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WHAT DON WAS IS (A POLYMATH)

Interview: Chris Willman

For a guy whose surname has him living in the past, Don Was spends a lot of time in the present tense—not least of all as President of Blue Note Records, a position he’s held for the last three years. Was didn’t exactly work his way up from the mail room; before he joined the label as an heir apparent in 2011, he’d never even had a desk job. But he didn’t spend the previous six decades as a slacker, having parlayed his original gig as co-founder of Was (Not Was) into a producing career that’s found him being the Rolling Stones’ main man for the last two decades, on top of working with Brian Wilson, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and John Mayer. Now he’s bringing singer/songwriters like Ryan Adams into Blue Note while protecting the imprint’s core jazz legacy. Hits met up with the producer/prexy in his office in the Capitol Tower (launching pad for his first huge hit as a producer, Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 landmark Nick of Time) to find out if he really is the hardest-working man in show business, and ask whether he could score us an invite to a Thelonius Monk weed party. We succeeded on one out of two counts. 

When you came to Blue Note in 2011, it was a year before you were officially named president. What was your initial title when you came aboard?
Chief Creative Officer. Which I thought was good because it was a non sequitur. How do you officiate creativity? [Laughs.] My mother would have been very impressed, were she alive. It sounded official, but it was nonsense. It was really a novelty for me. You know, I never had a job until this. I produced records, and I played bass, but I didn’t think of it as going to work. My whole life for the first 59 years was about the avoidance of work, and in particular the lifting of heavy objects. And so it was quite novel to all of a sudden go into an office on Fifth Avenue, sit down at a marble conference table, and have all these people looking at me, like, "Okay, so, what do we do?" It was a trip. When you get to be 60, you think you’ve seen it all, and that you’ve got a handle on shit. And to be given a completely new adventure at that age… I feel like I was born to do this gig. 

There’s a long history of "creatives" being hired for top label gigs, and it’s not always a great fit in the end.
It is when it’s Blue Note, and when you’re with enlightened people. Steve Barnett is an enlightened cat. Lucian Grainge is a brilliant guy. Look, it would be very easy for the finance guys to look at this thing and go, "Why are you spending so much time on something that, if it’s really successful, may sell 100,000 records, maybe?" But then you have guys like Steve or Lucian, who understand the value of having great music that lasts a long time. It wouldn’t work with other guys. I would’ve been tossed out the window of the Tower a while ago. 

"I feel like I was born to do this gig."

In the 1960s, you grew up loving jazz and rock equally. How did that work, when those genres seemed to be at odds back then? You can’t have had many peers who didn’t think you were supposed to choose one camp or the other.
I didn’t separate them. I was into the Stones and Beatles, way into Bob Dylan, and I was into Blue Note. And I thought they were all cool, not just on a musical level, but sociologically and culturally, and even fashion-wise. All the Blue Note photos have this quality where you can’t see the walls; you just see smoke and saxophones, and these guys are dressed really cool. Frank Wolff, who was Alfred Lion’s partner, ran the company and shot all the photos. There’s a picture on the cover of Ornette Coleman’s Live at the Golden Circle in Stockholm where he’s wearing a top hat and a trench coat. And I actually had my mom go out and buy me a trench coat, and find a top hat, because I wanted to look like Ornette! It was the same thing as buying bell-bottoms. It spoke to me, and it represented a revolt against conformity, which I think is not just uniquely teenage, but also was exacerbated by those times. For me both jazz and rock & roll became inextricable from the politics of the time and the sense of revolution.

Don played stand-up bass on Blake Mills' Heigh Ho, released by sister label Verve.
Photo by Mike Piscitelli

Blue Note feels like the kind of boutique imprint that a lot of big labels used to keep around for credibility in the old days, before things got more mercenary. How anomalistic is the label, not just within the industry at large but the overall Capitol structure?
Well, it’s not an anomaly from where I sit, because no one is expecting Blue Note to come up with the next Katy Perry. We’re expected to make good records that make people feel something—and occasionally make a whole lot of people feel something and keep the doors open. Norah Jones is the best friend that jazz ever had. [Laughs.] Every jazz musician that’s come through this label should thank Norah Jones. She’s our Medici.

Coming aboard the label, did you have any worries that jazz purists—who didn’t necessarily know your bona fides with the genre—would think you would just turn Blue Note into another rock imprint and water down the historical jazz emphasis?
If people were standing back thinking, "Well, we’ll let this motherfucker fall on his face, and then we’ll kick him"…no one’s been kicking. I think they’d have to be happy with the output. We’ve re-signed Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Brian Blade, Jose James and Robert Glasper. We had an album come out [in 2013] with Bobby Hutcherson. Bobby has made like 27 albums; he's the only guy who has actually made albums at Blue Note under all the different regimes. Robbie Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran… The music speaks for itself. And we’ve really focused on the catalog, especially with the 75th anniversary in 2014 and the whole vinyl reissue program. We’re trying to get all our stuff back in circulation in all formats. We just opened this iTunes page that’s like a Blue Note store within iTunes, and eventually we’ll have our entire catalog up there, mastered for iTunes. It’s arranged so you can look for trumpeters, you can look for sax players. You’ll be able to get every Blue Note album that was ever recorded, as fast as we can remaster everything. We’ve got an app within Spotify too. When it first came out, the average time for most Spotify apps was five minutes before people drifted away and explored on their own, but people were averaging two and half hours on the Blue Note app. 

"Every jazz musician that’s come through this label should thank Norah Jones. She’s our Medici."

You’ve done a good number of non-jazz projects with the likes of Rosanne Cash, Ryan Adams, Benmont Tench, Elvis Costello & the Roots, Van Morrison… Do you have any rough quotas for how many Blue Note releases will be jazz and how much will be outside of that traditional sphere?
No. I’m limited only by how many records we can physically release a year. Great musicians approach us, and we just physically can only put out so many. It doesn’t matter if it’s Katy Perry or Ornette Coleman: There are certain things that you have to do for both people that take up man-hours. Last year we had about 10 jazz albums and maybe another five non-jazz artists. But I don’t discriminate—I just want great music. I’m determined that Blue Note’s gotta be the best jazz label in the world. We do about like one new jazz album a month. I don’t think we could handle any more than that; it’s unfair to the artists at some point. On some of the bigger acts like Annie Lennox, we get some help from the Tower here. In the tradition of the company, I try to act as if it was my own bread. But the beauty of the arrangement is that when we need some added muscle, we go upstairs and ask for help and we’ve got access to the whole Capitol music group. 

You produced Benmont Tench’s album for the label. Are you producing any jazz acts?
We have a great guitarist named Lionel Loueke, and I went to see his band play in New York, and it was just guitar, bass and drums, and it sounded amazing, really raw— so I thought, God, I hear this record done just exactly like this, you know? Almost like a punk-rock record; just put four mics up. I felt like I could even engineer and mix that album, because I could hear it in my head. So if I have a feeling like that, I should produce it. But one of the great revelations of running the company has been the discovery that I can just hire a great producer to do things and say, "Call me when it’s great." There was some point when, as a homeowner, I discovered you could pay people to mow the lawn for you.

Obviously your bosses don’t expect you to be behind a desk full-time.
Yeah, I think they know that I shouldn’t be forced to stay in the office. No one’s ever complained about anything I’ve done. I’m working on things for the Capitol group. I’m A&Ring Brian Wilson’s record for Capitol, for example. It’s not a Blue Note issue, but Brian and I go way back. I like the idea that I can be a resource for the larger group. 

Is Brian doing anything different this time out?
He’s got a few guest artists appearing with him. He gave Katy Perry a song with the middle section for her to write. She came to the studio and is really, really smart. Brian’s songwriting will blow your mind. I’ve known him for like 25 years, and I’ve never seen him this focused and writing this well. Before I was A&Ring it, he hired me to play bass on a couple of songs. There’s one I played on called "The Last Song," and when I heard the lyrics and realized what he was saying, the nature of the song, as I was playing bass on it, I got so choked up, I could barely play. 

"Don’t go for the cheap hit. It’s ended more careers than it’s helped."

You’re still a sought-after bandleader. If somebody wants an all-star band for a TV show or benefit, it’s either you or Paul Shaffer they call. Sometimes we even see you in one of these bands as just an instrumentalist for hire, like at the Americana Awards.
I did a Gregg Allman show in Atlanta with a whole bunch of people doing his stuff that came out on DVD; I did one with Dr. John. That’s what I’ve done most of my life is play bass. I feel at home doing that. To be honest with you, if you called me up and asked me to come play a wedding this weekend, I’d go do it, just for the opportunity to play for a few hours. 

Before you were a producer, you were on the artist side, with Was (Not Was). Were there experiences you had doing that come back to you when you’re on the other side of the desk?
All the time. David [Was] and I had a vision, and a lot of well-intentioned people said, "Well, if you just taper it in a little bit here, you could have hits." And I wish instead of reeling it in, we’d have cast the line out further. By reeling it in, we made ourselves common. And the thing that makes you different from everything else is your strength. And so, I learned that by compromising on Was (Not Was); we had hits, but the audience was loyal to the song, not to the artist, because the hits were not really representative of who we were. That stuck with me. There was a point when Bonnie and I did Nick of Time, where some executive listened to it and said, "I’m just not hearing a single; can’t you do a Motown cover?" And a combination of Bonnie’s very strong principles and my own experience with Was (Not Was) said, "Don’t do that. Stand for who you are and what you made here." And I still encourage people to do that. Don’t go for the cheap hit. You know, it’s ended more careers than it’s helped.

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