Don Was gets profiled as President of Blue Note Records

From The New York Times:

Don Was, who won Grammy awards for producing Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, became president of Blue Note Records in January.

Don Was, the Grammy Award-winning producer, has a clear recollection of his first encounter with Blue Note Records. He was a teenager, listening to the car radio in his hometown, Detroit, when he heard the title track of a 1966 album by Joe Henderson. “I heard this saxophone playing, and it was riveting,” he said recently. “I didn’t know anything about jazz. But this thing jumped out and grabbed me. It was ‘Mode for Joe.’ ”

That spark of a relationship between listener and label bloomed into a steady flame for Mr. Was, who at 59 is the president of Blue Note, with a full plate of new developments to his credit. It’s still early, but his energetic stewardship could be just what’s needed at a time of corporate transition for the label, in a difficult industry climate.

Since taking over in January, Mr. Was has rekindled the label’s affiliations with the revered saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who made a run of classic Blue Note albums in the 1960s, and the trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose tenure had ended a few years ago. He has signed the singer José James and the bassist Derrick Hodge, younger talents blending jazz and soul. And he has secured deals with eminences closer to his stylistic base, like Van Morrison, who has one prior Blue Note album, and Aaron Neville, who will be making his label debut.

All of which seems to signal the end of an uncertain lull for jazz’s most venerable label, which also became a home to low-gloss adult pop after the success of Norah Jones a decade ago. In recent years Blue Note’s parent company, EMI, has been through a series of upheavals, starting with its 2007 sale to a private equity firm, leading to its seizure by Citigroup and its subsequent $1.9 billion sale to the Universal Music Group last year.

On some level these tectonic shifts kept Blue Note in a holding pattern. After basking in 70th anniversary festivities in 2009, the label released only a handful of new titles and even fewer reissues.

“It was very frustrating, the last couple of years,” said Bruce Lundvall, who concluded his 25-year run as label president in 2010, becoming chairman emeritus. “We only signed two people.”

Mr. Was, coming from beyond the jazz realm, was an unexpected but inspired choice to run the label, an insider’s outsider who, like Mr. Lundvall, is held in high regard throughout the record business. He produced Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 blockbuster “Nick of Time,” which won the Grammy for album of the year. He has produced every Rolling Stones album since “Voodoo Lounge,” which in 1995 won the for best rock album and earned him one for producer of the year.

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Was is a musician, a bassist who has worked with Bob Dylan and Elton John. His most visible assignment is still with Was (Not Was), the eclectic rock band he formed with David Was in 1979. (Before then, Don Was was Donald Fagenson; both musicians adopted the same stage surname.)

“Talking with him was great because it was just about music,” Mr. James said, recalling their first meeting. “It was clear that if it all worked out, this would be a very different situation than I’ve had with a label before.”

In other ways it’s a slightly odd fit. “I always considered the record company the enemy, to be honest with you,” Mr. Was said last month, over dinner at a Greenwich Village restaurant. “In my experience they were people who didn’t do what they said they were going to do. And now that I come in there, half of the things I see, I think, ‘Oh, that’s why it’s got to be done that way.’ Certain things that were incomprehensible and seemed evil make total sense. And then the other half is: ‘Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe we can approach this from a fresh point of view.’ So maybe that’s what we should focus on.”

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