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‘Music fans like music that speaks to them...it doesn't matter what kind it is’: Don Was on WasFest

Don Was
Gabi Porter
Don Was

It’s hard to think of a busier person in the music industry than Don Was. Even before he took over as president of Blue Note Records in 2012, Was had established himself as a first-call producer for everyone from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones (with whom he remains the producer of choice). Before that he was the bassist and co-leader of the popular ‘80s funk band Was (Not Was) and although the group disbanded many years ago, Was continues to record and tour with various bands, including Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers. He’s also active in the film world, working as musical director or consultant for numerous films. He’s even produced a documentary—I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, about Brian Wilson. If all that wasn’t enough, he hosts a weekly radio show, The Don Was Motor City Playlist, on WDET in Detroit.

That’s why the news that he is curating a music festival, aptly named WasFest, June 23-25, 2023 at the Wang and Schubert theaters in Boston was both surprising, and well, not so surprising. The programming of the three-day festival, presented in partnership with the Boch Center and the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (FARHOF), is decidedly eclectic and features reggae greats Steel Pulse, funk band Lettuce with vocalist Judith Hill, The Dark Star Orchestra, and Robert Glasper, as well as Blue Note recording artists Meshell Ndegeocello, Julian Lage and Gerald Clayton, along with numerous special guests, including John Medeski, Ambrose Akinmusire and Immanuel Wilkins.

Raised in the music-rich Detroit area during the 60s, Don found early inspiration for this catholic approach, not necessarily from the historic Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival (which he did attend), but rather the Detroit Rock and Roll Revival held at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1968. “It was a two-day festival and the segment I remember was the closing one which was the Stooges, Sun Ra and Chuck Berry,” Was recalls. “That was fun and enlightening and I never forgot that. When I was a teenager in the sixties, it was kind of common that you'd have bills like that.”

More recently, as a member of Bob Weir’s band, Was performed at the Fillmore and spent some time looking at the old posters from past shows at that venue. “It was the most eclectic set of artists. Charles Lloyd, our friend and recording artist— he was really the first jazz guy to go play at the Fillmore there,” Was says. “He beat Miles there by a couple of years and you can see him on the bill with the Grateful Dead and Howlin’ Wolf.”

Was may be the president of an iconic jazz label, but he’s always had broad tastes and interests. He believes that most music listeners are the same way. “One of the things I've learned from going out and playing with Bob Weir is that people like to attend unique events. They don't want to see the same show that people saw the night before. We change the show up every night with Bobby. I see people respond to mistakes and forgotten lyrics because they know this is a hundred percent live. This isn't going to happen ever again. This festival's kind of like that.”

Beyond its eclecticism, WasFest also boosts an unusual wrinkle. Each of the artists will be performing sets featuring an entire album, either its own or a seminal recording. For example, Glasper will perform material from his Black Radio albums, Ndegeocello will play music from her new album Plantation Lullabies and Lettuce and Judith Hill will do Aretha’s seminal Live at Fillmore West, originally released in 1971.

Was says that the artists led the way in choosing the albums that they would play. “You don't want someone to play something they don't want to play. You want them to be excited. Everybody is jazzed to do this because it'll only happen this one time. You won't see Gerald, Ambrose [Akinmusire] and Immanuel [Wilkins] get together and play Speak No Evil in its entirety ever again. To me, Speak No Evil is the crown jewel of the Blue Note catalog, and I think if you talk to a lot of musicians, they'll tell you the same thing.” Julian Lage’s trio will be joined by keyboardist Medeski to perform material from Grant Green’s 1964 Street of Dreams album, also on Blue Note. But the chosen albums for the program are not limited to the Blue Note catalog.

Speak No Evil (Remastered 1998 / Rudy Van Gelder Edition)

Was has his own personal reasons for his excitement about Steel Pulse’s involvement. “Steel Pulse doing True Democracy is mind blowing to me because when we started making records in the eighties, True Democracy was kind of a role model,” Was explains. “It was upbeat and you could dance to it, but they were dealing with some very heavy and dark political themes and that was something we were trying to do. I felt always felt a real musical kinship with those guys.”

He's also excited to see the Dark Star Orchestra perform. “They're going to do a Grateful Dead Set that was done in that same room in 1978,” Was says. “They're going to replicate that set as it was back then when it was the Boston Music Hall. I hope people see the connection between the improvisational music of the Dead and the improvisational music of the jazz musicians because it’s very similar. You're dealing with some different scales maybe in some different modes. Not always, but sometimes. But the intent of the artist going in is very much the same thing—the spirit of adventure and a determination not to repeat anything that's happened before and to play something new every night.”

Over the years, Was has been a regular attendee at jazz and music festivals such as the Monterey Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, Detroit Jazz Festival, Blue Note at Sea, JazzFest in New Orleans and others. I can personally testify that, unlike many successful record execs and producers, Was remains a devout listener—sitting quietly in the audience for entire sets, rather than hobnobbing and talking backstage while the band plays.

Besides discovering artists whom he would later sign to the label, like Gregory Porter and Artemis, Was has learned from all that festival-going about the audience as well. “Here’s the main takeaway. Music listeners don't think in terms of genre—whether they like a genre or they don't. They just hear music. If it speaks to them, it speaks to them. If it doesn't, it doesn't. Genres are good if you're trying to organize a record store. But musicians don't sit there and think, ‘Well, I think I'll play an R&B lick next, and then I'll throw in some blues and then in four bars we’ll do...’ You just play. It's just like we speak. We don't think about where we learn the words from or what it sounds like. We converse like the people we are. Music fans like music that speaks to them, and it doesn't matter what kind it is. I've learned that, from going to all these festivals, if people are open-minded and if you give them something great, they will respond to it. We're going to test that assumption.”

For his part, Was is not planning to be part of the program at WasFest, other than as an emcee and host. “I'm not going to play,” he explains. “I'll introduce everybody and then I'm going to sit in the audience and dig the show. In the end, the thing that holds it together is these are all shows that I'd pay to go see. I’m excited to see it altogether. We'll see how it goes, but I'd like to do it every year. I like the idea that it's only going to happen once and then it's up in smoke. It's not a TV show. I'm sure people will smuggle in cameras, and you'll see handheld stuff up on YouTube, but if you come to the shows, it'll be the only time you see this happening.”

Given how rare it is these days to see a new jazz or music festival come along, music fans with a wide range of interests are sure to share that excitement for this event’s debut in June.

Learn more about WasFest here.

Listen to the complete interview with Don Was, above.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”