Blue Note President Don Was on the Future of Jazz

06/26/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

Photo by Gabi Porter

This interview first appeared in OffBeat Magazine.

Improvisation has always been at the core of jazz music.

Collective improvisation--a piano player riffing on a bass line thumping out of an upright following the whims of a drummer--has served the entire jazz industry well over the past century or so.

But, when you take a step back to get a wide-angle view of the landscape of the current music industry, the theory of improvisation can be applied in interesting new ways.

What if a jazz band now consists of one 17-year-old and her tricked out computer? What if randomized algorithms govern each sequential synthetic piano note? What if hip-hop beats become melded indelibly to jazz standards? What will jazz music sound like in five years?

Not all of these questions will be answered, and some new methods of producing music will never even gain traction, but it takes a certain kind of mindset to be open to the possibilities presented by the modern world.

Blue Note Records President Don Was has just such a mindset. Over his long and varied career, Was (born Donald Fagenson) has cultivated an outlook that allows him to be focused on preserving the past while remaining open to the limitless possibilities of the future.

The devoted music scholar got his start as a bass player in the band Was (Not Was), racking up several hits throughout the '80s, including the still catchy "Walk the Dinosaur."

Was--along with Keith Richards--produced Aaron Neville's Blue Note debut album My True Story. He has also paid serious tribute to New Orleans by producing the instantly legendary Dr. John tribute at the Saenger Theater.

Was artfully curated the musicians picked to participate in the show, carefully placing titans like Bruce Springsteen amid a bevy of contemporary New Orleans musicians. The mix paid off in a big way, and the show will go down as an epic New Orleans event.

In 2012, after producing albums for dozens of top artists from the Rolling Stones to Neil Diamond, Was settled in as the president of Blue Note, one of the last bastions of jazz in the increasingly fractious music industry.

Was is spending just as much time looking back through the legendary label's history as he is looking forward to the future.

And Don Was has never been afraid of the future.

What is your take on the music industry as a whole right now?

Well, these are crazy times. If you're a traditionalist in the music business--and I'm not even discussing musical taste, but just in how the business model works--everything you know has been turned upside down.

I feel fortunate that I'm fairly new to the hardcore business side. I still approach it like I did as a musician and like I do as a record producer.

If you put the artist and the music first, you figure that it's the record company's responsibility to get behind a select group of artists and make sure that they have the means to capture all of their ideas in the recording studio and get them out in front of people.

There are a million ways to enable that to happen.

What kind of an outlook does the music industry as a whole have for the future?

I am actually quite optimistic about the future of the music business and I'm a great believer that you just have to consider our responsibility to the musicians first.

If you approach from that point of view, everything falls into place.

Do you think your personal perspective has been formed by having worked your way up from being a musician yourself?

Yes, I really do. It's a weird business. If you stay true to the music and the spirit of the music and the spirit of the musicians, the bread will follow. I absolutely believe that, and it's totally been informed by my own experience, from my own days of being a struggling bass player in Detroit to now.

This isn't some innovative idea of mine, you know? I kind of inherited the mantle of Bruce Lundvall, who is one of the great record men of all time. He ran the label for 30 years, and he enabled a whole lot of folks to make records. That's really your gig, to enable people to keep making records.

Even when traditional records have been replaced by YouTube clips?

Well, yes. Personally, I believe that the days of selling tracks to consumers as a business model are gone.

To me, that doesn't mean you stop making music, and that doesn't mean you can stop generating the bread necessary to keep making records. It just means you've got to be able to be very creative about how you go about it.

It seems like the current business approach has musicians chasing fans and trying to make it personal for them instead of fans seeking out and finding new musicians.

I think they're coming to fans in more overt ways. Really, to me, thinking back to my experiences as an artist in Was (Not Was), we made a great effort to come to people.

We were out there singing "Walk the Dinosaur" live on every Morning Zoo program on every radio station across the country and trying to be funny at 5:30 in the morning.

I think the interaction between musicians and fans is just a little more visible now. I think you have to make an effort to get music to people. Otherwise, you're just making music and that's it, and what's the point in that?

If you look back at the history of the music industry and you look at a guy like Robert Johnson, he used to stand in front of the barbershop and play for free just to give a teaser to get people to pay to go see him at the roadhouse that night.

Then someone came along and said "if you let me record you, we can get you on the local radio station, and you can reach 100 times the amount of people you'll reach standing in front of the barbershop," and that was the bargain. There were no royalties or anything like that, and some guy would sell records out of the trunk of his car in front of appliance stores. It wasn't this huge industry, but it made people aware of the music. I think we can still do that.

Right now, there seems to be more of a movement towards kids with laptops and iPads creating music rather than musicians spending years learning to play traditional instruments. How does that change your approach to recording jazz artists?

Jazz is a pretty broad term. A lot of folks don't even like to use it anymore. I think that the definition is always supposed to be changing. If it encompasses people doing stuff on their iPads, it's the spirit in which they do it that matters more than the technological developments.

If you play with a certain abandon and improvisational sense, you can swing like a motherfucker with your iPad.

How does that fit with the history of jazz masters recorded by Blue Note?

When you look back at Blue Note over 75 years, it endured and kept the aesthetic intact by constantly reinventing itself and constantly changing.

If you play improvisational music night after night, which I've done as a musician for 50 years, one of the rules is you should never play it the same twice. Every night when you come in to play, you should close your eyes, clear the slate, and approach the song with a beginner's mind and start fresh and just play what appears.

I believe that reinvention and evolution are built into jazz on a cellular level. If you really follow the music that we created throughout the history of the company, we were always pushing the boundaries, and that's something we will continue to do.

If you accept that the state of jazz is supposed to be one of constant evolution, these times are right in keeping with it. There's a place for a kid with an iPad.

How does New Orleans fit into the contemporary jazz scene?

Off the top of my head, a leading exponent of New Orleans music is Jon Batiste, who I'd love to see end up on Blue Note Records. I think he's really incorporated the musical spirit of the city to the extent that I, as someone who has never lived there, can be see it in what he does. You can't see one of his shows and not recognize New Orleans.

Terence Blanchard is on the label, and he's one of the dominant living forces of New Orleans music. He's about to start a new album that's totally different for him. He's a guy who likes to keep things moving, I think, and yet he stays really rooted in the traditions.

I think it's very much alive, New Orleans music. I think it resonates with people because so much influential music came out of New Orleans on every level--from blues to rock 'n' roll to jazz. New Orleans is embedded in the DNA code of music. That New Orleans feeling.

I have two kids who are drummers, and they don't necessarily know Earl Palmer, but they do Earl Palmerisms all the time. It has just permeated the musical vocabulary on such a fundamental level.