Don Was, making 'authentic' music at Blue Note jazz label

Don Was, bass player, producer, bandleader, songwriter, and now president of Blue Note Records, says, "There are two kinds of music. Generous music and selfish music." Friday, he'll share his thoughts at the Non-Commvention in W. Philadelphia.
Don Was, bass player, producer, bandleader, songwriter, and now president of Blue Note Records, says, "There are two kinds of music. Generous music and selfish music." Friday, he'll share his thoughts at the Non-Commvention in W. Philadelphia. (GABI PORTER)
Posted: May 17, 2013

There's a jazz man's adage, attributed variously to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, that goes something like this: "There are two kinds of music, the good and the bad. I play the good kind."

Don Was, the bass player, producer, bandleader, songwriter, and now president of the storied jazz label Blue Note Records, divides the world differently.

"There are two kinds of music," Was says. "Generous music and selfish music."

Was was talking from his home in Los Angeles as he got ready to head to Philadelphia to for the Non-Commvention, the national gathering of mostly public radio non-commercial music stations, hosted annually by WXPN (88.5 FM) and taking place this week at World Cafe Live in University City.

This year's Non-Comm, as it is known, was scheduled to start Wednesday night with music by French pop band Phoenix and banjo-playing comedian Steve Martin with singer Edie Brickell, among others.

The confab continues through Friday, when Was will be the featured speaker, with a wide range of acts playing before influential radio programmers. Thursday's slate includes the buzz bands Foxygen and Wild Belle and powerful veteran singers Mavis Staples and Tom Jones.

Friday's schedule makes room for Texas gospel belters the Relatives, the British soul singer Laura Mvula, and Philadelphia rockers Free Energy. The shows are sold out, but will be broadcast live on 'XPN.

By "generous," Was means music "that's open, that has something to offer to the listener, something to give."

That's in contrast to "selfish" music, which the 60-year-old multi-tasker - whose production credits include Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Aaron Neville, Elizabeth Cook, Iggy Pop, and Philadelphia songwriter Amos Lee - says is easy to identify.

"It's music made by self-centered [expletives] who get up on stage and say, 'Check this out, look what I can do.' We're not interested in that. We're interested in generous music."

Was, who works at the iconic Capitol Records building on Hollywood Boulevard, grew up in Detroit as Don Fagenson. Along with his partner David Was, he fronted the skewed pop-funk band Was (Not Was), which scored early '80s left-field hits including "Walk the Dinosaur."

He landed the Blue Note job by accident. After seeing jazz-soul singer Gregory Porter perform in New York in 2011 - "One of the best shows I'd seen in a decade" - he had a social breakfast the next morning with Dan McCarroll, a former drummer for Sheryl Crow who now heads up Capitol, which oversees Blue Note.

The esteemed Blue Note brand dates back to 1939, when it was founded by German immigrant Alfred Lion and political activist Max Margulis. Its landmark recordings include works by Sidney Bechet, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and many others.

Rather than simply marketing the Blue Note catalog, Was suggested that McCarroll should be signing new artists like Porter. In response, McCarroll offered Was the job, and told him to sign Porter himself.

Since taking over in January 2012, Was has done just that, along with bringing in young talents like Derrick Hodge, the bass player (and Willingboro, N.J., native) whose album Live Today comes out in August, and José James, the Panamanian-American vocalist who will sing Thursday at Non-Comm.

"We know we need to be the best jazz label in the world," says Was, who has brought Shorter back to the Blue Note roster, and recently finished producing a quartet session with Philadelphia organist Joey DeFrancesco, sax man David Sanborn, vibes player Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Billy Hart.

Was' vision goes far beyond traditional jazz, however. He takes his cues from Lion's 1939 Blue Note mission statement. It read, in part: "Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive."

The perfect example of an "authentic" contemporary Blue Note artist, says Was, is Robert Glasper, the jazz pianist shaped by soul and hip-hop, whose Black Radio has sold 250,000 copies globally and won the Grammy for best R&B album this year. "His music is rooted in tradition, and doesn't forsake any of it. But I don't view it as a hybrid, and neither does he. It's just new music."

The Blue Note roster goes farther into the pop realm than Glasper. It includes Norah Jones, lap slide player Robert Randolph (also at Non-Comm), Amos Lee, New Orleans soul man Aaron Neville (whose doo-wop album My True Story was produced by Was and Keith Richards). There's even Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, who Was recently recorded with drummer Ringo Starr, singer Bettye LaVette, and a harp player named Mick Jagger.

(Was, who produced two new songs on the GRRR! Rolling Stones hits package released last year, says the band is playing "the best I've ever heard them. They're more present, more focused." He hasn't recorded any more new songs with the band "though I know they've got more.")

He's coming to Non-Comm, he says, because "these stations are important. There aren't that many places to hang your hat in these cities. People need to be able to hear new music. I'm honored."

The Blue Note strategy in the digital age is to "play small ball," the label honcho says, meaning to sell modest numbers of albums by many artists. "Everything doesn't have to be a home run. We're going to 100,000 our way to prosperity. . . . Our A&R philosophy is, if you play it, and it makes you feel something, that's good music. A good business plan is to make a great record."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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