Blue Note Records: Was, Not Was?
by Mike Guy
More than a few scratched their heads in 2012 when it was announced that bass player, record producer, and executive, Don Was (Don Edward Fagenson) was to be the new president of BlueNote Records.
My introduction to Don Was came from the 1990 funk/rock record Are You Okay? by the band Was, Not Was, which included the classic tunes K Mart Wardrobe and I Feel Better Than James Brown. He has produced albums by The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, and Elton John. He's been the music director on a long list of hit movies and won a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year in 1994. He's an icon in the music industry, but how the heck did he end up the boss at BlueNote?
Like many, I just assumed it was just a career move. Don Was is an experienced executive, and it did not matter that his resume was rock and pop as opposed to jazz. Selling CDs is Selling CDs. I was wrong.
An online article based on an interview with Don Was by music critic, Ammar Kalia (a link to the article is at the bottom) provides the missing clues. Ammar reports that BlueNote Records was in danger of becoming an LP and CD reissue mill, just repackaging the great recordings from the past to maximize their return for decades to come.
It seems that Don Was wasn't looking for a job: “It was a total accident. I was having breakfast with an old friend who was president of Capitol Records, which headed up BlueNote, and I suggested they should sign Gregory Porter. I’d seen him the night before, and he blew me away. I had no idea they were looking for someone to take over – anyone who’d walked in with an idea that day was going to get the job! I’d spent my life up to that point trying to avoid having a real job but this was too irresistible.”
The importance of his taking the job to the future of not only BlueNote but to jazz as a whole cannot be overstated. Not being a neatly packaged jazz-man is proving to be exactly what jazz needs. In order to promote jazz to those in their 20s and 30s and ensure the future of the music we all love, you need to Feel Better Than James Brown.
Back in July, Mike Effenberger (musician, educator, and composer for the Soggy Po’ Boys and Weird Turn Pro) explained to me how popular music is forever intertwined with jazz.
Mike Effenberger: Having a way to directly connect with popular music makes it (jazz) more approachable. That's how it happened in the first place. They were just playing pop tunes; all of that stuff was just the music of the day and another way to move within it. It's a way of meeting them where they are.
They (Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper) are being jazz musicians in the way that people always have been, which is to say that they're still drawing on their popular music. (Robert) Glasper has covers of Radiohead interspersed with Herbie Hancock. That matters.
If jazz requires ongoing transfusions of popular music, who better to manage the mixture than someone like Don Was?
Don Was: Part of the fun of jazz is discovering this isolated, secret scene that is radically reflective of its time. That means it now encompasses the hip-hop work Kendrick Lamar is doing in LA with Kamasi Washington, and club culture here in London with people like Nubya Garcia and Steam Down.
In 2012, I was glad that Don Was became the president of BlueNote Records, but I couldn't tell you why. After talking with Mike and reading Ammar's article (link below), I've learned how his getting that job is important to jazz in ways that are exponentially more important than selling CDs.
Ammar Kalia's article