Don Was Is Still Mr. Motown

The acclaimed musician, record producer, and label executive formed the Pan-Detroit Ensemble to celebrate the honest, influential music of his hometown.
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Photograph by Miryam Ramos

Cincinnati has had some really big, influential names in pop and jazz music come through town in recent years, including Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, Terence Blanchard, and The National. Don Was—who performs with his new Pan-Detroit Ensemble on May 25 at Memorial Hall—deserves to be on that list in neon-illuminated capital letters. Not so much for his hit records, but rather for his status as a music business giant.

As a member of Was (Not Was), he had quite a hit in 1987 with the danceable and enjoyable “Walk the Dinosaur.” He’s better known for producing more than 100 albums for other artists and winning six Grammys, including Producer of the Year in 1994. His 1989 work with Bonnie Raitt netted her “Album of the Year” for the now-classic Nick of Time, and such big names as Iggy Pop, Rolling Stones, Lucinda Williams, and Dylan have benefitted from his in-studio skills.

Since 2012, Was has been president of the venerable Blue Note jazz label, where he’s produced and in some cases signed such current luminaries as Jason Moran, Gregory Porter, Charles Lloyd, and Robert Glasper (who is appearing June 20 at Ludlow Garage). And as a bassist who can convey a mysteriously hip and ageless image with his dark glasses, cowboy hat, and long hair and beard, he toured with Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir as the Wolf Bros., who sold out Taft Theatre in 2019.

But Pan-Detroit Ensemble is a new project, one that reflects Was’s long devotion to the musical heritage of his hometown. (His birth name is Don Edward Fagenson). Now 71, he was happy to talk about all things Detroit, plus a few other subjects, during a phone interview conducted while he and relatives were waiting for a restaurant to seat them for a family-reunion lunch.

I ask Was how this new group of nine musicians came together. “Terence Blanchard, a noted artist and very old friend of mine, curates a series for Detroit Symphony Orchestra that features Detroit-themed jazz,” Was says. “He asked me to participate two years ago, and I said sure.” Thinking about what he would do and with whom, Was had a revelation. “I tell artists I’m producing or artists on the label that what makes you different from anyone else is your super power, and you should play to your strengths. There is a Detroit sound; it’s a very real thing. So I thought I’d just go play with people who grew up listening to the same music I did, doing the thing that comes most naturally.”

He and the others got together to play songs in October 2023. Was chose pieces he had played previously on his Detroit radio show and let the other musicians try their own versions. “It just clicked from the first moment,” Was says. “It was clear we had a conversation musically. Everyone was listening to each other because we come from the same roots. When you have that, it’s rare.”

The group, which certainly has its jazz bona fides in order, features Was on bass, Jeff Canady on drums, Vince Chandler on trombone, Steffanie Christi’an as vocalist, John Douglas playing trumpet, Wayne Gerard providing guitar, Mahindi Masai on percussion, David McMurray on saxophone, and Luis Resto on keyboards. Their first concert together is May 24 at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and the next night they perform at Memorial Hall. “We thought we should do more than one show, so we booked a tour around it,” Was says.

Was’s youth in Detroit was shaped not just by jazz and Motown but also the distinct, play-it-loud, kick-out-the-jams rock and roll of bands like MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Ryder had immediate commercial success with hit singles like “Devil With a Blue Dress” and “Sock It to Me Baby,” while Iggy Pop survived on a cult audience for decades until having a 1990 hit with “Candy” (from an album that Was produced). MC5 is no longer together but were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“It’s about time, man,” Was says about the Hall of Fame nod. “It was really distressing to me that MC5 wasn’t in there. I’m glad they did it, but it’s bittersweet.” Wayne Kramer, one of the last two members of the group’s classic lineup, died in April shortly after the announcement, followed by drummer Dennis Thompson in May. “Wayne was a good friend and longtime musical cohort, and I think he’d have liked to see the induction.”

Was feels there are trademarks of Detroit music. “There’s really no point in putting on airs because everyone knows we were all in the same place,” he explains. “So what you get is a very honest city and music that reflects that. No pretension, no point putting on gloss. We know it’s Detroit and not New York or Hollywood.”

He says one of the city’s crucial music figures was John Lee Hooker, the Mississippi-born blues musician who came to Detroit during World War II. He slowly became a great figure in American music with his direct, riveting songs and urgent guitar playing on hits like “Boogie Chillun” and “Boom Boom.”

“Hooker is about as raw as you could be without the music falling apart, but he’s also as soulful they come,” Was says. “I think you can hear that in the work of others. Even if Motown was making big hit pop records, they still sound like regional records because the sound was very distinctive. And that honesty resonates globally.

Was also claims inspiration from the late John Sinclair, a fiery supporter of Detroit’s 1960s counterculture who helped MC5 members spread their musically radical beliefs. Among the most radical ideas was that Detroit rock mixed well with the day’s avant-garde jazz by Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and powerful saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. “John coming to prominence when I was teenager, and I was his prime audience,” says Was. “He later became a good friend, but as a leader he was important to the music culture of Detroit. I recall the MC5 jamming with guys in Pharaoh Sanders’ band. I’ve never heard anything like it since that night. That seemed like a really noble ideal, to do something that doesn’t sound like anyone else.”

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