In many ways Don Was has led a blessed life. A musician, songwriter, and producer, he’s led his own group – Was Not Was – to international stardom, before enjoying a vast array of studio stints with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan. There’s one job in particular, though, that brings him a daily sense of joy, a never-ending sense of satisfaction: he’s the President of iconic jazz label Blue Note Records.
“I am a lucky motherfucker!” he laughs down the phone line to Clash. It’s his job to sustain, promote, and further the legacy of Blue Note while continuing its journey into the 21st century, balancing its phenomenal catalogue against an enviable current roster.
The label turns 80 this year, and he’s only too keen to reflect on the moment Blue Note first came into his life.
“I remember the exact moment,” he says. “The first time I heard blues. I was 14 years old, it was 1966. I was in the car running errands with my mom and I was in a foul mood – because I didn’t want to be running errands with my mom – so she left me in the car with the keys.”
Flicking between stations, he landed on local Detroit broadcaster WCHD – and heard Joe Henderson’s post-bop jewel ‘Mode For Joe’. The rest, as he puts it, is history. “There was something about the way his saxophone leaped out of the speakers. It wasn’t about technique or scales or music theory or anything. It was a guy admitting anguished cries and it really spoke to me.”
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“It changed my mood around 180 degrees. You know, when my mom came back into the car I was a nice kid again. And I was pretty stumped by the way the music not only spoke to me and changed my mood but I dug the new mood. I was cool… it made me feel cool for even listening to this music. I understood it, and I started to collect some records in Detroit.”
An award-winning producer himself, Don Was relates intimately to the work done by Blue Note’s in-house studio guru Rudy Van Gelder, who worked on seminal material by Thelonius Monk, Grant Green, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and (yes) Joe Henderson. “He didn’t embellish what was going on in the room,” Don marvels. “He merely captured it in a beautiful light.”
For its 80th birthday Blue Note is re-visiting some key moments, and it is the job of Don Was to help the team re-trace those original tapes, dusting them down, looking at the handwritten notes, and place these in the modern era. “I have the privilege to bring together these master tapes,” he gushes. “It puts you right in the room.”
Don Was sets up the tape, pipes it through some studio speakers, and sits back, the first person in some 50 years sometimes to experience this audio thrill. “It’s pretty trippy, it’s a great privilege,” he affirms. “It’s like: that’s the fucking tape, a thing that actually happened, and there’s handwriting and outlinings at the back of the box. It’s actually really emotional.”
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One of the key reasons Blue Note was able to build up such incredible respect amongst the jazz community was its affirmation that musicians should come first. It was their vision, after all, and the label would do everything in its power to bring this to light.
“The founders wrote a manifesto in 1939 and the manifesto pretty much dedicates the company to the pursuit of authentic music and to provide uncompromising artistic freedom for the artist and I think that they took that very seriously. They cared a lot about you.”
“Beyond that you had the choice of musicians that they signed,” he continues. “Right where you start with Thelonious Monk or hard bop guys or Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter or Eric Dolphy or even Robert Glasper for today. The thing is that they all have in common they all absorbed the fundamental of all the music that came before, and then they used the knowledge and the talent to push the boundaries of music in their own time. So I think it’s a combination of two, choosing the right guys and then allowing them the room to make great art.”
Blue Note’s vision now spans many different types of technology – digitally, they recently overhauled their website, with that peerless catalogue entering streaming services. A new generation of fans also want to pick up those sumptuous vinyl packages, though, paying homage to the label’s influential commitment to design and photography.
“It’s a learning experience,” he comments. “I thought I knew a lot before I worked at Blue Note – I mean, I was making records for over 40 years or something like that. But there are certain things I just didn’t know about.”
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Right now there’s a new wave of UK jazz musicians making waves internationally, and each one cites the influence of Blue Note. It’s a catalogue that simply will not go away, with those musicians creating something truly immortal.
“It’s music that’s by and large impervious to fashion,” he comments. “It’s musicians who reach deep inside, into their inner emotional lives, and those are too complex to be explained through conversational language. It’s communicated through what they play and what they play is again not about notes or technique or about music theory but about conversation, they are story tellers.”
“Great records, great music, that’s all about story telling. So I understand that the human fashion changes but the human emotional palette is pretty much burned into our DNA. I think if you’re speaking from within it transcends all cultural boundaries”. Blue Note is an experience that had defined Don Was’ life – from childhood right up until the present day.
“It will never let you down,” he marvels. “If you go on the timeline on the Blue Note website, you’ll find something to do every day for the rest of your life. If that’s what you want to do with your life.”
Sounds like a nice way to spend your life.
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Stay in touch with Blue Note HERE.
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