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Listen Up! Don Was on Blue Note Records, the Meaning of Music and Which Basketball Positions the Rolling Stones Would Play (Metaphorically)

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Image by Gabi Porter

Don Was is one of our heroes, a triple O.G. in the music biz who doesn’t believe his own hype and never stopped being a fan. He’s still blown away by all the new styles in the world, and despite making classics has steered admirably clear of the mindset that “it was all so much better when…”

Now president of Blue Note Recordsthe American jazz label with the musically revolutionary back catalog (think Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk) not to mention peerless and influential graphic design by Reid Miles, whose name is one of the freshest Google image searches you’ll ever do–Don Was is basically the keeper of the cool

A fan’s dream.

Keep reading to learn which Blue Note albums he considers unheralded classics and which basketball positions each Rolling Stones member would play. 

Check this audio clip about Blue Note in the big picture:

Nordstrom Men’s Shop Creative Director Andy Comer: You started as president of Blue Note in 2012. How did that come about, and how did you approach it? What was your mindset at the time?

Don Was: It came about in a happenstance fashion. EMI had been considering closing Blue Note down as a new music company, and just making it a website, and selling catalog and T-shirts from that website. But there were some people who were really opposed to that. One of them was an old friend of mine, Dan McCarroll, who’s the president of Capitol Records. I was producing John Mayer’s record at the time, and had gone on a night off to see a singer named Gregory Porter up in Harlem. And he was amazing. Best thing I’d seen in a decade. So when I was speaking with Dan, I said, “Is Blue Note Records still part of Capitol Records? Because if it is, you should sign this guy.”

And so I happened to come up with a positive idea for furthering Blue Note’s legacy at a time when they needed that. He offered me a gig out of nowhere. I had no background. I’d really never had a job. That was my goal in life. To avoid that kind of heavy stuff. Really, I was happy, and I was almost there. I was 58, 59, and I thought all I had to do was play bass and make records. I was home free. But I couldn’t resist the offer to be a part of Blue Note. It was like someone asking if I wanted to join the Beatles.

I heard my first Blue Note record in 1966. The music spoke to me. It wasn’t about notes, or saxophone, or whatever. It was a conversation. And I was listening to what the musicians were saying to me. I just wanted to be like them. I looked at the album covers, the photos of dark rooms and smoke, and people in cool clothes. I was a teenager. I wanted to be those guys.

I remember Ornette Coleman, the At the Golden Circle album. I went out and got a top hat like him, a trench coat. I didn’t look as good as him, but nobody does.

So basically Blue Note had an enormous impact on you as a musician.

As a musician and as a human being. Blue Note has great meaning for people. The whole vibe of Blue Note–even if you don’t know the music or love the music–the album covers, the look of the music, the black-and-white images all come together to connote coolness, excellence and authenticity. Those are the words that keep coming up. And my mission is to keep that going. To make music that lives up to that. And maybe help people understand that you don’t have to take three years of music theory to get into these records. In fact, maybe you’re better off without it. Jazz shouldn’t intimidate people.

That’s a really interesting point because I think some people do feel intimidated by it, because it seems like jazz is operating on a more advanced musical plane.

There may be musical theory behind it that’s advanced, but it’s not necessary to know about that to appreciate it. In fact, if you’re required to know about that to appreciate it, there’s something wrong with the music. Because music should be speaking to you on an emotional level. Good music of any style takes a personal feeling that the artist has and makes it a universal feeling. It provides a way for people from all walks of life to project their inner life onto the music. And in the end, it helps them to make sense out of their own life. It’s heavy duty.

When it comes to presiding over a label with 76 years of history but that needs to function in the present day, are you aiming to modernize anything?

Change and evolution has been an important part of the Blue Note legacy. It started in 1939, recording stride jazz piano players. But within eight years they were recording Thelonious Monk, who turned stride jazz playing upside down and changed the whole nature of jazz piano playing. They signed the riskiest, most outside cat and made him part of the mainstream of the music. And they repeated that over and over. In the 1950s they got Art Blakey and Horace Silver to form the Jazz Messengers. Art Blakey was throwing in backbeats, which you never heard in jazz. It was a revolutionary move. It would get you kicked off the bandstand at bebop clubs. That was like, R & B. And Horace Silver would play these funky gospel licks, which was also revolutionary. But it became hard bop, and by the end of the 1950s everybody was imitating that.

And in the 1960s, guys like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock started messing with this modal thing they’d found with Miles Davis. It was a different sound of music. It was revolutionary, but again, it became part of the mainstream of music. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor represented the far extreme of what was going on in music in the 1960s, but Blue Note released them. Even people who seemed inside, like Jimmy Smith, who was playing funky jazz on the Hammond B-3 organ. What he did with the organ was absolutely revolutionary, even if it was incredibly popular. Nobody had gotten those sounds before. So what Blue Note really represents is changing the face of music and keeping it going.

So a guy like Robert Glasper, for instance. He’s young enough that he’s grown up listening to hip-hop music, but he’s also studied pure jazz. He’s absorbed the tradition and has found a way to express it in his own voice. So if he’s playing Thelonious Monk and a stream of consciousness improvisation comes into his mind, he’s thinking of [hip-hop producer] J Dilla. That’s a guy addressing his times and creating something new.

I’m a musician, playing improvisational music for 50 years or something. And the one thing you do know as a musician is you want to play it differently every time you play the song. You should learn it, then express yourself. It’s all about change. On a cellular level, music is about change.

You touched on the iconic cover art in the Blue Note catalog. In a lot of ways, that artwork has been as influential as some of the music itself. What to you is the DNA of the Blue Note visual aesthetic? And how important to you is an album cover?

I think they’re really important. To be honest, I heard the music, but as I started experimenting and choosing jazz records to listen to as a teenager, I’d go with the cool cover. I didn’t know the musicians, so the one with the cool cover must be a cool album, right? The thing about Blue Note album covers was that 90% of them were designed by one guy, with a certain aesthetic sense. So there’s a unified theme. And he reflected the music inside. It was cool stuff he was drawing. I think even now in advertising, you can see Blue Note lettering. If you want to say “this is cool,” you use the look that Reid Miles came up with. I guess he was just a cool guy.

I heard a story once that a lot of his work on the actual coloration of the covers came down to that it may have been cheaper to print them on that very limited color scheme.

Yes. I think it was just two or three colors. It was a real hand-to-mouth operation.

You mentioned some of the big names in Blue Note, from Miles to Thelonious to Coltrane. But Blue Note has a rich history of bringing more under-the-radar artists to the forefront. You ask most people what their favorite Blue Note releases are, and a lot of similar titles pop up. But I’m sure you have another list in your head. What about unheralded classics? What are some of those, to you?

Underrated is Larry Young, Unity. Which features Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones playing along with Larry Young, a B-3 player, who took what Jimmy Smith did and incorporated the kind of modal scales that Herbie Hancock was playing and just took it to a whole other level.

Kenny Drew Undercurrent is something I’ve been listening to a lot. Joe Henderson Mode for Joe is actually the first jazz record I ever heard, tuned into the radio when I was 14. I heard it right when the saxophone solo started. With these anguished cries, you can tell this is a guy feeling some pain. And then the drums kick in and it starts grooving. And then he starts grooving, and I thought, “Wow, it’s not about the saxophone, it’s not about music theory. It’s about anguish and grooving on through that. He’s talking to me about my life.” I was 14, so whatever was bugging me–biology class or whatever–wasn’t what Joe Henderson was dealing with, but it brought me great comfort and made me think, “I gotta know more about this.” I started investigating jazz and found most of the stuff I liked came from this one little label out of New York.

For our 75th anniversary [last year] we started a vinyl reissue campaign. Re-released a bunch of stuff, remastered it so it sounds like when it was originally released. I had to choose the first 100. The catalog department wanted the bestsellers, of course. Critics and collectors wanted things that had been out of print for a long time. And I wanted to include some of my favorites that meant a lot to me. The first 50 were uncontroversial. After that it gets very subjective. That’s the first 100, not the only 100. We’re doing five a month, and we’re going to try to get them all out. The first 100 run out in October 2015. At that point, we’ll start the second 200. We’re not going to leave anything out. But if you want to know the ones I liked, the first 100 are pretty much my favorites.

What do you make of the resurgence of vinyl as a format?

I love it! I love the sound of vinyl. There’s a definite thing to it. In some ways it’s anti-hi-fi because the quality is degraded, but there’s an extra thing there, a warmth, and I think it makes you feel good to listen to vinyl. There’s also something to be said for seeing moving parts, not a box with a light on it. You don’t see digital files ever. But when I listen to a turntable with my kids, we sit around it like it’s a campfire. It’s a communal experience. You share music a little better when you can see the reproduction device. Sounds goofy but it’s true. I also think there’s something about 15-minute sides. Everybody’s got 15 minutes to listen to music. A 72-minute CD? Who’s got that much time? Not everyone. It’s a different thing, getting these 15-minute short stories. It gave albums a little more value. Not just for the buck, but emotional value.

You have a long track record as a producer, from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones to Dylan to Iggy Pop, and that’s just a handful. Are there elements of your approach that are consistent from project to project, or is each one a blank slate?

The actual mechanics of how you produce a record are different every time, and so you have to approach it as a blank slate. But the overall approach I like to have is to work with artists I have tremendous respect for, that I don’t mind losing an argument to. I need to believe in the artist. I like when they have a very strong vision and point of view, and to help them get it out of their heads. I find it to be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Is there a release that you’re particularly proud of as a producer?

There are a number. The four records I produced with Bonnie Raitt I’m very proud of. I know those songs meant a lot to listeners. Strangers come up to me at the airport and tell me, “My wife used to play ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ and just cry and cry.” I feel like, you shouldn’t put out stuff you don’t like. So I’ve got strong feelings about all of ’em.

You also have a long track record as a musician yourself. I remember seeing you play bass at the Grammys with Paul and Ringo. Why is the bass your instrument of choice?

Good question. I think it’s a supportive instrument for the most part. It’s unassuming. It doesn’t take your ear most of the time, but you’d notice it if it wasn’t there. That’s how I approach music. You’re part of a team. And like in basketball, the best teams are the ones that pass the ball a lot. I’ve seen games where Kobe scores 70 points and the Lakers still lose. The way you win is by being a team player. The basketball metaphor carries over to bands. To five-piece bands. That’s how I think about the Rolling Stones, a great basketball team.

When I produced the Stones’ album “A Bigger Bang” in 2004, I was reading Phil Jackson’s book “Sacred Hoops” at the time. And somewhere in there I realized, “Oh my god, the Stones are just like a basketball team.” At breakfast, I’d read them bits of the book. They’d shout me down and say, “Get out of here!” They didn’t want to hear it, but they knew it was right. They totally listen to each other. They’re aware of what the other guys are doing all the time. It’s a very generous, warm and kind of jocular energy when they play. I think of Mick as the center, and the two guitars as guards. Keith is the point guard.

And Wyman is the power forward?

Yeah, that sounds right.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a musician?

I’ve gotten a lot of advice. I’m trying to think of the best piece of advice. Well, there’s a bass player in Detroit named Will Austin–great jazz bass player. He came to a gig I played when I was 19, and he could tell I was sticking pretty closely to safe patterns. He was the one who told me, “Don’t play the same thing you played last night. Clear your mind and think about it differently.” That was good advice because playing jazz clubs all the time in Detroit, you play a lot of the same songs. And it can become rote, playing “Autumn Leaves” again. But there are all kinds of ways to approach it. That stuck with me.

When was the last time you heard music that was truly new and exciting?

Friday. I’d been in Paris, and the guy from the French Blue Note company took me to see a band called GoGo Penguin and a singer named Fatima. So we jumped on a plane Friday night. You should listen to Fatima’s records. There’s a label in London: Egllo. They come out of an electronic background, but are interested in jazzy things. It’s an interesting way to approach jazz. Doesn’t sound like anything you heard. And GoGo Penguin, an acoustic piano trio, improvisational, unlike anything I’ve heard before. On any given day in a good music city, you can hear something that’ll blow your mind–if you’re open to it.