2007 already has alto saxophone legend Lou Donaldson in a New York state of mind. He began the year receiving honors at Jack Kleinsinger's Highlights in Jazz series at the Tribeca Peforming Arts Center, also stealing the show with his quartet. This month he checks into Birdland for a short stay with his quartet including old friend and fellow legend Dr. Lonnie Smith on B3. He'll be joining another Blue Note icon, Freddie Redd, for a performance of Redd's classic, Music from The Connection
(Blue Note. 1960), as part of Merkin Hall's series "Reissue: Classic Recordings Live .
"I met Lou when he first came to New York in 1949, a natty Redd remembered over lunch in Hollywood. "If memory serves me well, I think I hired Lou to his first gig, I'm not sure. I'm sure about the money, it was $7 for that night. We've been friends ever since. Fabulous bebop player.
In addition to bebop, Donaldson helped popularize what would become soul jazz, mixing bop, blues and funk in a way that's proven timeless and enduring. Ironically, he never set out to become King of the Organ Combos. "Back then, when you would travel, you get in these places, Donaldson recalled, "and they wouldn't even have a piano. In New York, every joint had a piano, bass, drums. Anybody could come in there and play them. Once you got outside of New York, it was a different story. We got the organ so we wouldn't have to be scuffling around everywhere we went looking for a piano. Otherwise, a lot of jobs you couldn't play because they didn't have any equipment. We couldn't bring a piano along. We started using organs to beat that. Then, the people started going crazy about the organ. We had to stick with it then.
Despite having a long list of collaborators, Donaldson's classic organist remains Dr. Lonnie Smith. Their association goes way back. "It was in the '60s for sure, said Smith. "Quite some time ago. I been knowing him a long time before I recorded with him. As a matter of fact, a young fellow by the name of Jack McDuff came by this place I was working and we talked for awhile. He said a friend of his was coming to town and they needed an organ. He wanted to know whether I wanted to rent it out. I was hesitant. But, I did and it was Lou. He hadn't heard me play at all at that time. It's become a long relationship.
"He called us to come and do an album with him over at Blue Note, Smith continues. "That did it for methat raised the stakes for me, when I did that one with him. Record did well, [Blue Note Records co-founder] Frank Wolf called him and Duke Pearson and said, 'We want you over here.' I was excited, but I didn't sound like it over the phone. Until things happen, I don't get excited. But I said, 'Wow, everybody's over there at Blue Note. Everyone that was doing something.' I was glad to get over there and Alligator Bogaloo
(Blue Note, 1967) got me a contract with Blue Note.
According to Donaldson, many other famous names found their way into Blue Note through him. "At least 75% of the artists on Blue Note during the '50s were brought there by me, including Horace Silver, he said. "You notice, the first two dates he made there were with me. I brought Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell, Grant Green, John Patton, Charles Earland. I could name about 50 musicians, all of them made their first dates with me. George Tucker, Gene Harris and the Three Sounds. It didn't even bother me then, but it bothers me now, because when they show these documentaries and shit for Blue Note, they don't mention it. It used to bug my late wife, she'd say, 'They never said a word about you and you brought all those musicians' and a lot of those guys weren't too easy to handle. Without me, they couldn't have handled them, because they weren't paying any attention to what [Blue Note Records co-founder] Alfred Lion was saying.
With his recent passing and their bias for funk, Donaldson and Smith discussed the influence of James Brown. "We covered some of his records, Donaldson points out. "'I'm Black and I'm Proud,' stuff like that. He had an influence on everybody, his rhythm patterns. The rhythm patterns that he used, a lotta people used that. He had a small band format, too, which a lot of people could use, the way he had that set up. I liked him, he was great. I listened to him all the time. He got that groove going, he was bad, he was bad, no doubt about it. He set the standard for a lot of stuff.
"George Benson and I used to play at the Palms, a couple doors down from the Apollo, Smith recalled. "When James Brown used to play, he would come by and he came by every night. He wanted us to go on the road with him. He used to come down, sit at the organ and enjoy himself. He'd say, 'Don't get up, don't get up.' He'd sit at one end and I'd sit at the other and we'd have fun. James Brown had a lot of influence over a lot of the music. If they could learn one thing from James Brown, he could groove. Know how to make the people feel good. That's the way to go, to play for the people. Make people happy. They work hard every day. They want to enjoy themselves, they want to feel good.
Neither Donaldson nor Smith saw themselves creating history at Blue Note, forget about the possibility of a sales surge 40 years after the fact. "I didn't, Donaldson readily admits, "you should see the royalties I'm getting now for stuff back then, from sampling them, too. Rudy Van Gelder had a good set up in that studio and that sound no one else could duplicate. Can't even duplicate it, now. He caught the people's ear and they loved it.
"The music we played then is hot now, said Smith. "It's sorta strange, but it's great that ithappened. All the young people are into that. Lou and I had no idea that was going to happen. It's likehistory. It kept our career out there. It's amazing. At that time we didn't think about anything. We just played, called it a day. We just enjoyed playing. We brought something to the table. That kind of music was simple enough for the people to understand and enjoy. It wasn't all complex.
When asked about the possibility of a new record, Donaldson didn't seem interested. "Don't need it, he said. "I'm making 10, 20 times more money off the records now than I did when I made them. I'm thinking about making a record just for fun, other than that, I don't need it.
If a recording occurs, look for Dr. Lonnie manning the keys. "He's a tremendous musician, Donaldson said. "We work together good, we're real compatible. Everything is cool there. And, a night we play we could record, because we play some nights a lot of stuff is happening. That's the way you got to do it, too. You can't really sit down and plan it out. You're playing and you get a little inspiration one night and you play better. That's the way music is, most of the time.