Unity, I'd heard it on the radio and loved it. And I got on a bus and rode the 45-minute journey to the store. Not to buy it, because I couldn't afford it. Just to look at it! I'd read all the liner notes to see who was playing on it. Maybe sometimes you could con the owner into breaking the shrink wrap and putting it on for you, just to hear it! So within the first year, I was deep into it, the cover art, the Francis Wolff photos of these guys in cool clothes, smoking and holding saxophones, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Were there any artists on that label that have been a particular influence on your own music?
“Yeah, you know, the same ones as everybody I guess. Wayne Shorter was a standout, Herbie Hancock, guys that played in the Miles Davis Group. I got to see that group, with Herbie and Wayne, Ron Carter, Tony Williams. I got to see Thelonious Monk too. George Ween, the guy who promotes the Newport Jazz Festival, he would take a Newport package around and that's how I got to see all of these guys, they'd come to Detroit. I couldn't get into bars, but one year Monk was on and [John] Coltrane was on. I remember Coltrane's band getting snowed in Pittsburgh or something like that, but he managed to be there and he played with Monk. That was maybe six months before he died, it was incredible seeing that.”
“A lot of people think that to appreciate jazz you've gotta do four years of music theory or go to Berkeley or whatever, but it's not true, man. You've just got to listen to it like a conversation, and you just have to find the conversation that interests you. If you go to a party, not all conversations are going to be of interest, but if you don't like it, you just move on to the next group of people. I think jazz is the same thing, it's easy to get into, you've just gotta listen and feel.”
So how did you come to get involved with the Blue Note label yourself?
“What happened was, I was in New York, I was producing a John Mayer record called Born and Raised. We had a night off, and maybe a year or so before that I'd been driving around L.A. and I'd heard a song called 'Illusion', from the debut album of a guy called Gregory Porter. I thought: 'Who the f*** is that?! What a song, man!' So on my night off I got the Village Voice and opened it up, and saw he was appearing at a club called Smoke up in Harlem. I went up there and caught all three sets, I wasn't there for business, I was just there to soothe my soul, and it was one of the best shows I'd ever seen in my life.
“The next morning I was having breakfast with an old buddy of mine who used to be a drummer, and his wife was my assistant in the 90s, but now he'd become the president of Capitol Records. We were talking about other sh*t but at the very end of that breakfast, I asked him if Blue Note was still part of Capitol, because if it is you should sign this guy Gregory Porter that I saw last night.
“Unbeknownst to me, EMI, who owned the company at the time, was thinking of closing down Blue Note because Bruce Lundvall, who had run the label for 30 years, was ill and had to retire, and no-one seemed to have a clear vision on how to keep the company going. So I just happened to come in with an idea the day they were having a meeting about it, and he just clicked and he said: 'No, YOU should sign Gregory Porter!'"
What did you say?
“I was like, 'No, man!'
“Because really my only goal in life was just to never have a job, ever. I was a success if I never had to work, and I never considered playing music or producing records to be a job, because it was fun. But that scared me, and I wouldn't have done it except that it was Blue Note and I was a lifelong fan, and that made it irresistible. So I called him back in an hour, and I was in the record business!”
Was it daunting stepping into Bruce's shoes?
“Oh, f*** yeah! It was daunting following a guy like Bruce, who really was one of a kind, but also I was just woefully under-prepared to be a record executive. Even though I'd dealt with record executives for thirty-some years as a producer, it's different. I didn't know what to do. For real, I showed up the first day, they gave me a desk, pencils, a phone, a stereo system and a TV. And I'm sitting in this office like: 'What the f*** am I supposed to do?' It was like a cartoon! And it really took years to learn.”
OK, so you're sat in your new office with your desk and your pencils, what's the first order of business? What did you do?
“Well, the first order of business was I called Gregory Porter's manager and said: 'Here's what happened, so I guess we should do this!' First day, literally, I just went onto his website and there was a phone number for his manager.”
Didn't he have a record deal at the time?
“He was signed to Motéma, there was some time that lapsed, and then EMI was sold to Universal. Before that, we'd kind of been getting into a bidding war with Universal France, but once the sale happened it was like 'OK, let's not do that! You can have him for the U.S. and we'll put him on Blue Note for the world.' So that's how that worked out.”
Were there many other artists on Blue Note's roster at that point?
“Oh yeah, it was quite a healthy roster. My first meeting in New York City was with Robert Glasper, who played me very rough mixes of Black Radio. I was based out of L.A. at Capitol Tower, so my first day in the New York office I heard that, and I thought: 'Alright, yeah, that's Blue Note'. He put together familiar styles of music, but took the ingredients and cooked it in a brand new way, that was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. That was really exciting.”
You ended up bringing Wayne Shorter back to the label too, after 40-odd years – was his signing a personal mission for you?
“You know, it was a little bit of happenstance. I happened to be sitting on an aeroplane next to I guy I know, who is Wayne's lawyer. So I told him I just got hired at Blue Note and I said to him: 'What are Wayne and Herbie doing?' Herbie was doing something, but Wayne was out of a record deal. So we did it on the plane!”
The label is celebrating its 80th year, can you talk us through some of the stuff you're doing for the anniversary?
“Yeah, the thing I'm really excited about is a couple of vinyl reissue series we're doing, and they've really got off to a great start.”
Are you curating these yourself?
“I'm involved in it, although how much depends on which series. There's one called the Tone Poet series, and that's an audiophile label within Blue Note. There's a guy named Joe Harley, he's a producer who ran a company called Music Matters, which used to license old Blue Note masters and do audiophile versions of them. I became friendly with him while producing Charles Lloyd's records. In fact, Charles coined the name, it was named after a song of his called 'Tone Poem'. The first two have already been released, one is Etcetera by Wayne Shorter, the other is Now He Sings, Now He Sobs by Chick Correa. It's been out maybe a month and we're already on our third pressing.
“They're beautifully mastered from the original analogue tapes, with (Blue Note co-founder) Alfred Lion's handwriting on the back of the box, no copies, all original masters. A guy named Kevin Gray, who is really highly respected in the audiophile field and who has a really profound understanding of the sonic psyche of (recording engineer) Rudy Van Gelder, he's mastering them. They've got these deluxe double-gatefold sleeves, 180g vinyl, really beautiful quality through and through. So we have 18 of those coming this year.”
Nice. What's the other series?
"The other series is, again, mastered from the analogue tapes, 180g vinyl, the only difference really is that they just have the regular sleeves, and it's pressed out of a different plant in Germany. We have 36 of those coming, and vinyl is proving to be really popular.”
Which are the ones you're most excited about releasing?
“Well, first of all, I should point out that I don't differentiate between catalogue and new releases. You can't honour the legacy without making sure that the catalogue is available, and you have to have new artists who are pushing the boundaries of music. Those things are all one action to me.”
“In the standard vinyl series, they're arranged by themes. Best debut albums, drummer-led albums, live albums, funky beat albums, and great Reid Miles album covers. They're fun, they're cool choices, and they're all things that have been out of print for a while, so I think people will appreciate it.”
What about the new, emerging artists you've got on the roster now? Anyone we should be looking out for?
“There's a kid named Joel Ross, he's 23 years old, a vibes player we've just signed, he's just done his debut album. He's been heavily influenced by Milt Jackson, he got to know Bobby Hutcherson in the later years of Bobby's life, and he's been mentored by Stefan Harris, three vibes players who recorded for Blue Note in various eras. But he's got a completely unique voice, a whole new approach to the instrument. I've seen him play now a couple of times and you watch the other young musicians around him, and he's a leader, he inspires the people he plays with and they all sound better when they play with him, it's a wild thing. I think he's a formidable musician who's going to be around for a long time.”
What do you think the future holds for the label?
“I think people have a DNA-coded need for music that generously speaks to them and does what Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter did for me when I was younger. Music that helps you to understand your life a little bit, makes you feel better about being alive and also to remember who you are and make sense of who you are. I think as long as you make music that does that, there will be a need for it. How it's distributed to people probably doesn't matter, whether it's vinyl or, I don't know, diodes implanted in the brain! But you need great music, so our philosophy is just to try and put out the best records we can.”