January 19, 2020

Don Was’ Excellent Adventure: On his new gig as president of Blue Note Records and his old job as Rolling Stones collaborator

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Don Was, the multi-Grammy award-winning producer, a close collaborator of the Rolling Stones whose band Was/Not Was still plays the occasional gig; and who last year became president of legendary Jazz label Blue Note Records, is easy to spot in a crowd, or a police lineup for that matter, because he’s the tall guy with the dreadlocks wearing the hat and shades and the flipflops. I’ve known Don for more than a decade (our wives play poker together) and I am genuinely delighted whenever I’m lucky enough to hang out with him. The following interview for Purple Clover was conducted recently over the phone.

Tom Teicholz: How does it feel, after all this time as a musician and producer, to be the head of a storied and famous jazz label?

Don Was: Well, a couple of things. When I was a teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Blue Note Records was as important to me as the Stones or Dylan. It was more than cool music. It represented a sociological force. It was everything from the artwork … those incredible black and white photos. I really wanted to be one of those guys in the photos with the black walls that you couldn’t see and the smoke in the room. So to be associated with that company at this stage in my life and to be the caretaker of the aesthetic — not just the legacy but to also continue it – I’m moved every day that that’s my gig.

TT: Blue Note will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. What plans do you have?

DW: We’ve got all kinds of things, from concerts to special [record] releases to – I’m meeting with some clothing manufacturers who want to [do] a line of Blue Note clothing to go specifically in one chain [and that would be] a Blue Note boutique. We’ve got some great releases coming out – a Terence Blanchard record that just came out … in the fall we’ve got Elvis Costello and the Roots, the Experiment with Robert Glasper, a new Amos Lee, and a record from Government Mule with Warren Haynes. We’re the world’s best jazz label but we have all kinds of stuff that fits our aesthetic. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish [refugees] from Germany who came over in 1939, started the label [in the words of their manifesto] to record and release authentic music that really doesn’t cater to the trends. In that sense, Van Morrison is as perfect a Blue Note artist as Wayne Shorter who made a great record this year for us – as did Van.

TT: Having produced the Rolling Stones albums Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997) and A Bigger Bang (2005), and as the man brave enough to cull through the reported 300 hours of recordings from the bands respite in the South of France for last year’s release of an expanded “Exile on Main Street” – are there any other re-releases in the pipeline?

DW: If they choose to do so, there are probably at least a dozen albums of material that could be finished if they want to do it. It’s certainly there.

TT: The Rolling Stones just performed in LA. When they started the 50th anniversary tour in New York, it seemed like they were only going to do a few dates – but they keep adding new ones. Do you have any sense of how long this tour will last?

Don Was: They’ll continue ‘till they drop. The simple fact that most people lose sight of, is that musicians live to play. That’s what we do. The rest of the time you’re waiting to play.

TT: Yeah, but they spent a fair amount of time not playing with each other before this tour.

DW: I don’t see why they’d stop. I’ve had the privileged opportunity to play bass with them on a number of occasions and it’s really the greatest band ever. It’s so much fun to play with them. When you get swept in that and become part of the whole, there’s nothing like it. I understand why they’d want to keep doing it after all this time. It’s really got nothing to do with money or fame or attention or even the energy that surrounds the tour. Playing music with those guys is intoxicating.

TT: As a producer you’ve worked with artists in every genre, from country artists like Merle Haggard and Lady Antebellum to Bob Dylan, Ziggy Marley, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr and recently Aaron Neville, to jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter. What makes a good producer across all those genres?

DW: The underlying aesthetic foundation behind making records transcends styles. It’s really about making music that puts people in touch with their own feelings. It helps them make sense out of the crazy lives that we lead.

TT: When you are working with these different artists, what is the quality you bring to the table?

DW: To be honest, it varies from artist to artist. But one of the most important things a producer can do is create an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks, going out on a limb, and trying new ways to express themselves.

TT: Last question: I recall being at your fiftieth birthday and you were a little freaked out about hitting that milestone. But it seems that since then, your life has gotten a whole lot more interesting, in ways you never could have predicted.

DW: I’m really grateful to be sixty and have this whole new adventure. This is a business – I’ve been involved with music but I never had a job of any kind before. I never had a real job. It’s such an adventure to learn all about this and to have something new and to have something that you love and that you’re enthusiastic about. It’s been a real gift at age 60 to get this whole new adventure. Fifty! I don’t even remember being fifty! (laughs). I think anything under fifty-two is just training.

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