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Blue Note Label Boss, Don Was, Is Not Ready To Give Up On Jazz: Forbes

Blue Note Label Boss, Don Was, Is Not Ready To Give Up On Jazz: Forbes


MAR 13, 2018 @ 09:00 AM 1,746 The Little Black Book of Billionaire Secrets
Blue Note Label Boss, Don Was, Is Not Ready To Give Up On Jazz

Founded by Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion in 1939, Blue Note Records has been synonymous with extraordinary jazz since its inception. If you don’t know the name, you’ve probably heard at least one of the albums they commissioned from genre titans like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Grant Green, Eric Dolphy—the list goes on ad infinitum.
If you’ve somehow avoided jazz your entire life, you’ve likely seen (or seen the influence of) Blue Note album covers: the vibrant, brilliantly designed combinations of text, image, and color that, in many ways, gave credence to the words “cover art.” Or, if you’ve seen a black-and-white photo of the above-mentioned artists in the studio, you can probably thank Francis Wolff for lighting/shooting those now-storied sessions. While labels like Verve, Prestige, Concord, Argo, and Impulse! deserve equal commendation for their contributions to one of the greatest American artforms, you could argue that none defined “cool” like Blue Note.
Though Blue Note could’ve coasted on the material they released in their first forty years, they’ve continued to release new records to an increasingly dwindling jazz-listening public. Thus, when former president/CEO Bruce Lundvall left the label in 2012 due to failing health (he’s since passed away), Blue Note’s parent company, Capitol Records, considered relegating the label to reissues alone. 
Fortunately, Don Was, the Detroit-born musician (Was (Not Was)) and record producer (The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, and more) took the helm. Since arriving, he’s culled rising talents like Gregory Porter, Trombone Shorty, and GoGo Penguin, continued working with innovative, genre-defying artists like Robert Glasper and signed revered elder statesmen such as Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Blue Note’s latest endeavor is the Blue Note Review (BNR), a subscription-based, biannual vinyl box set. In many ways, the BNR is a bridge between the label’s past and future. The inaugural edition of BNR, Peace, Love & Fishing, which was announced late last year, features a re-issue of Blue Mitchell’s 1963 album Step Lightly, which never received a proper U.S. release, and an LP of new/previously unreleased songs by everyone from the Blue Note All-Stars and Dr. Lonnie Smith to the Wayne Shorter Quartet and Charles Lloyd & The Marvels. 
The music and elegant packaging are complemented by a thoughtfully edited zine. Inside, you’ll find comedian/actor/jazz-enthusiast Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) interviewing Wayne Shorter about recording with Miles Davis and Art Blakey, as well as a comic illustration of the time Stanley Turrentine choked Alfred Lion for a few dollars (as told by the late Bobby Hutcherson) and a poem by Jack Grapes. To top it off (and perhaps justify the $200 pricetag), there are gorgeous prints of black-and-white photos of Wayne Shorter and Stanley Turrentine taken by Francis Wolff, as well as a turntable mat and a John Varvatos-designed scarf. On paper, some of the above might sound corny, but Was and Blue Note have imbued it all with the label’s ageless aesthetic.
In early February, I spoke to Was about the BNR, the L.A. jazz renaissance, the future of the genre, and much more (e.g., a Shades of Blue sequel). Calling from his office inside the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, where he works with a dedicated four-person team, Was was somehow both mellow and excited, his voice like an enthused whisper. Throughout our conversation, as he discussed the un-cool truths about running a jazz label in 2018, his candor was unwavering. More importantly, his affection and reverence for the label came through in each answer, many of which are filled with references to artists and albums that we would be all be wise to listen to or revisit. For now, it looks like Blue Note couldn’t be in better hands. 
Max Bell: When we tried to connect last week, you were on a ship. If you don’t mind my asking, what were you doing?
Don Was: [laughs] I was hosting the Blue Note at Sea Cruise, which, despite everything you might know about cruises, was a whole lot of fun. There were about 2,500 Blue Note devotees on board, and there was some awesome music, too. On my favorite night, Charles Lloyd & the Marvels came on board in Ocho Rios. I sat through both sets, which were excellent. Then I walked to the back of the ship and the Blue Note All-Stars (Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott, Lionel Loueke, Ambrose Akinmusire, Marcus Strickland) were playing. That was a great night of music, and every night was on that level. 
It was seven days. We do it every year. We do it in conjunction with the Blue Note clubs, which we don’t own and are not actually affiliated with but have become quite friendly with.
Bell: What do you make of the current renaissance of the L.A. jazz scene? I’m thinking of guys like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Miles Mosely, Josef Leimburg…
Was:  Of course. Kamasi is a friend. I know Miles, too. There’s some exciting things happening here. That Low End Theory was going for a while. That was pretty happening. I like what Adrian Younge and his guys are doing. They got this club called Jazz is Dead on Figueroa in Highland Park. He’s also got a great studio, too. We’re going to do some work there. I think there’s a next generation thing that’s uniquely L.A. based and has a very distinctive sound and distinctive roots. 
Bell: If I have my jazz history correct, I believe Ornette Coleman and several other major players were based in L.A. for a while. 
Was: A lot of guys were based out here. Charles Lloyd just sent me a picture of him and Bobby Hutcherson playing in a club in Pasadena in 1957 or something like that. I can’t remember the name of the club, but it’s not there anymore, obviously. Eric Dolphy came from out here. Bobby Hutcherson told me that his sister used to go out with Eric Dolphy. These guys all played together. There was definitely a scene here.
But the current scene needs a place, a central grounding location. If you think of the Village in the early 60s, there was a series of clubs. Or even in the 70s, there were things on 7th Avenues. That’s missing right now. And I think that’s the problem with L.A. and being part of a sprawl.
BellHow do you feel about jazz crossing over into rap once again? I’m thinking specifically of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Was: It’s the way it should it should be, man. People think that to appreciate jazz you have to take ten years of music theory. Really, jazz or any kind of improvisational music, when done right, is simply a conversation without words. If you think about your own conversations at parties, [they’re all improvisation]. You’re talking about any number of things that you’ve read, experienced, or absorbed. Robert Glasper, who is on Blue Note and played on that Kendrick album, is a great example of someone who will play a Thelonious Monk song and then quote J Dilla and a McDonald’s commercial in the course of a solo. You don’t need to identify the mode he’s playing in. You just follow his stream of consciousness and either it speaks to you or it doesn’t. 
I do feel that artists should reflect the times they live in and the milieu that they’re a part of. And I don’t know how you live in these times without absorbing some hip-hop culture, beats, and vibes. You have to reflect that back. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing. What I’m not partial to, and I don’t think a lot of other people are partial to it either, is to keep looking backwards and keep imitating what happened in 1965. What happened in 1965 is amazing, and we have an incredible catalog of music from 1965 that you can listen to anytime you want. But we should be looking forward and not doing karaoke from one generation to the next.
The reason that the Blue Note catalog, which goes back 79 years, is so enduring and relevant is because that’s what the musicians always did. In fact, the guy who founded the label, Alfred Lion, made it his point to find people who were looking forward. Because Thelonious Monk has become such a part of the musical vocabulary his early work may not seem as revolutionary as it was in 1948, but what Thelonious Monk did on those Blue Note albums radicalized the way people approach composition, soloing, and voicing chords. The same goes for Art Blakey and Horace Silver and the hard bop guys in the ’50s. It was radical music. In the ’60s, what Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock were doing with furthering the modal experiments and Miles Davis’s band—that was radical. Eric Dolphy Out to Lunch! That’s radical. Ornette Coleman’s At the Golden Circle Stockholm, that’s radical.
BellBefore you worked for Blue Note, what was your relationship with the label?
Was: I’ve been a fan of Blue Note since I was 14 years old, which would be 1966. I remember the moment I discovered it. I was running errands with my mom, and she left me in the car with the keys so I could play the radio. I landed on a radio station, which was then called WDET. It was the jazz station in Detroit, and I was unaware of it. I came in during a piece as the saxophone solo came in on what I later discovered was “Mode for Joe” by Joe Henderson, who was also from Detroit. And the solo was just like the anguished cries that sort of transcended the vocabulary of saxophone playing. It wasn’t about notes or technique. He was speaking to me through this thing. About 20 seconds into the solo, the drummer, Joe Chambers, comes in and starts playing this really swinging groove. It sort of calms Joe Henderson down and he falls into the groove. It was like Joe Henderson was saying, “Don, you’ve got to groove in the face of adversity.” It really spoke to me. 
I went out the next week and bought a portable FM radio so I could listen to it in the house. There wasn’t a whole lot going on for FM radio in 1966, mostly muzak and some simulcasting from AM. But there was this great jazz station where the DJ, a guy named Ed Love, who is like 90 and still on the air in Detroit, would back announce every record and tell you who all the players were. I soon learned that a lot of the music that I liked was coming from this little label Blue Note. 
Back in those days, record stores were owner-operated, independent. The stock in each record store would vary according to the taste of the owner. Before we could drive, we would get on buses and ride across Detroit and call around and see what albums the stores had. If they had a Blue Note record that we hadn’t seen or heard before, we’d get on a bus and ride for 45 minutes just to hold the record. You couldn’t necessarily buy it, but you could read the liner notes, check out the personnel, see what songs they were doing, and maybe con the owner into breaking the plastic wrap and actually playing the record for you.
It wasn’t just the music, either. It had something to do with the art, the covers, and the black-and-white photography. Look at those pictures taken by Francis Wolff, one of the founders of the company, at all of those recording sessions. They were lit in a crazy way and you could never see the walls. It just looked like they were in these black rooms. You’d see the cigarette smoke, the cool clothes, and a saxophone—to a 14 of 15-year-old, it was so romantic, man. I just wanted to be in that room with those cats.
BellYou took over as president of Blue Note in 2012. Has the job been everything you anticipated?
Was: [laughs] Let me put it this way. I’m not saying it’s not challenging, and I’m not saying I was born to read a profit/loss statement, but I love the gig. I feel a real responsibility to the musicians who are currently on the roster and to the musicians who came before to make sure that the music is heard. The founders of the label wrote a little manifesto in 1939 that kind of laid out the philosophy of what they were trying to do. In essence, it was about a search for authentic forms of expression and unlimited artistic freedom for the artist. I take that manifesto very seriously. 
I’m sitting here at the office at Capitol Tower now and there’s this picture of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff on the wall. Just below that is a shot of Bruce Lundvall, who took over in 1984 and ran the company for 30 years until his health kind of gave way. He retired, which opened the door for me to come in. I’m proud to represent what they stood for and make sure it’s maintained, and keep the doors open during what is essentially a time of tumultuous transition in the music business. That’s a challenge, but so far they haven’t closed us down. And I’m really proud of the artists that we have and the records they’re making.
BellWhat are some of your proudest moments in your six years with the label?
Was: It was incredible to re-sign Wayne Shorter, who is a great hero of mine and made some albums that are arguably the crown jewel of the Blue Note catalog in the ’60s. That was one of the first things I did. I also brought in Charles Lloyd and Dr. Lonnie Smith, who I used to see in Detroit a lot in the ’70s. 
But then there’s another couple of generations of guys who are here. Ambrose Akinmusire. Brian Blade, who is just an incredible drummer. Chris “Daddy” Dave just put out a new album. Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott, Ravi Coltrane, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter. 
I actually got the job because of Gregory Porter. I had gone to see him when I was in New York producing a record in 2011. I had a night off and went to a club near Harlem called Smoke and saw Gregory Porter. The next day I was having breakfast with an old buddy of mine named Dan McCarroll, who I knew as a drummer years earlier. He became the president of Capitol Records, and when we were having breakfast I asked him if Blue Note was still part of Capitol. Then I said that if it was, he should sign Gregory Porter.
Unbeknownst to me, he told that they were considering shutting Blue Note down. With Bruce Lundvall retiring, no one quite knew how to push the aesthetic forward. There was some talk about making it a website that just sold catalog and Blue Note t-shirts. I think that anyone that walked in with an idea that day would’ve been offered the gig. [laughs] It was just chance that I brought this up, and he offered me the job over breakfast. It was irresistible, man. 
Before Blue Note, I was a musician and a producer, neither of which I considered to be work. It was always fun. My goal in life had been to avoid having a job. I almost made it, but I couldn’t resist [laughs].
Bell: Are there any contemporary jazz labels that you look to for inspiration or that you think are instrumental in keeping the genre alive?
Was: Anybody who can keep the doors open deserves respect and awe. It’s really tough to be able to fund the records. If actual sales diminish to a certain point, then you can’t really afford to pay to make good records. Records that would routinely sell 100,000 fifteen years ago now sell 3,000. You have to be very creative and determined to keep going in the face of that. To me, that’s the fun part, coming up with new stuff. 
The Blue Note Review is an example of what makes it fun and how you respond to the challenge of diminishing sales. We were just trying to evoke that same feeling for fans, the same feeling that I got with my buddies when we’d ride around and hold those vinyl albums. It was a tactile, experiential encounter with the music. The accoutrement—the artwork, the photos, the liner notes—gave you a greater sense of connection with the music. We were like, “How can we do that when even CD booklets are becoming rare?” If you can even open up a CD booklet, you need a f**king magnifying glass to make any connection with anything.
BellOn a financial note, what’s the Blue Note policy on sampling? Really, what’s it going to cost to sample some Art Blakey drums in 2018?
Was: [laughs] That’s been nice financially, at least for the Art Blakey estate. We’ve been heavily sampled, and I think that that’s one of the things that enabled this bridge. The late 60s and early 70s stuff that had these great grooves underneath and brought a new generation of music fans into the world of Blue Note. So we encourage sampling.
The biggest problem is that up until 1972 we didn’t have multi-track tapes, so everything was mixed live. Except for a few odd drum breaks, you can’t isolate Art Blakey and loop him. 
Bell: Would you say the label is pretty artist-friendly when people ask for sample clearance?
Was: Let me put it this way. Blue Note is part of Universal Music Group, which has a different division that handles all that. They don’t call me up. But they would call if they were having a problem. And there were a couple times—it wasn’t for samples, but it was for films where people wanted to use the music and couldn’t afford the rates. We intervened and tried to make it happen. We want the music to live on.
A big success story was Us3 that did “Cantaloop,” that was the first million-selling record in the history of the label. What happened was this DJ out of the UK came to Bruce Lundvall and said, “Would it be okay if we sampled ‘Cantaloupe Island’ and build a new track on it?” Bruce heard it and said, “Not only is it okay, but we’d like to open our vaults to you and have you do a whole album.” We also had Madlib do a whole album that was very successful. 
Bell: Since you brought it up, have you ever approached Madlib about doing a sequel to Shades of Blue?
Was: He has an open door here at Blue Note. Anytime he wants to, we would love to have him do part two.
Bell: I’m so happy to print those words.
Was: [laughs] Good. I hope he reads it and calls. I’ll let you know.
Bell: Are you familiar with the hashtag #ListenToMoreJazz?
Was: Nope, but I’m going to be. [laughs]
Bell: It was started by a fellow music journalist, Barry Schwartz. He uses the hashtag on Twitter to hip people to jazz songs he enjoys, as well as songs on his #ListenToMoreJazz Spotify playlist, which has some excellent stuff on it.
Was: Sounds cool, man. I’m definitely going to check that out.
Bell: The selection of Blue Note playlists on Spotify is pretty robust. Who curates those playlists? Are they successful? 
Was: They’re all done by a guy named Cem Kurosman, who has worked at Blue Note for 20 years. He’s our senior  guy, although he’s younger than me. He’s really an authority on the music and loves it, and he makes those playlists. He’s done an incredible job, and Spotify loves what he’s done. He’s very comprehensive, and he continues to make more of them. In the future, that’s probably how people are going to listen to Blue Note music. The way he is categorizing them and arranging them is great. 
Bell: Apart from the Blue Note Review, are you guys focusing more on digital these days?
Was: We’re focused on everything these days. We have the 80th anniversary of the label coming up, and we’re planning to announce a very big vinyl campaign towards the end of the year. For our 75th anniversary we did 100 titles that were priced under $20. We tried to keep it reasonable so people could take a chance. We’ll be doing more of that, but also some extensive audiophile things.
Bell: The label still puts out a significant number of reissues each year, correct?
Was: Yeah. The last couple of years have been less, so we’re going to use the 80th anniversary to set up an extensive reissue campaign that will last for years.
Bell: In the the Blue Note Review insert, you mention Jack White and Third Man Records. Is it fair to say they were a big influence in your decision to do these box sets?
Was: I love what he does. I’ve known Jack for a number of years, and he’s such an impressive and imaginative cat. He’s got a real profound vision. I was just at the Third Man store in Detroit, and it’s like Willy Wonka’s factory. It’s this wonderland of cool s**t. You walk to the back and he’s got this spotless record-pressing plant. You stand in the store behind the glass and watch these guys in lab coats press vinyl. It’s brilliant. Anyway, I knew we had to do something that expanded on the experience of 12” vinyl. 
Initially, we thought about doing a magazine with a CD inside. I liked the idea of an exclusive anthology album. When I was first learning about jazz in the mid-’60s, there was an album that Impulse! put out called The New Wave in Jazz that had Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and all these guys, and that’s how I found out about them. I knew Coltrane, but that was my first exposure to Shepp and Ayler. There’s also a label out in New York called ESP that does some pretty radical s**t. They put out an ESP-sampler vinyl that you could buy for a $1.99. It didn’t have whole songs, but it had bits of everything from Sun Ra to William Burroughs to Pharoah Sanders. It was all very extreme music, and that’s how I learned about it.
And I wanted to do something like that with our roster, and I knew I wanted to do an anthology record that you couldn’t stream or download anywhere. [I had all of these ideas], and I then I saw what Jack was doing with the Third Man vault series. It’s just a combination of things, and we tried to come up with our own identity for it. I’m very proud of it, and I hope we can continue to do two a year for a very long time.
Bell: How long did it take you to produce the zine/record insert?
Was: Because we work in that business, everything took a long time just to get the balance right. Now that we know what it is, we’re going to make some adjustments for the next box. I think it has its own identity that we’re going to continue to hone. We’re almost done with the second anthology record, which is all new stuff commissioned specifically for the next theme.
Bell: Jack Grapes is a fantastic poet and a big champion of beat literature (i.e. On the Bus). Why did you reach out to him for the zine?
Was: You’re one of the first people to mention that. I was honestly worried that you couldn’t read the typeface. No one was mentioning it, and I thought, “It’s not the poem, it’s that they can’t read it.” [laughs] One of our goals is to make it more readable next time, but I’m glad you dig that. There was a woman who we talked to about the [insert] and she was taking a poetry class from Jack. She said, “You have to have a Jack Grapes piece in there.” I said, “Of course.”
Bell: Where did you find the story about Stanley Turrentine attacking Alfred Lion? Are there more stories like this? Are they all just transcribed in a book somewhere in the Blue Note office?
Was: That’s exactly as told to me by Bobby Hutcherson, who passed away. He recorded his last album for Blue Note. At one point I had a Sirius XM radio show called the Blue Note Hour, and on one of the shows I interviewed him and he told me that story [laughs]. That’s going to be a regular feature. We have one about Art Blakey for issue two.
Bell: Why did you decide on Blue Mitchell’s Step Lightly as the first re-release in the box set?
Was: We have a number of albums in the catalog that have never had a proper release and were either really overlooked or didn’t come out for reasons that were non-musical. That was supposed to be his debut album, and he did two in a short period of time and they put the other one out. But that didn’t make Step Lightly any less of an album. It had a release in Japan and a very limited release on vinyl here in the ’80s.
Bell: Are you concerned that people will upload or sell these limited records online? 
Was: No. That’s life. Everybody makes music for the music to be heard. If you’re just making stuff for the sake of making it, that’s kind of self-indulgent and selfish. I hope people will subscribe [laughs], but I want the music to be heard and appreciated, too.
Bell: Do you think there will ever be a time when jazz is synonymous with popular music again? 
Was: No. I think that’s part of the fun of listening to jazz. It’s more challenging. Pop music has a function, which is instant gratification. That’s good. I like pop music, but I think there’s something about music that challenges you that gets under your skin and allows you to revisit it 50 years later and still find meaning and value in it. That’s something different than pop music, and that’s a good thing. None of our artists are sleeping in their cars or anything like that. [laughs] It’s still possible to play deeper and more eclectic forms of music and have an audience.

Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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