American Routes Shortcuts: Don Was

Jul 13, 2018

Don Was
Credit American Routes

Record maven Don Was developed an ear for music in the Motor City. He made his way into studio recording with his band, Was Not Was, teaching himself how to pick and mix music. After striking out for LA in pursuit of his destiny, Don began racking up Grammys as a producer. He’s worked alongside Bryan Wilson, the Rolling Stones and Randy Newman, among others.  In 2012, Don became president of Blue Note Records, the label that introduced him to his love of music.

Don Was: Hearing Joe Henderson, that was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I’ll never forget it. I was driving around with my mom- I was fourteen years old- and I heard the song called “Mode for Joe” by Joe Henderson, and I tuned in just as the saxophone solo was beginning, right? I don’t hear it really as a saxophone, certainly didn’t hear it as notes or anything having to do with technique. I heard Joe Henderson emitting these kind of anguished cries, and it was startling, and it was also highly emotional and communicative in such a way that I could really relate to it, even being, you know, a little eighth grade kid. I don’t know what I was so anguished about, but I could dig what Joe was saying. The statement I got from Joe Henderson was, “Don, you’ve got to groove in the face of adversity.” And I was so attracted to this music so I went out and bought an FM radio and I started listening to the station and I soon discovered that most of the songs I liked were coming from this one little independent label out of New York called Blue Note Records. I started collecting the records, I liked the way they looked, I liked the graphic design, I loved the black and white photos, you know they were so mysterious, man, like who are these guys sitting there in these dark rooms with the smoke and the saxophones and the cool clothes, I just wanted to be a part of it.

Nick Spitzer: We look back on Alfred Lion and his statement, “Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression by virtue of its significance,” and he’s talking about jazz.

DW: Yeah that’s right. Bruce Lundvall, one of the great recordmen of all time, he’s the one who turned me on to Alfred’s manifesto that you just read, and he said, “This is, you should know, this is what they set out to do so if you want to continue the legacy, just do that with modern music and you’ll be fine.” And the key word in that manifesto that you read is “authentic.” I thought, okay, that’s really what’s at the core of all these Blue Note records through, you know, in the previous 73 years till when I was there, whenever it was. So whether it’s Wayne Shorter stepping up to the mic and playing something authentic from the heart, or whether it’s Van Morrison or Norah Jones or Ryan Adams, what we’re looking for is authentic. And also, the real hallmark of Blue Note over the previous 73 years have been that in every era, the artists on the label were pushing the music forward.

NS: It seems to me that you have really persevered with artists partly because you’re respecting what they’d like to do. You help them, you don’t interfere with them, you’ve done the things you wanted to do, and so merit has won out an awful lot for you.

DW: That’s just something I personally have a predilection for as a record producer. I would rather work with an artist who has a vision and who stands for something and who is great and help them realize that vision.

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