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‘You got to groove in the face of adversity’: Don Was & the raw and soulful sound of Detroit music

Don Was
Miryam Ramos
Don Was

Don Was IS a true musical renaissance man. He has won six Grammy Awards. Records produced by him have sold 100 million copies. He’s worked with Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. As President of the iconic Blue Note label, Don has also worked with Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter and Jason Moran.

All of this creativity has a deep-rooted sense memory anchored in Detroit, his hometown. To share his experience, Don has packed up his bass for a tour of like-minded musicians joining Don Was and The Pan-Detroit Ensemble, playing in Red Bank at Count Basie Theatre on May 28, City Winery in NYC on May 31 and Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock on June 1. Recently Don and I chatted about the group and his amazing portfolio of work.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker:  Detroit, Michigan, man. What a place for this music.

Don Was: You and I grew up at the same time there. It was an incredible environment to grow up in. It was right after World War II, all these people came from all over the world to work in the factories and brought their cultures with them. And it all turned up in the music of the city. There's something about a one industry town like that, where everybody's kind of in the same boat, no point in putting on any airs. It's a very honest, unpretentious city. The music reflects that. Like John Lee Hooker to me is the epitome of Detroit music, as soulful as they come, but about as raw as you can be without the music completely falling apart. In every different genre of music, whether it's the rock n’ roll, like a Mitch Ryder or the MC5. Or Eminem. Or Jack White. It goes right up to today.

Through your work as the head of the Blue Note record company, which you've held the position since 2011, I read somewhere like 20% of the artists on that label came or come from Detroit.

It's an insane amount, and there's not even a close second—Donald Byrd and Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones and Thad Jones and Hank Jones. The list is crazy. It goes on. Paul Chambers, Ron Carter.

Ron grew up about a mile away from me. A lot of those folks went to Cass Tech. Barry Harris went to Northeastern and they were pretty hip around the music too. They were eclipsed often by Cass Tech and what they were doing. But Barry told me that he and another guy used to do assemblies for the student body and they would all get together in the auditorium and they would listen to these two pianos. I said, “Well, who was the other guy? Did he stick with it?” He goes, “No, well, he sort of did.” The other pianist was Berry Gordy. It's also on the streets of Detroit where Frank Foster ran into somebody and they said, “Hey, Count Basie's looking for you.” He obviously found him, didn't he?

I guess so.

This all comes together for you with a tour that features Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble. Talk about that group and the inspiration.

The inspiration for it is of course the music we grew up listening to and playing and trying to reflect that in modern times. It’s jazzy. We've got some great soloists. It's got a groove under it too, though. It's very Detroit. It's raw, it's not smooth. It’s the opposite of smooth. But it was really nice to go back and put a band together with nine people who all grew up in the same milieu. We instantly had a beautiful musical conversation going. It was done for one gig actually. Terence Blanchard, who's an old friend of mine, hosts a series at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall. They do Detroit-related jazz things. I think I'm the only one who didn't have a band together when he asked me to do it. So I put a band together specifically for the show. We did a rehearsal last October and it just gelled from the first note. You don't take it lightly if you can get that kind of interaction going.

And the depth of those conversations…I'm thinking of about six years ago and Dave McMurray had just put his first record out for the Blue Note record label and it was called Music is Life. And he came with his bassist Ibrahim Jones and just the two of them played live in our studios. And I'm thinking, “Time Number Five.” What a soulful tune. David will be part of the ensemble. You and David go way, way back.

We’ve been playing together about 45 years. We know how to dot each other's i’s at this point. Also, the keyboard player Luis Resto who's a great jazz player, but also was Eminem's collaborator and co-wrote “Lose Yourself,” and won an Oscar with Eminem for that.

You've won Grammys for working with people like Bonnie Raitt. We’ll talk about a common denominator with Bonnie a little bit later in our conversation. You’ve done music for films about the lives of Brian Wilson, the Beatles. You've worked with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and so many others. And you’ve been responsible for one of the hippest film soundtracks I have ever heard in my life. When you mentioned Terence, it brought me back to Backbeat.

It was Terence and Eric Reed and McMurray. It was a real nice band. It was a good movie to score. I won a BAFTA award for it for best original score and I didn't know what BAFTA was. They said, “You got to go to Scotland and pick up this award.” And I’m like, “I'm not going to Scotland.” A year later, I found out you have to go to Scotland and pick up your BAFTA award. So someone got up on stage accepted for me and I never got the trophy.

Coming up, you don't have to go to Scotland to witness what we're talking about today. How about May 28 at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank? How about May 31 at the City Winery in New York City? Or one night later, returning to the scene of the crime because it was where the soundtrack for Backbeat was recorded, at the Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. The theater is opening back up again, and they're going to inaugurate the reopening with Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble.

It's a good venue. I was there years ago. I think I saw Kinky Friedman there one time, when we were up there recording at the studio. We went over to the theater and saw him. There was a storyteller, a great character.

How do you find time for all of this? If I sat here and talked about everything you have accomplished, we'd be out of time.

I read an interview with Frank Sinatra once. It was conducted in the 60s. He was making a movie, making a record and flying to Vegas every night to do the Rat Pack shows before coming back to be on the movie set. The interviewer said, “How do you do all this stuff?” He said, “Simple, whatever you do, be 100 percent present for it. Don't be worried about what you messed up earlier in the day. Don't be worried about what's coming up. Just be there.” The Zen according to Frank Sinatra.

You grew up in Detroit, Oak Park, right?

Yeah, Oak Park High.

What was some of the first music that you heard that really impacted you?

Well, I can tell you what changed my life and set the course for me to even be president of Blue Note Records 58 years later. One time I was driving around, I wanted to be at Northland Mall, which I'm sure you hung out at, wanted to be there with my friends on a Saturday and I was running errands with my mom. She left me in the car with the keys because I was just being so obnoxious. I started playing with the dial and just like you had the same experience, nobody had FM in the car. But on weekends they'd simulcast WCHD, which was the jazz station. I heard a guy named Ed Love and I tuned in just as he was playing “Mode for Joe” by Joe Henderson.

If you come in at around 41 seconds, you hear what sounds like these anguished cries and it matched my mood exactly—my frustration with not being able to hang out with my friends. But then Joe Chambers kicks in about a minute and 15 seconds into the song, starts swinging with that great ride cymbal, and Joe falls into the groove. The message that came through to me with that music was that I thought Joe Henderson was talking to me. He was saying, “Don, you got to groove in the face of adversity.” It changed my mood around 180 degrees in the course of two minutes. I was aware that music had changed my outlook dramatically.

I wanted to hear more of that music. I went out and bought an FM radio so I could listen all week. I started listening to Ed Love and the guys on that station. From that moment, I was enamored of Blue Note Records. I started buying the albums. I loved the album jackets, loved the Francis Wolff photos on the back, loved the music. It's just a lifetime passion. Then someone cavalierly offered me the gig.

We recently lost a dear friend to both of us in Michael Cuscuna, who for a long time was responsible for people all over the world hearing the Blue Note music, many times for the very first time as he went into the vaults and made discoveries and rediscoveries and shared them with the world. You contacted him for advice when you took over as president of Blue Note Records. Tell that story.

We were friends. I knew him for years because I always identified with him. We both produced Bonnie Raitt albums and I admired the work he did. I loved the Woody Shaw albums that he produced. I asked him to show me the ropes. I didn't know anything about running a record company. I never had a real job. My goal in life was to never have a job. I never thought about playing or producing records as being work, but this was going to be a job that I was going to take.

One of the things I learned about Michael was that he was single handedly responsible in the late 70s for going into the Blue Note vaults and organizing them. He cataloged and identified all of the master tapes, which were just randomly sitting around in boxes. Because of that work, he ended up with the Francis Wolff photo archive, which he also cataloged and identified and made available to people. So it’s not just like he made a contribution to the company. There'd absolutely be no Blue Note Records if Michael hadn't done this exhaustive work. It was his life's work. Our lives are so much richer today because of the music that he allowed to be heard.

You continue in that tradition because, since you've been there, we've heard new music from Wayne Shorter, new music from Robert Glasper, Charles Lloyd, Dr. Lonnie Smith, one of my favorites, Gregory Porter, Jason Moran. And as I referenced a few minutes ago, Dave McMurray made his Blue Note debut in 2018. Your vast exposure and dedication to different types of music I would assume informs what goes on with the Pan Detroit Ensemble because you've been involved for 6-8 years with Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers too. All of these things come into play, don't they?

They sure do. I'm not a big fan of genres. Genre is good for organizing record stores and that kind of thing. But I don't think musicians ever think, “Hmm, coming up in that next bar, I think I'll play an R& B lick. And then a couple of bars down the line, I'll throw in a kind of country lick.” You're either trying to express something from deep inside or you're treading water and not contributing anything. I think the point of music is to make people feel something, to help them understand their lives, help them feel better in troubled times, and also to make them aware of the beauty that surrounds them all the time, that maybe they're too hung up to notice. That's the function great music has played in my life. That's what we try to do. On the Pan Detroit Ensemble gigs, our goal is to make people leave the theater feeling better than they felt when they walked in.


And that lady that joins you.

Yes, Steffanie Christ’ian.

Is she from Detroit?

Everyone is from or lives in Detroit. It truly is a Detroit band and she's an incredible singer. She tours with Kevin Saunderson and Inner City—a Detroit techno kind of thing. Very big all over the world. She tours with him, but we're lucky that our schedules haven't conflicted so far.

Don't you have a weekly radio program in Detroit?

I do, on the local NPR station WDET. We do it live every Friday.

Live radio is pretty great, isn't it?

I didn't realize what a thrill that is to sit there and play the music and listen as it's going down and take calls from listeners. And it's, it's really very much like playing a show as a band. You try to construct something that has a few arcs in it during the course of the two hours. I really love doing it, but it's given me greater admiration for guys like you who can just sit there and improvise. You're the Coltrane of DJs, man. You sit there and improvise. You can speak in complete sentences and you never say “uh” or get lost. It's a real talent.

If I was to tune in to WDET on a Friday night, what would I hear?

It’s a real jambalaya. I’m sure you listened to WABX in the old days in Detroit for free-form radio. I'm trying to think of last Friday's show. We went from Lee Morgan to Al Green to John Lee Hooker to Ali Farka Toure. it just jumps around. I'm going for segues that have a lot of contrast to them and that yet show the similarities in there with that kind of background and that kind of knowledge.

When you step in as producer for the Blue Note record label, do you ever make suggestions to some of the artists that are coming in that perhaps don't have that synergistic profile to complete an album or do you just let them go?

I'll be honest with you. It's different when I'm producing records for Blue Note, because I'm also the record company president. The philosophy that we have regarding A&R at Blue Note Records is sign artists you trust and believe in and help them do their thing and don't get in the way of it. I try to be very invisible on the Blue Note records that I work on and even on the ones I don't work on. That's actually in the Blue Note manifesto that they wrote in 1939. The founders of the company dedicated themselves to the pursuit of authentic music and to providing unlimited freedom of expression.

And that's how we get Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, just for starters that first day in January, 85 years ago, when they put it all together.  You've done so much. Is there anything that's on your purview looking out ahead to the horizon that you would say, “God, someday I wish I could be involved with this”?

What's really been preoccupying me lately is playing. I took some bass lessons from maestro Ron Carter and he turned me on to a lot of stuff. The title of his book is something about searching for the perfect note. That's where my focus has been for the future. I want to get better playing bass. Last night, Taj Mahal sent me this clip of Slam Stewart, a live performance with him singing and bowing. Just such a genius. It brought tears to my eyes with the range of expression he was able to pull out of that instrument.

It makes you want to get better and better. Of course you never get it if you ever get to the point where you think, “Yeah, I finally got it figured out.” Then I think you're dead as a musician. Between any two points, there's always another point in geometry. Same with music. There's always another level. So now it's not so much, “Man, I want to produce someone famous like the Rolling Stones.”

It's been there, done that.

I have done that. What I want to do is just little nuances. Ron showed me something I was doing wrong with my fingers that involves like a millimeter of change in what I do with my left hand, but it opened up a whole universe. Just one millimeter is like Mount Everest. That’s what my focus is on now.

Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble
Gemma Corfield
Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble

I look forward to checking out Don Was and the Pan Detroit Ensemble. You want to tell us who's in the band?

There’s Mahindi Masai on percussion, Jeff Canaday on the drums, John Douglas playing trumpet. Steffanie Christ’ian is singing. Luis Resto is playing keyboards. I'm playing bass and I'm probably forgetting one or two of them. [trombonist Vincent Chandler and guitarist Wayne Gerard!]

And Dave McMurray will be playing saxophone and so you get a little taste of “A Nubian Lady” in there too.

Yes. Thank you. A great band. I love playing with these guys so much. It was just supposed to be one gig, but after a couple of rehearsals, we said, “No, we're taking this out.” We're doing a couple of weeks up in the Midwest and East Coast. We're booking West Coast for September and we're going to stick with this. I'm dying to see what this thing evolves into. Because we're all so like-minded, we can go some places with this. But there's something about the first couple of shows. That's why I think these shows in the New York area are going to be so exciting, because we're approaching this music with a beginner's mind…every place it can go. We'll be constantly pushing the boundaries. After a tour or so, you can never get back to that again. It'll become something else. What it's going to be on this tour is going to be something fresh and innocent and very exciting.

You've made it happen over the years for so many different people and songs, inspired on this tour. Do you ever get requests when you're performing somewhere to play something from Was (Not Was)?

We're actually learning three songs. They won't be the hits, but there's some deep cuts that fit right in with the show.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.