MIRROR ONLINE: Mr. Was, you have been successful as a musician and have been the producers of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and many others. Since 2012, you have been president of the legendary jazz label Blue Note. You are not afraid of big tasks, right?
Don What: I often think about fear. Last year, the former grateful-dead guitarist Bob Weir surprisingly called me. The bassist with whom he wanted to go on tour had died and had previously recommended me as his replacement. Oh well. I was not sure I thought so: I do not know all the Grateful Dead songs by far, and Bob improvises terribly. Nevertheless, I agreed to learn about 120 songs – and then we were on tour for five weeks. Why? Because I wanted to overcome my fear. It was worth it.
Don what, Born 1952 in Detroit, is a bassist, music producer and since 2012 president of the jazz label Blue Note. In 1980 he founded the radio rock band Was (Not Was) with a school friend, but he was more successful in the studio. What worked with the biggest rock and pop stars, including Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Most recently, he produced their album “Blue And Lonesome” (2016), which won a Grammy. What already won four in his career.
MIRROR ONLINE: Do you really have to ask permission from your parent company, Universal, if you take your leave of absence as a Blue Note boss for five weeks on a rock'n'roll tour?
What: No, because I know that everyone in the company is happy about it. Many even came to the shows. I'd like to explain why: It's about the ideal that someone who runs a record company is not an office stallion, but an active musician. This is especially true for Blue Note. There is even a manifesto written by the two label founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. It states that artists should be granted total artistic freedom. Without restriction. Only then could authentic music emerge. This can be seen as a desktop wallpaper on my computer screen in the office so that I can look at it every day and internalize it.
MIRROR ONLINE: We meet in Berlin. Does it mean something to you, that Lion and Wolff grew up here?
What: Yes of course! I drove to Gotenstraße 7, the birthplace of Alfred Lion. (What pulls out his smartphone, opens an app) Do you see the entrance to the house in the photo? Lion lived there. He could have touched the door, it's old. Marlene Dietrich had a flat across the street. Crazy!
MIRROR ONLINE: They are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Blue Note this year. Is there too much concern for the label's glorious past?
What: We have many of the best jazz records of all time in the repertoire, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and so on. They have developed the jazz at that time, now it has to go on again. So I do not want our current artists to play jazz, which could have been released in the fifties or sixties. Young musicians should know what the sixties sounded like, but by no means copy them. I'm sure the Blue Note founders would think so. It is important to me that the music that emerges reflects the present. I want a sound that blends everything together: jazz, hip-hop, R & B, whatever. What Kendrick Lamarr, Kamasi Washington or Robert Glasper do is actually beyond any categorization. It is only clear that it brings the music as such forward.
MIRROR ONLINE: As music streaming becomes the new standard, you put a lot of effort into costly audiophile projects like the Blue Note Review boxes, luxury vinyl editions packed with silk scarves, cleaning brushes, and booklets. Are not these exclusive gimmicks obsolete?
What: I do not consider that elitist. More and more people will be streaming music, but there will always be enough left over to enjoy their work on outstanding sounding, classically made recordings, artworks. The first “Review” box is sold out for a long time. The second almost. I'm not worried.
MIRROR ONLINE: Do you have a plan B?
What: It took a little eternity for Plan A to get started. I am a classic late developer and was already in my late thirties when my own music project Was (Not Was) started slowly. At that time, I put the pseudonym Don Was, which incidentally still causes me problems at airports, because in my passport is Don Fagenson. When I wanted to fly to Nashville for the funeral of Johnny Cash, I almost got stuck in L.A. because the ticket was Don Was. What do you think, how happy I am that you can google my name! The security guards and I looked together at pictures with my portrait and the name Don Was. Then I was allowed to fly.
MIRROR ONLINE: You also work as a producer with the largest in the industry. How difficult is it to tell people like Van Morrison or the Rolling Stones if something is not good enough?
What: Wrong question. It's never about whether that could be difficult, it's just that I'm honest, because that's what I'm paid for. Of course we are not always in the studio all agree, quite the opposite. But that's part of the creative process. However, I do not work for artists that I suspect will always overrule me in the studio. For what should that bring? That's a question of mutual respect. I prove it to every musician and expect it to me as well.
MIRROR ONLINE: And that works in practice?
What: I had a fight with Keith Richards. It does not matter what it was all about, he freaked out completely anyway. I replied that I only make suggestions to him. It helps if you act tactfully. I was in the studio with Bob Dylan, which was exciting enough, but then George Harrison snowed in, whom Bob had invited to play a guitar solo. Bob tormented George a bit, did not let him hear the whole song, but said, “Play something!” George actually played without it. Bob listened – and then announced, “Great, or what do you think, Don?” I sat there and was completely intimidated. I looked at George for finding his own solo awful. And Bob smiled mischievously. He wanted to fool George a bit. But because I'm being paid for honesty, I said, “Yes, that was good, but I think it gets better.” George said with relief, “Thank you!” And Bob laughed.
“Blue Note Review 2” (bluenotereview.com)