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Lou Donaldson: Old School... and Still Cool

By Published: March 2, 2006
AAJ: In addition to the musicians who were on that recording, you played and recorded with some other legendary musicians in those early years—Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown and quite a few others.

LD: Yeah, I worked for a little while with Monk.... as much as you could work with him. He was a weird guy. I played a lot with Milt Jackson in those days too. And a lot of those other guys like Art Blakey and Horace Silver were assembled for a session for Blue Note Records. I was already with Blue Note at that time, so I ended up bringing a lot of guys to the label—including Clifford Brown.

AAJ: How did you end up getting Clifford Brown to Blue Note?

LD: Well, a lot of people think otherwise about how Clifford got to New York, but you know how this business is. A lot of things happen that certain people get credit for, and it turns out they really didn't know anything about it. I was on tour in Wilmington, Delaware and I happened to see Clifford in an R&B band called Chris Powell and the Blue Flames. I'd heard about him—back then musicians would really spread the word about guys who could play. After hearing him, I went up to him and told him, "You need to make a record date. Come on and let's go to New York." And he did.

AAJ: Who are some of the other musicians you helped record on Blue Note—or get them wider recognition?

LD: I got Grant Green to Blue Note—and Stanley Turrentine too. I heard Stanley playing with a group called the Three Sounds, and I got Blue Note to sign them. I heard Grant playing in a club in East St. Louis that happened to be called the Blue Note. I played a lot in St. Louis when Gaslight Square was happening. There was a disk jockey then called Spider Burke, and he used my tune "Blues Walk" as his theme song, so I had that going for me. Anyway, the St. Louis clubs closed at 2 a.m. and the East St. Louis clubs stayed open until 5 or 6 a.m., so I'd head over there to eat after I finished playing. That's where I saw Grant and met him. I was a little reluctant to do anything with him because frankly, he was strung out. But I thought as good as this cat is playing, maybe I could handle it. So Ibrought him to New York and he really did well.

AAJ: You were also one of the first mainstream jazz group leaders to incorporate Latin percussion in your group when you added Ray Barreto to your band. How did that come about?

LD: I think I was the first one to use a conga player in a mainstream jazz group. I had acouple of dates and the first drummer I used—who shall remain nameless—showed up high and couldn't keep time when he played, His replacement showed up high too and had the same problem. I just got disgusted and said that we weren't going to have this. I knew we weren't going to sell any records if we couldn't lay down that rhythm. Because the pulse is what really brings people to the music—even rap musicians are smart enough to make a rhythm track first. Unfortunately, they start rapping on top of it. I can't understand anything they say except the cursing—I can understand that! Anyway, I used to see Ray Barreto all the time in the clubs and he kept asking to sit in. So I thought of him, called him up and he joined the band. It really worked out great.

AAJ: You developed a sound—especially with your 1960s Argo and Blue Note recordings like Signifyin', Alligator Boogaloo and The Midnight Creeper—that expanded the blues-based jazz organ trio sound and made it a little funkier as well. That sound still has a strong appeal, judging from the way the reissues of those recordings continue to sell—and the fact that rappers have sampled a lot of your music as well. How do you explain that continued popularity?

LD: Well, first of all, I don't think my music was really funk. Put that music out against James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire and you'll see that that it's not really funk—it's just music that swings. It's really groove music that's made for people to dance to. That's what jazz used to be about. But what's also essential is that my music has a blues flavor, because when you get down to it, that's what jazz is. And that's the problem with a lot of music today... there's no blues feeling. Blues is the backbone, and if you don't have it in jazz it's like taking sugar out of a cake. So I think that's why my old music still sells, because it has blues feeling and it swings.

Selected Discography

Lou Donaldson, Relaxing on the Sea: Live on the QE2 (Chiaroscuro, 2000)

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