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Lou Donaldson: Old School... and Still Cool

AAJ Staff By

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I think that's why my...music still sells, because it has blues feeling and it swings.
Born in Badin, North Carolina on Nov. 1, 1926, Lou Donaldson is still going strong at the age of 79, playing the same brand of soulful, swinging jazz that established him as one of the most popular alto saxophonists to ever record for the famed Blue Note label.

Donaldson, who recorded for Blue Note from 1952 to 1963 before briefly moving to the Chess label subsidiaries Argo and Cadet from 1964 to '66, was an early disciple of the legendary Charlie Parker.

But Parker's influence faded as Donaldson began to develop his own distinctive approach—a bluesy, soulful sound that used organ and guitar as an essential foundation for his sax playing. Donaldson made his Blue Note debut on a Milt Jackson recording, then followed with his first recording as a leader, featuring Horace Silver, Gene Ramey and Art Taylor. Donaldson also recorded with Thelonious Monk, and co-led a quintet recording with Clifford Brown in 1953. The following year he was part of the legendary live recordings, A Night At Birdland, Vols. I & II, along with Brown, Silver, Art Blakey and Tommy Potter. Donaldson's memorable tune, "Blues Walk," became a major crossover hit in 1958, and subsequent albums such as Alligator Boogaloo (marking his first collaboration with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith) produced crossover hits as well.

Today, Donaldson continues to tour Europe, Japan and the U.S., still laying down the soul-groove sound he perfected decades ago. And as you'll see in this interview, Donaldson's comments are straight ahead with no-holds-barred... just like his music.

All About Jazz: Growing up in North Carolina, you started out playing the clarinet. How did you end up playing alto saxophone?

Lou Donaldson: My mom taught piano, and I didn't really like playing it, so I started playing clarinet. And I actually kept up with that instrument, playing it in the marching band at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro. Then I went into the Navy in 1945 and auditioned to get into the marching band playing the clarinet. But they also had a dance band, and the guy at the audition asked me if I could play alto saxophone. Naturally, I told him yeah, because I wanted to make sure I got in the band. I had never even touched an alto sax before, but I guess because I played the clarinet so well, he never asked me to play the sax for him—he just gave me one. So I went back to barracks with it and started to practice. By the time I actually had to play it in the dance band, I'd gotten to the point where I could play it pretty well.

AAJ: After your Navy service, when did you decide to focus on alto sax instead of clarinet?

LD: Well, I went back to A&T to get my degree in political science, and I kept playing both instruments, but mainly the clarinet. But I ended up switching to sax because of a baseball injury. I was a good baseball player, if I say so myself. But back then they wouldn't even let a black cat in a big league ballpark. Anyway, I was a third baseman and a ball ricocheted off a rock during a game and smashed my little finger. We had more rocks on our infield than dirt, I think. So when I tried to play clarinet, I kept getting a squeak because my puffed-up finger couldn't cover the hole. So that's when I decided to switch to alto sax. And that's also when I decided to give up baseball and concentrate on music.

AAJ: How did you end up getting from Greensboro to New York City?

LD: I started playing with a show band in clubs in Greensboro, and guys like Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie would come through. I'd go and sit in with them, and they liked my playing and kept encouraging me to come to New York. But I was kind of afraid—I thought I wasn't good enough. But finally in 1950 I decided to make the move to New York. And it turned out I really didn't have a problem, because I'd already met so many musicians in Greensboro and was able to use those connections. I was living in Harlem, so I started off auditioning at clubs there and I had no problem at all getting going.

AAJ: Like most alto sax players in the early 1950s, you were often compared to Charlie Parker, and a lot of critics say your sound was shaped by his approach. What's your view on that?

LD: Well, I had heard plenty of saxophone players before I heard him. I heard Johnny Hodges, Pete Brown, Tab Smith, Benny Carter, a lot of people. But once I heard Charlie Parker, he was so dominant, he influenced me a lot at that time. Eventually I developed my own style, but there's no doubt he was the best. I actually got my record deal with Blue Note because of Bird. I was playing at Minton's Playhouse and Alfred Lion heard me playing like Parker and offered me a recording date. It was a session that featured a group that ended up being the Modern Jazz Quartet—Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke. Then we did sessions that included Art Blakey and Horace Silver and a few others.

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