Don Was Here

The man who had seen it all, who had worked with the biggest acts in the rock and roll business, who had produced the more decent of recent albums by The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (to name a few), who had scored several number one hits by himself – that man was in shock and awe. Don Was, sporting a big Stetson hat, eyes hidden behind black shades,  had just been told that Alfred Lion, nee Löw, was born and raised just a few minutes away from the place where we just had finished an interview for a German Public Radio Station. „Can we go there?“ he rather commanded than asked his PA and a representative from Universal Records who accompanied him. They could and they went. Later Don Was would show an interviewer of Spiegel Online Magazine pictures he had taken at Alfred’s childhood house at Gotenstraße 7 in Berlin-Schöneberg. Was seemed deeply impressed by the fact that he, President of Blue Note Records since 2012, could get in touch with a piece of the past. „That door in the picture – that is as old as the hills. Alfred could have touched it.“

Blue Note Records is 80 years old in 2019. The greatest jazz label the world has yet seen has its roots in Berlin, where two Jewish boys, Alfred Löw and Frank Wolff, fell for jazz in the mid 1920s. They both listened to jazz records and Alfred even got to experience a live concert by Sam Wooding’s band at Admiralspalast. Many years later he would say: „That beat hit me. Right into my bones. And it never went away.“

Their love for this music may have saved their lives as they had to flee from Nazi-Germany

and made it to the USA. Alfred became Lion and Frank changed his name to Francis. In January 1939 Alfred recorded and produced a session by boogie woogie pianists Meade „Luc“ Lewis and Albert Ammons. Together with multi talented Max Margulis he started Blue Note Records. Francis joined later that year. He was on the last boat that Gestapo did not control. Margulis left the business after a while and it was up to these two white German jews to shock racist US society. They worked closely with blacks, made Saxophonist Ike Quebec an A&R man, treated musicians fair and put their faces on the album covers prominently (check other labels from the fifties: you rarely see a black person on the front cover).

Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff

After many years of struggle Blue Note Records took off in 1953 as the new hard bop sound evolved. Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley and many many more were on fire. Almost every album that was recorded between 1953 and 1966 (the year Alfred sold the company to Liberty) is considered a classic. Careers by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and many other young lions were launched at Blue Note. During its prime time Blue Note set new standards for sound, recording, producing and design. Reid Miles’ cover art is still being imitated today. And jazz never sounded better in the hands of studio wizard Rudy Van Gelder.

The label continued to release music, sometimes great music, but magic happened less and less often. Blue Note was sold over and over again and nobody took care of the catalogue. In 1985 Bruce Lundvall took the helm and an unprecedented re-issue campaign brought a good part of the past back to life. 

Lundvall retired in 2011 and the company was in deep trouble. And by an incredible accident it was saved as Don Was told me, when I asked him how he got the job with Blue Note, something you probably don’t apply for. 

„No, you do not apply for it. Nor wasn’t I looking for a job. I spent most of my life trying to avoid work. I never thought playing music or producing records as being work. It was fun. It still is fun. I was in New York I was making a record with John Mayer called Born and Raised. And I had one night off, I checked the Village Voice and I saw that this relatively new singer called Gregory Porter was appearing in a little club called Smoke up near Harlem. So – I’d heard his first record on the radio and I was really excited to go and see him. I went to the show and sat there for all three sets, ate ribs, drank coffee. It was the best show I’d had seen in about 15 years. The next morning I was having breakfast with an old friend of mine. A guy who I used to meet when he was a drummer but he became president of Capitol Records (Dan McCarroll). We even weren’t talking about music but at the very end of the breakfast I asked: ‘Is Blue Note Records still part of Capitol Records because if it is you should sign this guy I heard last night – Gregory Porter’ – and he said: ‘No, you should sign him’ and he offered me the job. Unbeknownst to me the company was in transition. Bruce Lundvall who had run the company for 30 years and had done such a magnificent job of carrying on the legacy – he was ill and they were looking for someone who had a vision of how to move the label forward, going to the future. And I just had an idea the day they were thinking about closing the company and he offered me the job.“

Don Was is known to the world as the producer for the superstars. But jazz made an impact early in his life as he told me when I asked him how he fell in love with Blue Note Records.

„In the mid-1960s as a teenager in Detroit Michigan. And I was riding around in a car with my mom, running errands. Not in a good mood. A 14 -year-old is not likely to be in a good mood running errands with his mom. So we pulled up at the library and she left me in the car with the keys so I could listen to the radio. And I was just playing with the dial and I landed on the Detroit jazz station WCHD. And I came in right to the solo of a Joe Henderson Record called Mode for Joe and it starts out with these kind of anguished cries from the saxophone and I’ve never heard anything like it in my life. But I couldn’t relate to it. I was a little agitated myself for having to ride along all day with my mom in the car (laughs). So I heard this solo from the track Mode for Joe – and it starts out and it’s not about saxophones, it’s not about reeds, it’s not about technique, it’s not about notes. It’s about conversation. An anguished guy – and then Joe Chambers, the dummer, kicks in and starts to swing. And the message that came through to me was: ‘Don – you’ve got to groove in the face of adversity’. And that was just a great message for me at that moment. It kinda calmed me down and I thought – wow – this music, there is no lyric or anything, but it just touched me so deeply and completely altered my frame of mind. So it wanted to get me to get an FM radio so I could listen to the station at home and I soon found out that a lot of music that I liked was coming from this one little label in New York City called Blue Note Records.“

That was in 1966, shortly before the massive economic success of the new rock culture made it more and more difficult for jazz. I was wondering why Don Was still fashioned jazz.

„I just think that the musicians that Alfred Lion was attracted to were powerful storytellers. And it didn’t matter that they were more abstract, that there were no lyrics – maybe even better that there were no lyrics. It’s impressionistic. But they have a way of lodging under your skin and really illuminating parts of your inner emotional life that words fail to adequately express.“

Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff thought „art first, money later“ obviously. They started the label to record music that they wanted to hear. And they followed their taste and their hearts. How does Don Was work?

„Pretty much the same thing. As a record producer, the record that I was involved with that kinda really changed the course of my life was an album by Bonnie Raitt called Nick Of Time. We made that record in 1989 and it was as unfashionable as you could possibly be in the age of Flock of Seagulls and The Human League to play slide guitar and be a 40 year old female blues singer. So we were not fooling ourselves about our chances of having a hit single and we said: Let’s forget about all that, let’s just make a record that we both love and that we are proud of. Well – it ended up winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and sold about 7 million records. And I thought: that’s a good business plan (laughs). Make the best music you can make and know that there is a human craving for real music that comes from an honest place that – as I said before – helps you understand your own inner emotional life. So I’ve tried to do that over the last 40 years with everything I’ve been involved with. If you just try to make it great, as great as you can make it, there will be people who love it and the money will follow, you know.“

There is a new interest in jazz. Even commercial success if you think of Kamasi Washington whose career was pushed by his work with Kendrick Lamar. Does Don Was have any idea why jazz became so popular again?

„I think it’s just people in general that are interested in real, honest, authentic music that comes from the heart. I don’t think in terms of genres that much. Musicians they don’t … If I play the bass I don’t think ‘now I’m gonna play an R&B lick and four bars later put in a little Country…’ It’s either honest and heartfelt and associated with something emotional or it’s not. There is generous music where you feel something and you wanna share that with other people and you hope that they all will respond and do something good in their lives or something provocative in their lives, whatever. Or there is selfish music that is just like ‘look how many notes I can play in two bars’. That’s like watching a magic trick. It’s entertaining but it doesn’t touch your soul. 

And I think Kendrick Lamar is an artist who is for real. I see very little posturing or jive in what he’s doing. He’s for real. And it was a very logic extension that he was not only using Kamasi but Robert Glasper a Blue Note artist, also Trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire. I think people respond to real emotional stuff. It’s timeless.“

Don Was came to Europe in Spring for a series of interviews connected to the 80th birthday of Blue Note Records. There is a lot of history, there is a huge legacy. How does Don Was cope with that?

„We take it very seriously at Blue Note Records. There is a legacy to protect. This music is timeless and it is important to people. Part of protecting the legacy, by the way, involves making new music that holds true to the aesthetic that they established, which I think is just about reflecting the time you live in and trying to move the music forward. If you go through every era of Blue Note Records from Thelonius Monk to the Jazz Messengers, to Herbie and Wayne to Ornette: everyone is trying to cross a new boundary and expand the music. Everyone is part on the evolutionary chain and that’s why the music endures because it’s going to some place new. And it’s for real. So, we have a great roster right now, really wide ranging. Wayne Shorter is on the label again. Charles Lloyd, Dr. Lonnie Smith, these are old guys that are making records for many many decades and still are holding true to that aesthetic to do new stuff every time. But then we have young guys – like Joel Ross, vibes player, 23 years old. And I really believe that this guy is the Miles Davis of his generation. A real leader among other musicians. When other guys are playing with him he elevates their playing too. He studied Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson and was mentored by Stefon Harris – all three of these guys are part of Blue Note Records and i feel that Joel is moving that forward. He very much proves that there is a continuum.“

When we finished our conversation I asked one last mean question. What are Don Was’ favorite records on Blue Note. One from the past one from the present.

„I think Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter. That’s my favorite classic record. That record meant a lot. I bought it when it was new and I still listen to it all the time. It changes my mood for the better without fail. And I am very proud of the first Black Radio record that Robert Glasper recorded. That had a very deep impact. If you go to music schools now, Berklee or even a high school jazz programme, kids are playing his version of Afro Blue…“

80 years of Blue Note Records is celebrated in many ways. One is the Tone Poet audiophile vinyl reissue series, that features handpicked titles of lesser-known Blue Note classics, modern era standouts, and albums from other labels under the Blue Note catalog.