BLUE NOTE IS 75 YEARS YOUNG – current label boss DON WAS chews the fat with SJF

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Joe_-_MOde_For_JWhat attracted you to Blue Note recordings in the first place? Was there a particular album that was your entry point?

Yes, there was. A particular solo was my entry point. I was 14 and running errands with my mum and she’d leave me in the car with the keys so that I could play the radio. And on Sundays – only on Sundays – Detroit had an R&B station that played jazz. So I just happened to tune into the station, WAHB, as Joe Henderson’s ‘Mode For Joe’ was hitting the sax solo. And it starts with these kinds of animal cries and anguish and I was like fuck, what is that? But I got it. Whatever the form of English I was experiencing in ninth-grade I’m sure if it had nothing to do with Joe’s set of experiences but I heard this thing and it sort of starts out with these cries and (clicks fingers) then it clicks in and then he’s grooving and it was beyond notes; it was a conversation and it was basically saying yeah, I’ve got a lot of intense shit going on but no one is going to stop me from grooving. And I thought this is the greatest music I’ve ever heard in my life. I’d never heard anything like that.

So it was like an epiphany for you?

Oh, it was. It was just felt like a slap.

Coleman_O_CircleWere you into jazz before that?

No, no. I didn’t know anything about it. That was it and then the DJ, who’s still on in Detroit – a guy named Ed Love, he must be in his eighties now – he back-announced everything so then I just started listening and he was on every night on FM but they didn’t have FM in cars so I went out and got a little portable transistor FM radio and I listened to him constantly. Then I started researching these records and found that all the stuff I liked was coming out of this little label in New York called Blue Note and then I started looking at the covers. I remember one of the first ones I got was Ornette Coleman ‘At The Golden Circle’ and he’s wearing this top hat with a trench coat. He was just the coolest motherfucker in the world and I remember telling my parents of they had to get me a top hat and trench coat, right? But I didn’t get the look but I try to look like him (laughs). So in many ways, the things that you project, or teenagers project on like rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop – and I think hip-hop is that rebellious music today – Blue Note became that for me. And I’d look at those covers and see the Francis Wolff photos, the cigarettes and the saxophones, and the cool clothes and the dark rooms and I just want to be part of that milieu.

Blue Note is 75 years old this year and yet it still cool. Why is it still iconic after all this time?

Because I think the basic aesthetic of the brand never got altered. It’s still about authenticity and excellence and being cool. Coolness. And I think there’ve been other that it had these moments of being iconic – for example, you could put an old Motown record on and before you know whether it’s the Temptations or the Four Tops as soon as the drums kick in, you know it’s a Motown record. Chess records had that. Stax had that but they haven’t endured with a thing for 45 years. But I actually think it is that Alfred Lion, who started the company, had an understanding of the endemic nature of jazz and improvisational music which is that on a cellular level, it’s based around change and evolution constantly: you’re not supposed to play the same thing tonight that you played last night. You’re supposed to clear your mind and improvise fresh. He did that and he was not a musician but he understood that about the music; the music was constantly pushing the threshold and he was daring. I’m just finding that he didn’t love all the records. I think Andrew Hill might have confused him a bit and didn’t groove enough for him but he understood that it was important what Andrew Hill was doing to push and keep the music advancing. So it’s always been about revolution. If you go through the history of jazz, every ten years you overthrow the established thing and do something new. There’s discord and people say “that’s not jazz!” but it becomes jazz and so I think that’s the key thing. If we just simply made 1960s hard bop it would have gotten stale by now.

How did music catch your interest first of all?

My mum used to watch American Bandstand in the afternoon, the Dick Clark show, so I knew all the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. My first gig was at a hootenanny in the sixth grade. And the most notable thing about it was my band of six graders playing and the headliner was some guy that taught folk guitar at a music store. But the middle act – (laughs) I still have the flyer – it says, Chuck Mitchell and wife. Chuck Mitchell – do you know who his wife was?

Joni Mitchell?

Yeah, and she’s like 18 years old. So my first gig was with Joni Mitchell. It was an auspicious beginning and then The Beatles came along and for everyone who was my age, it was mind-blowing. I think not only was the music great and that it looked cool but the girls were screaming.

Isn’t that the reason why a guy picks up a guitar in the first place?

I think so. Yeah, it’s a great equaliser (laughs). I needed all the help that I could get.

You started off on bass

I still play bass. I’ve got a gig Wednesday. I’m going to France to play bass for Johnny Halliday. I produced his new album. So I’m going to do a couple of TV shows on him.

How did you get into production then? Was it a natural progression?

Yeah, I was aware of production values. I remember listening to records and thinking on that snare drum, they used the wrong snare sound, so I was aware of sounds and certainly, Sgt Pepper (by The Beatles) introduced the notion of the studio being a musical texture. So I was always tuned into that and it was fun to make records. I started on primitive equipment trying to make records and I always enjoyed it. I still enjoy it.