Blue Note boss Don Was: ‘Jazz can’t become synonymous with pop again’

‘Journeyman” is a term ten used to describe Don Was. At 66, the Detroit-born bassist and producer charted in the 1980s with his funk-fusion duo Was (Not Was), DJ’d at the legendary New York disco club Paradise Garage, and produced for Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning Nick Time in 1989, Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky the following year and multiple albums for the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Elton John and many more. He even won a Grammy for best musical album for children with 2009’s Family Time – a collaboration with Ziggy Marley.

Now president the label Blue Note – historically home to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, as well as contemporary artists such as Robert Glasper – Was finds himself at the helm the American jazz legacy, seeing the label through its 80th anniversary this year.

Always dressed in amorphous robes, a wide-brimmed Stetson to cover his mass scraggly dreadlocks, and Ray-Bans to cover his watery blue eyes, meeting Was is like encountering a shaman. “I always envisioned that there was this creative ether out there where all the best ideas are at the top and some people just have longer tentacles to reach a handful,” Was says on the afternoon the Jazz FM awards where he receives a lifetime achievement gong. “I remember asking Bob Dylan when we were in the studio together: how come you can write Gates Eden and I can’t? He said, ‘If it makes you feel any better, I don’t remember writing it – I remember moving my hand on the page and it just came through.’ That’s what all the great artists will tell you and it’s my job to capture that.”

Fulfilling his shamanic aesthetic, Was imagines himself as a conduit. “Only work with people whose vision you trust,” he says. “If you don’t respect an artist enough to lose an argument to them, you shouldn’t be producing them.” As such, Was has always sought to work with his heroes, like Dylan, the Stones, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. “The thing that unites them is that they understand the value storytelling,” he says. “Even if you don’t have words, they are very eloquent. Especially with Wayne, he’s one our greatest musical minds. In centuries to come, he’ll be right up there with Mozart – he’s plugged into a universal truth.”




Blue Note boss Don Was: 'Jazz can't become synonymous with pop again'





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And for Dylan and the Stones? “Dylan is a fucking genius – he was my hero and still is. I love the fact that even at this late stage in the game, every night he’ll approach a song from a fresh storytelling standpoint,” he says. “And when I first met the Stones, Mick was telling me they wanted a producer and Keith was saying they didn’t – at the same time. When you’ve got guys who are opposites in many ways, that just pulls the rubber band tighter so when you let go, it’s a bigger explosion.”

Was grew up in a Detroit still in its heyday car manufacture and cultural production – home to Motown, the Detroit blues the 1950s and a vast jazz scene, “a real jambalaya”. Was soon realised that many the records he was drawn to were Blue Note releases, like Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and Larry Young’s Unity. “I loved the record covers, those iconic black and white photos. These guys with cigarettes, saxophones, cool clothes, and I thought, ‘I wanna be in that room with them.’ I would ride a bus across town, going 45 minutes just to look at Unity once – I didn’t have the bread to buy it but I could hold it.”

With Was (Not Was), he “wanted to paint a picture this vibrant Detroit – I grew up not thinking about genre”. That meant recruiting the likes Ozzy Ozbourne and Iggy Pop to guest on the band’s records, producing dense tracks that feel ready to break apart under the weight their electro, rap and jazz-funk breaks.

Was feels this experimentation is key to the continuing relevance jazz. “The first time I heard a jazz record, it was Mode for Joe by saxophonist Joe Henderson. He opened with these anguished cries, which really chimed with my own teenage angst, but then it slipped into this infectious swing,” he says. “I never lost sight that anguish, that need to keep it fresh and push the boundaries.”

It wasn’t until 2012, when Blue Note was at risk being closed down and turned into an archive-only label, that Was got his chance to take charge. “It was a total accident. I was having breakfast with an old friend who was president Capitol Records, which headed up Blue Note, and I suggested they should sign Gregory Porter. I’d seen him the night before and he blew me away. I had no idea they were looking for someone to take over – anyone who’d walked in with an idea that day was going to get the job! I’d spent my life up to that point trying to avoid having a real job but this was too irresistible.”




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In the seven years since Was took over, Blue Note has seen a resurgence in the vinyl industry, focusing efforts on audiophile releases archive projects – a return to the tactile fascinations Was’s bus trips – as well as signing new artists including R&B club producer Lophiile, drummer Kendrick Scott Oracle, and Joel Ross, a vibraphonist with “hip-hop swagger”.

“I hope jazz doesn’t become synonymous with pop again,” Was says. “Part the fun jazz is discovering this isolated, secret scene that is radically reflective its time. That means it now encompasses the hip-hop work Kendrick Lamar is doing in LA with Kamasi Washington, and club culture here in London with people like Nubya Garcia and Steam Down.”

For the future, then, the only plan is for Was to ensure Blue Note “doesn’t make any shitty records,” he says, laughing. “I’m optimistic about all it,” he continues. “If you make generous music, everything else will follow. It’s built into our DNA: we need great art that helps us understand our complex inner emotional lives.”

And is he still tapped into that ether? “Man, I don’t feel like I should be getting a lifetime achievement award – I still feel like a 20-year-old. There’s so much more to discover; once I feel on top it, I’ll be dead.”

Blue Note Review Volume Two: Spirit and Time is out now.