President of Blue Note Records Don Was

The musician, Grammy-winning producer and label exec shares the future he sees for Blue Note Records.

After becoming one of the most in-demand record producers in the business, Don Was added label exec to his résumé, taking on the roles of president and chief creative director of Blue Note Records. He began his musical career as a session artist in his Detroit hometown and has also been a recording star in his own right. His entrée to producing began with occasional projects until he gained notice for his first album with Bonnie Raitt ("Nick of Time"). Was has since worked with a wide array of artists, won multiple Grammys, including Producer of the Year, and served as music director and/or consultant for several films.


Tavis: Don Was is a Grammy-winning producer and talented musician who has collaborated with some of the biggest names in all of music during his standout career, including long-time work with The Rolling Stones. He is now helping to bring jazz back to a wider audience in his position as the president of Blue Note Records. Here some of the behind-the-scenes production of one of his latest projects featuring Aaron Neville.


Tavis: [Laugh] So while that clip was airing, Don said, “Same outfit.” I said, you know what? You went there, I’m gonna go there [laugh]. Then again, my friend Cornel West wears the same three-piece black suit every day.

Don Was: There you go.

Tavis: So I ain’t mad at you for being consistent. There is something about consistency [laugh], which raises a question. I could break this down on three or four different levels, and I say it all respectfully and tongue-in-cheek, of course, how did you end up as the president of Blue Note? I mean, Blue Note is one of the greatest jazz labels ever…

Was: Yes, it is.

Tavis: In late modernity. It’s one of the greatest jazz — how did you end up president?

Was: Oh, man, it was such a weird road to get there, but I can tell you this. When I was 14 years old — you know, I come from Detroit, Michigan.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.

Was: When those records came out in the 60s, I was a teenager too young to drive, but my buddy Dave and I, if we heard of a Blue Note record that was in a record store on the other side of town, we’d ride a bus 45 minutes just to hold the thing. We couldn’t afford to buy it, but just to look at it because those records, man — not just the music inside, but the artwork and the sound of the records and the feel of the whole thing and the look of it and those smoky photographs, the studio with no wall.

Man, I wanted to be there and I wanted to be in that. That’s what I really grew up listening to. So I know the music even though I’ve spent most of my life producing different kinds of music. It was not a stretch because I think the most important thing is really understanding how great that is and what the aesthetic is because I’m the caretaker of the legacy.

Tavis: That raises the next question which is it’s one thing to have an appreciation for the art form. I have a great appreciation for it, love it, listen to it, got my house stacked with records, go to jazz concerts all the time, and moved by it to my core. I have a great appreciation for it, but you don’t want me running Blue Note [laugh].

So the fact that you have an appreciation for it, tell me why those of us who love jazz should feel comfortable that you are, to your words, now the caretaker.

Was: Yeah, that’s a very good question.

Tavis: That’s my job [laugh] and I ain’t running Blue Note.

Was: You know, it’s not so hard, man. I walk around with my Blackberry. I walk around with the mission statement that was written by Alfred Lion who started the label. I won’t read you the whole thing, but in essence, it talks about recording authentic music and avoiding the sensational aspects of it and being more concerned with the creative impulses that make the music. It’s not that hard to do. You know, I’m there to make sure we don’t make any crummy records [laugh].

Tavis: But there are a lot of jazz purists who remember Blue Note putting X, Y and Z, to your point, back in the day when that mission statement was written and taken seriously, not that you’re not now. But what do you say to those jazz purists?

Was: Well, looking after those folks. We’ve signed Wayne Shorter back on the label; we’ve signed your friend Terence Blanchard back to the label.

Tavis: I love Terence, yeah.

Was: And we have a formidable tradition of jazz roster. Robbie Coltrane put out a new record this year. Joe Lovano’s got one coming, Lionel Loueke, you know, a great release. You know, we’re serving the traditional jazz. No one needs to worry about that. But I think the thing to remember is that, if you’re really gonna go to the core of that music, it was radical music, revolutionary music.

You know, you did a fantastic interview, you and Dr. West, with Sonny Rollins which I loved. Right in that interview, Sonny Rollins says hip-hop is the new jazz. He says those guys remind me most of what we’re doing. So you have to move with the times. If you want 1960’s jazz, Blue Note’s got the very best catalog anyone’s ever put together.

Tavis: Will you put out some new stuff, some new — I should say, will you put out some of that old stuff anew?

Was: Oh, yeah, actually one of the things. We’re making it sound great too. That’s one thing. We’re going back and doing high-def remastering and with a really gentle touch. We’re referring to the 1960’s vinyl which is the original vinyl. It’s really the truth. That’s what the artists intended. We’re not trying to make it sound better than. We’re trying to capture the feeling that’s in there.

Tavis: I love what you intend to do or continue doing at Blue Note, which is to make jazz more available to a broader audience, to expand the listenership. I appreciate that. But I’m curious what your response is to those who think that Norah Jones and Robert Glasper, just as an example — I love them both. They’ve both been on this program.

So when you had a Norah Jones and a Robert Glasper who were giving this thing called jazz a different treatment, is that expanding it and making it more available to a broader audience or is it watering it down?

Was: Oh, man, you can’t get mired in the — you got to stay with the times, man. You know, you got to move. The guy that started the label who really is the source of what you should be respecting, Alfred Lion, when he passed away in the 80’s, he was listening to Prince.

You know, jazz always kept moving and we don’t stop. I think what Robert Glasper’s doing is jazz now and that’s the way it’s done now. It’s as radical as when Art Blakey and Horace Silver got together for the first jazz messages album.

You know, that was a revolt against bebop, man. You know, Art Blakey wanted to throw some backbeats in, Horace Silver wanted to play some gospel licks and you couldn’t do that at Minton’s, man. You’d be thrown off the bandstand for that. So that was as revolutionary and upsetting to the status quo, but we’re kind of there to upset the status quo.

That’s the history of Blue Note Records if you want to really acknowledge the tradition. It’s to push the boundaries further. My son, Solomon, he’s 15. He’s in a high school jazz program here that’s fantastic. He’s a bass player. I went to their concert at Catalina Club here in Hollywood and they do an annual show every year.

The leader got up and he said, “Man, now we’d like to do a song by Robert Glasper called “Afro Blue.” No mention of Mongosantamaria or John Coltrane [laugh], but they played Glasper’s version of it and it was a jazz concert and it got over. You know, it speaks to people today and there’s nothing wrong with that. You gonna discriminate because of scales and modes? As a musician, that’s ridiculous, you know. It’s the aesthetic and the intention behind it.

Tavis: You have a wonderful career in your own right. I want to talk about some of that in just a second.

Was: Thank you.

Tavis: Before I do that, though, what was happening at the point in your life when this invitation came that made it the right time for you? We’ve talked about your background, your musical appreciation, what you want to do and are doing with the label, but what was happening in your life that made this moment propitious?

Was: I was producing John Mayer’s record in New York City and we had a night off and I went to see a singer named Gregory Porter, a great singer. I went up to this club on the West side, Smoke. I sat there for three sets. It wasn’t business. I didn’t introduce myself. I was just digging it. I just wanted to listen to music and have ribs and I stayed all night. The next morning…

Tavis: Sounds like fun, music and ribs [laugh]. I got to hang out with you.

Was: Come on, man. What else do you want [laugh]? So the next morning, I had breakfast with Dan McCarroll who’s an old buddy of mine, former drummer. Still a drummer, but he happens to be president of the Capitol Music Group as well. I said, “Do you still have Blue Note records ’cause, if you do, you should sign this guy that I saw last night?”

Within 10 minutes, it turned into, “Well, you should sign him and let’s do this.” To be honest with you, the last thing I was looking for in life was to work at a record company. That was always the enemy to me [laugh].

Tavis: I was about to say that. That was my next question [laugh]. You’re running an institution that most artists think is the enemy.

Was: Yeah, well, let’s cite you, for example. You’re a guy who to me you’re the progressive voice of reason in this country and yet you’ve worked inside the political establishment that’s given you knowledge of maybe things to do and things not to do. But you got to understand how it works.

I was shocked to go in there and see how things worked, but if you want to change stuff, you got to know how to change it. You can’t, sitting on the outside. It’s tough. But I took it because it was irresistible, man, Blue Note Records. Any other company, I wouldn’t have done it, but that legacy, just to be part of that, that means a lot to me.

Tavis: How do you take an iconic label like Blue Note even with artists like Norah and Robert and the Aaron Neville project and others you’re bringing on board, what’s the measurement of success for you particularly in this contemporary setting? Is it record sales? Is it air play? Because the game has changed so much from when you first got in. So now that you’re running what used to be the enemy, what’s your unit of measurement for success?

Was: My measurement for success is you sit down with the artist, you figure out what they’re hearing in their head and you provide them the means to get it out to the world. If you make music that puts people in touch with their feelings, makes them feel something, that’s a generous kind of music. Not music that shows off, look how many notes I can play.

Nobody needs that, you know, but something that makes people feel something. It’s a success. That’s what I care about and the rest will follow. Make great music that comes from a generous place and just sell records. It’ll come back.

Tavis: You think that’s true these days?

Was: Yeah, I do think that, absolutely, yeah. I hope so. I’m basing everything…

Tavis: I ask that, Don, because Robert Glasper is a good example of what you just said. Make music that touches people. You were billed a core audience and you got to work really hard. He plays dates like crazy, as you know. You got to work really hard, but if you write music and make music that matters — Norah Jones broke through some years ago. She brought a project out that touched people.

But the truth of the matter is that, you know, took Herbie Hancock many years — I mean, Herbie’s very successful. I shouldn’t say Herbie. It took years for a jazz record to be the record of the year. So this isn’t the kind of stuff that gets the kind of love that it deserves even though there are a lot of people putting out great projects all the time. So tell me why you believe that even today, if you make a great record, it will get heard.

Was: Well, look at Glasper. Glasper’s album totally falls between the cracks on any kind of radio format. His previous album sold 8,000 records and now he’s closing in on 200,000 and his whole presence in the world of music has been extremely enhanced by this record. It’s ’cause he made a record that came from the heart and was great.

Now one thing about the enemy, the record company, there are a whole lot of people working there who really love music and really care. That was a beautiful thing to discover is that there are marketing people who go in there every day and they really want to spread the word. They love the music. Even the business affairs guys love the music.

So it doesn’t just happen by magic, but the mechanism is there to spread the word to people. But you got to do something real. You got to be generous as an artist and touch people.

Tavis: I want to talk, Don, for a moment here about your stellar career still ongoing ’cause you’re not done with music because you run a record label. You’re still doing your thing.

Was: Certainly.

Tavis: As I said at the top of the conversation, you’ve worked with so many great artists. I want to just pick two now because they’re kind of like, you know, I don’t want to offend either one by saying they’re polar opposites because they’re really not polar opposites, but they got two different kinds of audiences, and I want to make the point that you work with a range of people. So The Stones. You worked with them on the “Voodoo” project. They’ve had you back for every project since.

Was: Yes, since 1993.

Tavis: Why do you work so well with The Stones?

Was: I love them. I went to see them the first time they toured in 1964. I was 12 years old. I went to see them play. I’ve bought every record up until the ones I produced and then I got it for free. Bought tickets until they gave me passes [laugh]. I think it’s a good way to produce records. Be a fan, make a record — you don’t make the record. As a producer, help them make the record that you’d want to buy, that you’d want to listen to.

Tavis: There’s so many articles that I see pop up from time to time about these aging bands and whether or not there’s ever a moment where they ought to go sit down somewhere. Is there a time when one should go sit down and, if so, how do you determine what that is or is music meant to be played until you die?

Was: You know, I’m a bass player by trade, right? That’s what you do. I still play gigs all the time. I play. I’ll go play at Harvelle’s. I’ll play anywhere, you know. I’ll play at a wedding, you know.

Tavis: My back yard?

Was: Gladly. I just want to play [laugh]. Say when. That’s what musicians do. You know, The Stones, this much I can tell you. First of all, they’re far from being guys who should consider retirement. They sound great. We just recorded two new songs in September that’s on a “Greatest Hits’ that came out. They’re awesome, man. There’s no reason for them to stop.

They have tremendous power that they generate, you know, and it’s a great example of when the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, which are pretty great to begin with, the individual parts. It’s a roar, man. They definitely shouldn’t stop. But you don’t make the choice really. People stop coming to see you, then that’s when you stop playing. That’s what we do. That’s what musicians do is you play.

Tavis: So you ain’t gonna stop until people stop showing up.

Was: Exactly [laugh].

Tavis: I like that [laugh]. TV doesn’t quite work that way [laugh]. They will pull the plug on you when a few people disappear. They ain’t got to all stop watching, just a few. I got to switch careers here, man. I got to switch games.

The other artist that I wanted to mention because every time — first of all, let me just say, I got mad love for The Stones, but I absolutely adore with a capital A, I adore Bonnie Raitt.

Was: I knew.

Tavis: You knew I was gonna say that.

Was: Yeah.

Tavis: Man, every time I think of Bonnie and that record, I think of you because you produced it. That project, “Nick of Time”, a friend of mine calls me on the phone…

Was: Yeah, isn’t that a great song? That was a very great song to write, you know. No women in rock and roll were addressing turning 40.

Tavis: Exactly, beautiful song.

Was: Yeah, It was a radical song at the time and a beautiful song and she’s the greatest singer in the world, if you ask me, man. You know, I played with her a couple of months ago, played bass with her, and I get choked up listening to her sing. She touches me so deeply inside and I know I’m not alone ’cause she’s packing theaters everywhere. Yeah, man, what a thrill to be in the studio with someone like her, you know, and hear her.

Tavis: When I think of that song, to your point about how radical that song, “Nick of Time”, was, obviously, I am not a woman. The song is not meant for me. It’s not written to me and it’s not about my experience, but there’s something special about a song that’s not written to you or for you, but still resonates inside of you. I mean, the story line is one thing, but when she gets to that hook, “I found love in the nick of time.”…

Was: Yeah, that could be anybody.

Tavis: That could be anybody. You mentioned Catalina’s earlier. This past weekend, I went to see Steve Tyrell.

Was: Oh, yeah, he’s great, isn’t he?

Tavis: I love Steve. Went to see Steve at Catalina and he sang a song and he took three minutes to explain to the audience about how he went back and forth and back and forth about whether or not he should change the lyric to the song because he was a man singing the song.

He just went on saying, “I just love this song so much, I’m just gonna sing it.” He sang it and it was a major hit and everybody loved it. But there’s something about a song that makes it special to me when it touches you even though it wasn’t meant for you per se.

Was: I think the best songwriters, you know, I’ve worked with Bonnie who’s a great example, but The Stones are a great example. I’ve worked with Bob Dylan. He’s a great example.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.

Was: They’re impressionists, man. They don’t hit the nail exactly on the head. They leave room for everybody out there, millions of people, to project their own unique inner lives onto the song. So you find your own meaning. If you make it too broad, then no one can hang anything on it. But if you get so specific that you say, well, that’s outside my realm of experience, but a beautifully written song is one that leaves room for you to participate.

Tavis: When I first became a fan of yours, it was as you might expect during the Was (Not Was) years. I remember being a kid in Indiana. So you grew up in Michigan, I grew up in Indiana. By the way, I hear some great people are born on September 13.

Was: You too? No.

Tavis: September 13.

Was: Wow! Wow!

Tavis: Don and Tavis, September 13.

Was: Wow!

Tavis: Detroit and Indiana.

Was: There we go.

Tavis: But I raise this because I was a kid listening to your stuff growing up in Indiana and I was like who are the guys, Was (Not Was)? How did they name this band Was (Not Was)? So here I am 25 years later and I finally get a chance to ask you to tell me the story face to face.

Was: Where the name came from?

Tavis: Yeah.

Was: Well, my son Tony who’s now 35 years old, a drummer, he was about three at the time and he was discovering things that we now attribute to PIJ’s theories [laugh], but he discovered the concept of reversibility. So he’d point to like this cup and he’d say “Red” and wait for you to say something. He’d look at me and go “Not red.” So it’s clever verb substitution [laugh].

Tavis: I tell you, man. Sometimes I ask these questions and I’m like is that it [laugh]? It’s a great story, yeah.

Was: Well, the idea behind it, you know, growing up in the 60s, man, being different from everything that came before was held at a premium. You know, I was tremendously influenced by a night in Detroit as a teenager. Maybe we drove — I hope we drove [laugh]. We went out at like one in the morning and heard the MC5 jamming with Pharoah Sanders in a print shop where they published a local lefty paper, right?

You never heard music like that in your life. It was something, you know — it only happened that night, never heard it again. It was amazing. That has value. These days when people are submitting CDs and downloads to me, they say it’s a cross between Mariah Carey and Ever Clear [laugh]. It’s got to be like something else, but the idea was to do something that no one’s done before, you know, to have roots.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there. My time is running and this is really getting fascinating for me. I wish I had more time. I love what you just said a moment ago and this is why you’re such an artistic genius yourself, but whatever happened to that premium — I love the way you phrased it — that used to be in this country back in the 60s a premium on being different and now everything is about sameness? What happened? And that’s just not true of music either.

Was: Yeah, I know. It’s culture-wide.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Was: I don’t know. A society that doesn’t value individualism is a more compliant society, easier to manipulate? I can go to — you know, it’s Machiavellian.

Tavis: I hear you.

Was: So it’s not hard to see, you know, why it happens, but we should fight against it. I believe — you know, when I go talk to students at the Berkeley School of Music at USC or something, I always say the same thing. The thing that makes you different is your strength. Do that. That’s your only chance, man. It’s a very competitive business and, you’re right, it’s got to do with everything, not just music.

Tavis: So you feel good? I assume you do ’cause you took the job. So you feel good, you feel hopeful about the future of Blue Note?

Was: Oh, absolutely, yeah. No question about it. Just make good records [laugh].

Tavis: How’s this Aaron Neville project coming along?

Was: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s so great. I’ve known him for years and have worked with him before. He called me up and said he wanted to make a doo-wop record. So I thought, great, man, what wonderful songs, the great doo-wop songs, the just distilled, emotional songs, wonderful songs.

I remembered when we were making “Voodoo Lounge”, Keith Richards had the room below me and he played “My True Story” by the Jive Five over and over and over again. So I called Keith and he co-produced the record and played guitar on it.

You know, we didn’t want to make karaoke doo-wop. The idea was how do you stay true to the intention of the songs, but add something to it. Aaron is just one of the greatest singers you ever heard in your life and that’s a guy who’s different from everybody else, you know.

Tavis: No doubt about it. You hear that voice, you know it’s Aaron Neville.

Was: Exactly right. So it was a real thrill and we cut 23 songs in five days. All the bands set up in a circle in Electric Lady Studios in New York. It’s a wonderful record.

Tavis: Blue Note is in good hands ’cause Don Was is running the operation now and he’s still, of course, doing his own thing. I loved and still love, always will love Was (Not Was). I just loving saying it, Was (Not Was) [laugh]. This was a great conversation.

Was: It’s a real pleasure to meet you. Thank you.

Tavis: I thank you, Don. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes App Store. Until next time, thanks for tuning it and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm