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Don Was: The Music Is Paramount

Don Was: The Music Is Paramount
R.J. DeLuke By

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Growth and revolution are the purest outcome of the jazz experience —Don Was
The president of the iconic Blue Note Records, the man who is stewarding the label as it marches into it's 75th anniversary year celebration, comes from the wrong side of the tracks, in a sense. He's not a gut in a suit. He came up through the trenches as a working musician. He liked jazz and played gigs in bunches during his years in his hometown of Detroit. But his adaptability to all kinds of music brought him to fame in rock, R&B, country and funk.

Don Was, co-leader of the 1980s group Was (Not Was) and producer of every Rolling Stones album since 1993, took the baton from Bruce Lundvall in 2012, the latter having spearheaded the revival of the label in 1985. They walk in the footsteps of the fabled Alfred Lion, an immigrant who founded the label in 1939 and steered it into a special place in American music and culture. Lion was ably assisted by Francis Wolff, also an immigrant, who blended his extraordinary photography skills with his producing activities.

The place that Blue Note carved out by the 1950s and 1960s is revered by musicians—both those fortunate enough to have recorded for the label, and younger musicians inspired by those recordings.

"I think they were radical records," said Was, who was a teenager in the '60s when he discovered the vinyl with the smoldering photos by Wolff and the cover design of Reid Miles that often drew eyes to the product before ears. "Even if it was something inside, like Jimmy Smith. What Jimmy Smith was doing on the organ, it was radical. Never mind Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor (1966) or Ornette Coleman At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm (1965), which is actually one of the first Blue Note records I ever got. It was radical, but they were so good about the total package. The playing, the writing, but also the way Rudy [Van Gelder, engineer] recorded the music. The way Reid Miles designed the package and Francis Wolff's photographs. It had quality, ya know? It was one of those few labels you could just drop the needle down and wherever it landed ...You may not know who the leader was on the session, but you recognized it was a Blue Note album and you could probably pick out players from the repertory company."

Was looked at with wonder, like it was sterling silver and not cardboard. Wolff's artful photos of musicians in action, but the backgrounds dark and mysterious. "You can't see the walls. You don't know what kind of space these guys are in. There's cigarette smoke everywhere. They're dressed really cool. Holding a saxophone. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be one of them. It had incredible allure. Not just music to listen to, but as a lifestyle. That's what it meant to me then," says Was, now 61.

Now that he's filling big shoes, the Blue Note brand "means the same thing, except I feel a responsibility to maintain that. That's the only real difference. To this day, when I put on Speak No Evil [Wayne Shorter, 1965]. From my teenage years, that's always been the music I went to when I lost myself or lost my way or was just feeling blue. When I put that record on, I was in touch with myself and my feelings by the time the side was over, which was about 15 minutes or so. I want it to still be a record company that brings that kind of relief to people," he says in earnest. "I want the music to be released to mean something. Not just there because someone has an idea. We try to have every record, hopefully, get under somebody's skin and become part of the fabric of their lives."

To that end, Was seeks musicians with something to say. He's not trying to get the same groove, musically, that Lion and company were so successful at. He seeks the same impact. A peek at something different. Music of today, and maybe a glimpse of the future. Something that can elicit emotion.

"There was a moment in time where, if you put on the first Jazz Messengers album, the one with both Horace Silver and Art Blakey, you hear Horace Silver throwing in funky church stuff on piano. Art Blakey's playing back beat. You'd have gotten kicked off the band stand at Minton's [famed Harlem night spot where early bebop was hatched] for doing that. If you listen to it now, it sounds very mainstream and conservative. But it was a radical album when it was made and it was pushing the boundaries," says Was. "As a musician who played improvisational music night after night for years, I live at the first rule of improvisational music: don't play the same thing twice. You should always be pushing the boundaries."

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