Don Was' next challenge

Star producer takes over legendary Blue Note label

Known as he is now for a couple of the best ears in the music business, it's no surprise that that the teenage Don Was was a fan of Blue Note records in the 1960s.

It was inarguably one of the best jazz labels, arguably the best. The label that had introduced Monk, Jimmy Smith's modern organ trio, the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and more, was cooking with new voices like Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and more.

So moved by the Blue Notes were the then-Don Fagenson and his buddy David Weiss that they would hop a bus on hearing that a city store might have, say, a new Andrew Hill not stocked at Northland or other shops closer to their Oak Park home turf. And the end of this bus adventure wouldn't be bringing the disc home. "We couldn't buy it," said Was. "We'd go look at it ... for like 25 minutes." 

In the intervening years, he's adopted the Was moniker (as did Weiss), entering the major league music world as leaders of the eccentric group Was (Not Was). From there Don Was has become one of the A-list, multi-Grammy-winning producers with credits from Bonnie Raitt to Elton John to the Rolling Stones — not to mention film directing-producing and numerous other projects.

And since the beginning of this year, he's been heading the label whose records he once was excited just to hold. 

"Oh, man, I do my job, but I pinch myself constantly," Was said the other day over the phone. "I really can't believe that I'm the caretaker of this legacy. It's a dream gig."

Though hurt by the corporate turmoil and reshuffling of the record industry in recent years, the Blue Note label was far from moribund when Was entered the picture. There were still big names in the roster, from pop-crossover star Norah Jones to faves of the jazz cognoscenti like Joe Lovano. But there wasn't a sense of label with direction, with a mojo working.

Then Was, who happened to be in New York producing John Mayer's last album, had breakfast with an old friend of two decades, Dan McCarroll, a former drummer and head of Capitol Music Group, whose domain includes Blue Note.

The conversation was mostly personal, non-musical stuff until ...

"The night before I'd come to see [singer] Gregory Porter at a club and I said, 'Do you still have Blue Note Records? If you do you should sign that guy, he's great.' And it all stemmed from that sentence," said Was.

And his marching orders as prez are simple: "I can do anything but lose money."


Some of the things he's done since taking the helm include bringing '60s star Wayne Shorter and the more recent star Terence Blanchard back to the fold. And bring in Van Morrison. And Aaron Neville — for a joint Keith Richards-Don Was production. 

He's also signed Detroiter Anita Baker, who had her breakthrough in the '80s. "She's amazing," said Was, recalling a recent sold-out Radio City Music Hall concert. "She's as brave as anybody out there, and the relationship she has to her audience is staggering."

If those latter artists seem out of the Blue Note tradition because they're not, strictly speaking, jazz cats, Was sees a different connection.

"We found the original mission statement that Alfred Lion wrote when he started the company [in 1939], and he was concerned with producing authentic music and presenting it in a non-sensationalized way," Was said. "In other words, find authentic music and don't sell out. So we broadened our definition in 2012 of what authentic music is.

"I think, for example, Van Morrison stepping up to the microphone and singing songs he wrote ... he brings such integrity and excellence to the proceedings that he's linked more to Wayne Shorter and the 1960s than people we call jazz singers today." 


Was has celebrated his Detroit ties at any number of times during his career, and his quest for authenticity at Blue Note has him at it again. 

Besides Baker, among the new signings is Jessica Hernandez — he calls her "one of the most charming artists I've met" — who's about to start recording her major label debut for Blue Note in El Paso. 

Although there's no contract yet, Was said talks are under way for what would be Marcus Belgrave's first major label recording as a leader. "Marcus is a giant, and he's respected all over the world," said Was. 

And Belgrave will be part of the Fifth Annual Don Was Revue at this year's Concert of Colors, this time taking a jazz slant. Bassist Marion Hayden is the "guest curator" for a lineup that brings back to town the MacArthur Award-winning violinist Regina Carter and the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Sheila Jordan. Saxophonist James Carter brings his tour schedule through his hometown to join the lineup that also includes Joan Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Amp Fiddler, the Dennis Coffey Trio and A. Spencer Barefield.  

And there's more to the proceedings than the concert.

"We decided that we would put together an anthology of Detroit music. We're going to rehearse in a recording studio and record songs and release it in an album that's a benefit for Focus: Hope. So, hopefully, this whole thing will draw some international attention to local music and economic conditions for some of the folks living in Detroit and hope."


For the guy who was excited just to hold Blue Note releases 40-plus years ago, there's the excitement of going into the Blue Note vaults and hearing the original tapes of those sessions. Serious fans would hope for more unreleased discoveries, but there's no luck there. "That's been pretty much mined," he said, although there are new digital-release initiatives, including a program for remastered, high-definition digital downloads that aim for "the best representation of the music and also the closest to the artists' intention."

That program will begin offering six records a month over the Internet.  

But while he wants to make those old sessions come alive, he reiterated, he doesn't want today's artists to go into the studio to sound like those sessions again. "It would be a mistake to keep remaking 1960s jazz," he said.

Music fans around the world have their ears cocked waiting to hear how he makes the label's sound anew in 2012 and beyond.


W. Kim Heron is Metro Times editor. Thanks to MT intern Paul Kitti for interview transcription. Send comments to [email protected]


20th Concert of Colors Schedule

Thursday, July 12
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. Doors 6:30 p.m. Free museum + exhibition admission. Music: Cultures Collide: Mike-E & AfroFlow + Friend.

Friday, July 13
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors 4 p.m. Free museum + exhibition admission. 7 & 8:30 p.m. De Temps Antan (two sets). 8 p.m. PuppetSlam Detroit!

Saturday, July 14
Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors 2 p.m. (Food trucks, Detroit-themed lounge, merch vendors, kids crafts, etc.)
Meijer Main Stage, Orchestra Hall
8:15 p.m. Fifth Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue — Detroit Jazz City Edition, 6 p.m. Tito Puente Jr. Orchestra (Latin jazz), 4 p.m. Malika Zarra (Algerian folk, rock).
Comerica Diversity Stage, The Music Box
9:15 p.m. Universal Xpression (Caribbean), 7 p.m. Black Mahal (Indian funk), 5 p.m. The Bell Beat (Indie rock), 3 p.m. Harper & Midwest Kind (Australian blues).
UM — Detroit Center/MSU Community Music School Outdoor Stage Hosted by D Brown
8 p.m. DJ Captn20 (dance, electronica), 7 p.m. BombaRica (jazz, folk), 6 p.m. Remnant (gospel), 5 p.m. Tim Ellerbe Project (Christian, gospel, jazz), 4 p.m. Keir Jackson (spoken word, eclectic), 3 p.m. Arts League Jazz Ensemble (jazz), 2 p.m. Community Records Battle of the Bands Winner: MSB. Atrium. 2 p.m. Detroit Fire Guild Belly Dancers.

Sunday, July 15
Max M. Fisher Music Center. Doors 2 p.m. (Food trucks, Detroit-themed lounge, merch vendors, kids crafts, etc.).
Meijer Main Stage, Orchestra Hall
8:30 p.m. George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic (funk), 6 p.m. Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits (African traditional, pop), 3:30 p.m. Detroit Symphony Orchestra wsg Wu Man and Eric Jacobsen (classical, Silk Road).
Comerica Diversity Stage, The Music Box
9 p.m. M.A.K.U. Sound System (Latin ska, funk), 7 p.m. Joe Reilly and the Community Gardeners (Native American fusion), 5 p.m. Musique Noire (classical fusion), 3 p.m. The Kreellers (Irish rock), 2 p.m. La'Ron Williams (storyteller).
UM — Detroit Center/MSU Community Music School Outdoor Stage
Hosted by B Def: 8 p.m. Ben Sharkey (jazz, swing), 7 p.m. L'Renee (R&B, soul). 6 p.m. DJ Christos (dance, electronica), 5 p.m. Chris Canas Band (blues). 4 p.m. Umojah International (Caribbean), 3 p.m. JO! (African dance), 2 p.m. A.C.T.I.N. U.P. (youth arts).

See for more details.

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