Don Was is a frequent sight at shows around L.A. He's hard to miss: all hair, hat, sunglasses, and smiles. He made a name for himself as a bass player with Was (Not Was) as well as a producer for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. Last year, he became the president of Blue Note Records. Around the same time, we took the label to task for what had become a gradual dilution of a great legacy.
Blue Note released some of the most important jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s but since the turn of the century had opted for a radio-friendly folk vibe that left jazz fans scratching their heads. One of Was' first signings was saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who plays Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday to promote his first record with the label in over 40 years. In our interview below, Was talks about his work at the label.
What was your relationship with Blue Note before you started working there?
In the '60s, when my peers were in the throes of Jimi Hendrix, David Was and I were Blue Note fanatics. At that time there used to be record stores that were mom and pop stores. Every record store had a completely different inventory that reflected the personality of the owner. So we'd call around record stores on the other side of Detroit and see if they had a copy of something we hadn't seen before. We'd hop on a bus and ride forty-five minutes just to see the records. We didn't have the bread to buy them. Stereo copies were like $4.99. We just went to hold them and read the credits. It was more than just music. It was a lifestyle, a cultural force, especially those photographs by Francis Wolff — the room with no walls and smoke everywhere. I wanted to be one of those guys. The way people reacted to the Beatles or the Stones or Bob Dylan when I was a teenager, Blue Note was that force. And it's something I never really lost but it was never my intention to work at a record company.
How does one become the president of Blue Note records if they aren't looking for it?
It was Dan McCarroll, who's an old friend of mine and a great musician. He is the president of Capitol Records and we met for breakfast. We weren't even talking about music. It was just a friendly breakfast and I had gone to see this singer the night before, Gregory Porter, at a club up in Harlem. He was great. I loved him. As we were leaving the restaurant I asked Dan, “Is Blue Note Records still part of the Capitol group 'cause if it is you should sign this guy I saw last night.' And that turned into, 'Maybe I should sign him.' It was an irresistible offer.
I understood it was a challenge but I kind of had a sense of what to do. It wasn't that hard to see that you can't keep recreating the 1960s and that was not what the music of the '60s was about. That was radical revolutionary music in reaction to the rules of 1950s bebop. That first Jazz Messengers album is as radical a departure as what Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie [Hancock] were doing with Speak No Evil and Maiden Voyage. Repeating things that happened 40 years ago is not the idea. It's taking the aesthetic behind that and moving it forward but we still have to be the best jazz label we can be.
How hard is it to keep the different factions happy? The artists? The executives?
Well, running a label, if you distill it down to its basics is really kind of simple. You try and make really great records that are really going to touch people. Maybe you can't touch all the people all the time with all the music but everything you put out has got to put people in touch with their feelings. There was a great interview with Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone about six months ago. He said some of the most profound stuff I've ever heard. He said, 'My job is not to get up on stage and tell you how I'm feeling every night. No one cares about that. It's my job to get up there and put people in touch with their own feelings.' And that's really true and it's something that is really kind of overlooked. I never heard it expressed that way. So you want to make records that make people feel something and then let as many people know about it as possible and trust that people actually do have taste and will gravitate to the music. It's not that hard.
What I was concerned about was having to read profit/loss statements and get into the financial stuff. Truth be told it's actually kind of fascinating to see how the thing works. I've been making records for 35 years and never really understood how it worked. Now I see why certain records I thought should have happened didn't happen and what could've been done to make that happen.
How have things changed with you at the helm?
There's a whole different vibe now at Blue Note. There really seems to be a return to instinct. The records that we love from years ago were all made by entrepreneurs — Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, Jac Holzman and Alfred Lion — guys gambling with their own bread with really good instincts. That's what the record business is about. You can't really run it by profit/loss statements. You have to be willing to operate on instincts and that's the climate here. It's a musical climate as opposed to a financial climate and that is a huge difference.