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Catching Up With

Lou Donaldson: Jazz Paths

By Published: August 15, 2012
The sound of what came to be known as soul jazz was commercially successful during the mid-sixties because of its connection with the audience. It drew on the "Black is beautiful" spirit of the times, the negritude beauty and body movement, and soul food's appeal. The music offered a sensual blend of elegant blues, funk and soul that was perfect for a chilling, compromised and smoking atmosphere. But on the other hand, some critical voices aroused within the hard-core jazz world. Not only were they to criticize what they perceived as an accommodated version of jazz that followed a formula (opposed to a constant searching attitude), but they also fell into valuing music in terms of technical difficulty by labeling musicians like Donaldson as "uncomplicated bop."

It cannot be denied that certain recordings did not work out as smoothly as others, precisely for the difficulty of balancing emotional connection and harmony amongst band members, environment and audience, with a necessary extra touch to stand out. It may be true, then, that, immersed in rules of the entertainment industry and capitalist economy, great players like Lou Donaldson, on Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958), and Lee Morgan with The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964), among others, overused certain musical treatments for commercial success.

However, the communicative and interactive nature of music must not be forgotten, as well as bearing in mind one of the possible goals of artistic search and expression: to communicate in a language that people can understand and, at the same time, offer freedom for improvisation and innovation in order to express particular personalities, without breaking the bond between the individual and the community.

Overall, the two paths sketched out here should not be seen as necessarily opposed or contradictory; one need not be chosen over the other. Instead, a wider analytical and aesthetic scope allows the distinguishing of different roles, functions and performances. A dynamic process that demands attention to the non-musical aspects that condition the perception of music, this position—rather than towards general acceptance—leads to a critical perspective, towards the valuing of jazz that revises the repetition of clichés.

In an incredible and unexpected opportunity, Lou Donaldson's recent European tour has given younger generations a more real connection with the glorious and idealized past of jazz and popular music. The energy and strength of the 85 year-old legend has brought many jazz fans and writers the chance to experience, first-hand, the melodies and rhythms that have previously only been discovered through celebrated recordings.

Donaldson reveals himself as a calm, easy-going gent that, unlike many, does not mythicize his past story. It is one of those special moments in a musical lifetime when a historic, mighty presence naturally shows up as a charming, laidback person, ready to hold up his alto saxophone and blow his sweet and winding sound, tracing the down-home flavor lines that have drawn modern jazz.

All About Jazz: How do you feel about starting another European tour that will take you through countries like Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, England and France?

Lou Donaldson: Well, I'm doing alright so I'm just giving it a test to see how it can make out. Just getting around to places where I haven't been for quite a while. You got to keep movin' so people don't think you're gone.

AAJ: It's been sixty years since you recorded your first album with the [vibraphonist] Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson
1923 - 1999
Quintet. What general balance do you make of your extensive career?

Lou Donaldson—The Artist SelectsLD: I don't know. It goes and comes; it's up and down so it's hard to say. But it's been fine.

AAJ: From your experience, what have been the most important things for jazz musicians to express in their music?

LD: The most important thing is try to have some projection. Today music has become so complicated that sometimes is not really compatible with the audience. You have to be careful about that because a lot of musicians get so involved that they forget about the people, and it's not good.

AAJ: On previous interviews at All About Jazz, you talked about the blues flavor in your music. What is it that blues brings into music in general, and jazz in particular?

LD: It's the feeling of the music, actually. That's what it is. If you don't have that kind of blues feeling you're not really playing any jazz. The notes are the same but it's a little different. Jazz was a natural progression from the blues. If you come from another part of the world, you don't get that like we get in the South where I'm from, from church music and just average blues music.

AAJ: Do you have any favorite blues artists?

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