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Industry Legend Don Was on Detroit Roots, Pan-Detroit Ensemble, and Blue Note Records

Don Was
Photo: Gemma Corfield

Last updated on May 16th, 2024 at 12:53 pm

In the notoriously chaotic and turbulent music industry, there are few constants. Tastes and trends change quickly, and rapid technological shifts frequently alter the way music is created, marketed, and consumed. So the old cliché that “the only constant is change” rings especially true in music. This highlights the importance of personalities and institutions that evolve, adapt, and survive, and few exemplify this better than Don Was.

Best known perhaps for his work as a genre-spanning producer for big time acts like The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer and more, Was has built a unique career. As a leader, sideman, session player and producer, his fingerprints are all over some of the best music of the last 40 years. On top of that, he’s produced multiple documentaries, worked in radio, and has served as the president of jazz institution Blue Note Records for over a decade. Suffice it to say, Was is a true music lifer.

His newest project, The Pan-Detroit Ensemble, stretches back to some of the earliest days of that musical life. Inspired by the eclectic sounds heard growing up in Detroit and more, the ensemble builds upon that city’s rich legacy, extending beyond Motown, from jazz greats like Pharoah Sanders to early rockers The Stooges and even to early electronic music and hip hop. It’s a city with deep history, and Was grew up in the thick of it.

The quality and variety of that music is very much reflected in Was’ career. Whether he’s producing records by the Stones or Wayne Shorter, touring on bass with Bob Weir, or acting as musical director for Willie Nelson’s all-star birthday concert, a line of exceptional taste runs through his work, no matter the musical context or genre.

On Tuesday May 21st, Was brings the Pan-Detroit Ensemble to Minneapolis for two shows at the Dakota. The shows are notable not only because some of Detroit’s finest musicians are involved, but also because they will be this project’s debut performances. With that comes potential, excitement, and the always sought after buzz. In our conversation, Was expressed great enthusiasm for this project and these early gigs. Time will tell how the project will evolve, but an opportunity to catch a band like this in its early stages is not to be missed.

Don Was
Photo: Miryam Ramos

The following interview with Don Was has been edited for length and consistency.

Music In Minnesota: This new band is the Pan Detroit Ensemble. Over the course of your career, you’ve always had very refined but varied musical tastes. Detroit is a city that has such a rich diverse musical heritage, a lot of which was happening around the time you were starting out. I’m curious how the music and scenes that you were around in Detroit shaped those tastes and your musical sensibilities.

Don Was: The musical vibe of Detroit totally shaped my sensibilities. And you’re right, it was a really diverse scene. After World War II, people came from all over the world to work in the auto factories, because things were booming there, and they brought their cultures with them. And you could hear every kind of music. I was talking with the folk singer Tom Rush the other day, and he was remembering about a place called the Chessmate Gallery, a big folk club…where Joni Mitchell gave him “The Circle Game”. And I used to see him there, but there was all kinds of music there.

Just on the Blue Note roster alone, there’s a really inordinate number of musicians who have recorded for the label who come from Detroit, way more than any other city. There was a great R&B scene – Fortune Records and Motown Records – and an incredible rock and roll scene as well. Mitch Ryder, MC5, The Stooges. Bob Seger and The Stooges played at my high school. Funkadelic – at the time they were called The Parliaments – played a sock hop at my junior high school.

To me, the epitome of Detroit Music is John Lee Hooker, who has a raw, unpretentious, very soulful approach to music. Anything you want to know about Detroit is in John Lee Hooker’s music. You really know the people through that music.

MIM: How does this new band build on those roots?

DW: It totally builds on it, and it’s kind of by design. Terence Blanchard is involved as a curator for a series for the Detroit Symphony about Detroit jazz; they’re doing this series of concerts this year. He called me, this was probably going on two years ago, about doing one of the nights. I didn’t have a band together, so I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do, and I knew the right thing to do was to go back to Detroit and play with a bunch of people who grew up listening to the same things I did. So those concerts will happen a few days after the shows at the Dakota.

I was thinking about the first time I met Stevie Wonder, I was in the house band on a TV show, and he was going to sing a song, and I didn’t know anything, what song or what key. I had to go down to his dressing room, and his brother Milton was guarding the dressing room. He said I could have a minute and a half with him, so I could find out what key and what song. So I went in to talk to Stevie, and after a minute and a half was up, Milton came in to throw me out, and Stevie said “no let him stay, he sounds like home.” What he meant was that I hit the consonants the way people from Detroit do and it made him feel good.

It’s the same musically. Music is just a conversation in a slightly different language. When you play with people who speak the native tongue like that comfortably, it makes you feel good to play the music, and the audience can pick up on that. It makes them feel good to hear how much fun everybody’s having. That’s what we put together. Some of these guys I’ve been playing with for 45 years. Dave McMurray who records for Blue Note now, Luis Resto who worked with Eminem, he played with Was (Not Was) as a teenager. I’ve known all these people for awhile, so it’s super comfortable. We got together last October, and had so much fun we decided to take it out.

What’s exciting about the Minnesota show is that it’s our first (laughs). It’s the “first date.” It’s super special. You can never get back to that state of beginner’s mind again. So we go in with lots of enthusiasm, and we’re testing to see how far we can push things. You never get a second chance at a first night like that. I’m really, really looking forward to those shows at the Dakota.

MIM: That idea of starting a new project is fascinating to me. You’ve been involved with so many bands and projects over the years, what’s the most exciting part of starting a new band?

DW: Adventure, man (laughs)! Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, what greater thing? It’s like surfing, you can learn to stand up on a board, but you don’t control the waves. The ocean’s gonna change, that’s why you go out there every day, because you get a completely different ride every single day. It’s so much fun to start from the beginning with something. I haven’t done it in maybe 40 years. I don’t even produce that many new artists that haven’t been in the studio before. To start out at the very beginning, where a tour bus is a luxury.

People won’t know who we are, so the audiences will be smaller, but the people who [show up] will be there for the right reasons, and that’s really exciting. I can’t wait to get going. And I can’t wait to see what this band turns into. I’m definitely sticking with it. We’ve got plans to record after the tour, and we’re booking dates for the fall. It’s rare that you get that kind of relaxed familiar conversation going among that many musicians. When you have that, you shouldn’t let it go. Only a handful of bands have that. The Rolling Stones have that. Duke Ellington had that where he had Johnny Hodges. This band’s got that, and I’m not going to let that go.

MIM: So with people you’ve known for a long time, you get the advantages of continuity, but here you’ll also have those advantages you’re talking about in starting something new.

DW: Especially when…the point is to sound like you’re from Detroit. Everyone has license to just be themselves; they’re not trying to do something else. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in 45 years of making records. Your only prayer is to be the best version of you. If you try to be like somebody else, the odds are against you. We’re going in there to be ourselves and really doing it for the right reasons. This isn’t about, like, buying a Ferrari, getting rich, this is about feeling great at the end of the night. That’s the reward.

MIM: I think that’s something that audiences pick up on. The times I saw you playing with Weir, I always noticed you had a palpable enthusiasm about you, and I think your passion for the music shows through.

DW: Thank you man, playing with Bobby is what whetted my appetite for getting on the road again. And truthfully, if Bobby would have booked 300 dates a year, we probably would have never gotten around to doing this band. It made me want to keep playing. There’s nothing like that feeling of connection with the other musicians, and having that whole thing connect to the audience. I can’t think of anything better on earth.

MIM: I want to ask a few questions about Blue Note , which has historically played such an important role in jazz and does to this day. Under your watch, it seems the label is flourishing in the spirit of doing what it has always done: pushing the music forward while respecting and honoring the roots. Is there something you’re most proud of during your tenure at Blue Note?

DW: Just keeping the company open (laughs). In these times, I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward and that the doors are still open, because record sales are not what they used to be. We’ve had to be very imaginative about how we can keep things going. There are only about 7 people who work at Blue Note records, and they all do about 3-4 jobs, and they work late into the night, and they’re really dedicated to the music.

When I first got the gig, I tried to go back to figure out why the music the label recorded remained vibrant, and sounded fresh and relevant. I realized it was because, no matter what era you look at in the label’s history, they always signed artists who had mastered the fundamentals of the music that preceded them, but then used the knowledge to create something brand new and move the boundaries of the music. Thelonious Monk in the 40’s did that, Art Blakey and Horace Silver in the 50’s, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy in the 60’s and then even Robert Glasper did that when I started working there at 2011. He could play like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk if you asked him to, but he found a new way to take all of that and make something new. I feel we’ve got an incredible roster of artists now who do that. Some young artists like Joel Ross, Immanuel Wilkins, and Julian Lage, who are all pushing it forward. But also like Charles Lloyd, who at 86 just made what I think is the best record of his career. Charles never stops pushing it forward. I feel we’ve maintained a roster who continue to do that, and I’m very proud of the artists we’ve worked with.

MIM: I’m curious because you are an artist, producer and player, how does that inform your work as president? Do you feel you have a certain perspective that is artist-informed in a way that someone else might not have?

DW: I think that’s true. The biggest mistake record companies make is that they find artists that they love and they sign them and they try and change them into whatever is fashionable in that moment in time to sell records. I’ve had that happen to me as an artist, so that’s informed not only how I operate as president of Blue Note, but also how I produce records. My feeling is that you sign artists that you trust and that you believe in, and then help them realize their vision. Don’t try to change them; encourage them, and don’t get in their way.

Play the long game with the artists. Everyone that we sign we’re committed to indefinitely. I believe you let people grow, and you give them the room to create great stuff. A Love Supreme wasn’t created by people who were studying the data of what was currently selling and trying to imitate that (laughs). It was created by people who were trying to express themselves, in a profound way. That’s how we do it at Blue Note.

Written by Aaron Williams


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