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Lou Donaldson: Jazz Paths

Josep Pedro By

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One of the few remaining musicians that defined the sound of jazz after the bebop musical revolution, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson illustrates the richness and ambiguities of jazz evolution during the crucial period between the late forties and early seventies. During these intense and fascinating times of contemporary United States history, jazz exploded into a variety of paths that ran parallel with different environments, artistic, social and political concerns.

In coexistence with the upcoming Black Power movement and its multiple expressions, jazz took off with different responses and approaches. Some were involved in an innovative search for something higher or qualitatively different, defined by strong personalities and (sometimes) artistic genius. Others were part of a more popular or mass-representation culture that, despite holding generally high standards, was closer to the idea of popular music than to art. With people pulling from both sides—and all the conflicting mix around—both positions were finally criticized, though with the passing of time the innovator leader has usually been valued most, despite many not liking the results of their innovations.

Donaldson fits into the second category, and belongs to a group of musicians that more or less stayed faithful to their sound, aware that the music they played was not only their group creation but also a collective music meaningful for its impact on people. Often underestimated, Donaldson's music and trajectory not only speak about jazz's perception and guiding codes but also about more abstract matters such as the functions and roles of artistic expression in the contemporary world.

Born in Badin, North Carolina in 1926, Donaldson moved to New York in 1950, after the insistence of jazzmen like saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Like most saxophonists at the time, he grew up with the influence of Charlie Parker, who inspired him to take in the bebop language. Donaldson's ability to sound like Bird earned him his first recording date for Blue Note, in fact, where he embodied the label's bluesy, night-evoking sound. Coming out of the bebop foundations, Donaldson—along with people like pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Clifford Brown—proved his virtuosity and skills, and made a name for himself by participating in legendary recordings including drummer Art Blakey's A Night at Birdland (Blue Note, 1954), a keystone for what came to be known as hard bop, a style that went back to the popular roots of blues and gospel.

Lou Donaldson—The Artist SelectsDonaldson then took off on his own particular journey, absorbing new and classic sounds into his own language, and stressing the importance and value of groove and feeling. His first and biggest hit arrived in 1958 with "Blues Walk," an irresistible blues spiced up with percussionist Ray Barretto's Latin touch. The sensuality and nocturnal ambiance of the tune contributed to making Donaldson a crossover artist, admirable for taking jazz to the people and ultimately aligning himself in the understanding of jazz as popular music for regular people.

Assuming "Blues Walk" as his signature tune, Donaldson's music announced a changing African American sensibility that looked back to its past to better understand itself and its history. In a move that merged bebop and rhythm & blues as two dominant Black music forms, Donaldson's subsequent recordings stood out for their straight-ahead approach, blues base, and rhythmic repetition; a swinging soul potion that hung over a common cultural tradition and went for emotional, heartfelt communication.

In opposition to cool jazz arrangements and tricks, hard bop traced back to Black church imagery and devices, combining it with a talkative, colloquial, street-like style. Participating on albums such as organist Jimmy Smith's The Sermon (Blue Note, 1959), along with a dream team line-up (Art Blakey, trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Tina Brooks and guitarist Kenny Burrell), Donaldson soon incorporated the organ, contributing to the establishment of blues-based organ combos that would continue from then on. Here 'Tis (Blue Note, 1961), a relaxed and happy album, was first, followed by The Natural Soul (Blue Note, 1962), where the altoist took a harder pulse and initiated a growing orientation towards dance that would continue with Signifyin' (Argo, 1963) and Alligator Bogaloo (Argo, 1967), culminating with a new high-point, Midnight Creeper (Blue Note, 1968).

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.
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