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Lou Donaldson: The Clifford Brown Connection and Beyond


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Clifford had a strong lip. He could play strong till the end of the night... He was like Louis Armstrong in that respect...It was as if he was born with a trumpet in his hand... Some nights, we'd wait until he'd miss a note, but he never missed a thing.
Lou DonaldsonLou Donaldson is one of the all-time great alto saxophonists in the bebop tradition. He came up in New York in the 1950s, latched onto the style of Charlie Parker and his cohorts, and has been going strong ever since, with numerous recordings and a hefty schedule of concerts and club dates. He has fronted many groups and worked as a sideman in groups led by some of the greatest jazz musicians of the last half of the 20th century. At 82 years old, he leads his own group, performing at venues in New York, nationally, and around the world.

On October 30, 31 and November 1, 2008, the University of the Arts will hold an exciting symposium and series of concerts dedicated to the memory of the great trumpeter, Clifford Brown. This is the first of two interviews conducted in advance of this event, related to the "Brownie Speaks" Symposium and sponsored by the University of the Arts and the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project, the second being with trombonist/composer John Fedchock.

All About Jazz: You gave Clifford Brown his first big recording date. Could you tell us about your relationship with him?

Lou Donaldson: I met him when he was in Chris Powell's band in Syracuse. This was a rock band. Clifford had been injured at that time. He wasn't even playing trumpet; he was on the piano. I had heard about him from other people. I asked him if he would like to come to New York and play this date with me. When he recovered from his injury, he came and did this record date with me—the Blue Note recording [Clifford Brown Memorial Album, 1954] with me as leader, Elmo Hope on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, Percy Heath on bass, and Clifford on trumpet. That was a great record—very successful. So Art Blakey picked up on it, and we brought Clifford in to do A Night at Birdland (Blue Note, 1954), which is probably the best live recording of all time. We made three or four albums off of that date. We played a few more dates around. That's how we got together.

AAJ: What are your recollections of him as a person?

LD: Clifford Brown? He was a nice guy! He was studious, a chess master, and he had a degree in mathematics—a smart fella. He was so compatible and easy-going, that it was hard to believe he was a musician! [Laughs.]

AAJ: He was too together!

LD: He didn't do none of that drinkin' and druggin' and nothin' like that. He was a studious guy.

AAJ: He was married and had a kid, right?

LD: That came later, when Clifford was with Max Roach.

AAJ: Do you know if Brown had any contact with John Coltrane?

LD: I don't know. He may have, because Trane lived in Philadelphia and Clifford was in Wilmington. I know he played with Jimmy Heath.

Lou DonaldsonAAJ: And Fats Navarro was a big influence.

LD: Of course. In fact, that's the style he played. The first time I heard him, I said to myself, "He's playin' like Fats Navarro."

AAJ: Clifford died young—his career was ended by a tragic car accident when he was 26.

LD: He had a very short life, but he accomplished a whole lot in that short time.

AAJ: Despite his career being cut short, he had a major influence on jazz. How would you describe that influence, looking back from where you are now?

LD: It seems that most of the proficient trumpet players since that time play like Clifford Brown. Up until that time, everybody played sorta like Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. But then they all started playing like Clifford Brown. He changed the whole style of playing. Well, really, Fats was the one who did it, and Clifford carried it on. He refined it and made it compatible with all the trumpet players.

AAJ: He could play longer, more graceful lines than any of the others.

LD: Oh yeah, he could do that. And he had a strong lip. He could play strong till the end of the night. Others would start to get weak at the end of the night, but he didn't. He was like Louis Armstrong in that respect.

AAJ: It sounds like he was a natural on the instrument.

LD: Yeah, it was as if he was born with a trumpet in his hand. He had a very strong embouchure. Some nights, we'd wait for him to miss a note, but he never missed a thing.

AAJ: It must have been a pleasure to perform with him.

LD: Oh, yeah. I would have played a job with him for no money.

AAJ: At the upcoming "Brownie Speaks" Symposium in Philadelphia, you're going to do a concert with your quartet. How do you plan to relate what you play to Clifford?

LD: We're just gonna play like we usually do. We'll play a couple of tunes that Clifford and I recorded together at Birdland.

AAJ: What would you like people to remember about him?

LD: Well, mainly that his life was cut short, and there's no telling what he would have done, but he did an awful lot during the time he was here.

AAJ: Did Clifford Brown ever go overseas?

LD: Yeah, he went there with Lionel Hampton's band. Hamp had a great band with a great trumpet section: Clifford, Benny Bailey, Quincy Jones, and Art Farmer.

AAJ: It's amazing how many record dates he had in that short time, and with the best musicians.Lou Donaldson

LD: He was in demand because once they heard him, everyone wanted him for record dates. The fact that he could cut it tells you right there how powerful he was.

AAJ: How do you see your own music evolving since that time?

LD: It's hard to say. I'm probably one of the most fortunate musicians in this business. I saw music changin,' so I changed with it, so I've gotten good financial rewards. But I'm still basically what you would call a bebop saxophonist. I play Charlie Parker style.

AAJ: But how did you shift it around to keep up with the times?

LD: Blue Note Records was sold to the TransAmerica Corporation. They had a lot of money, and they wanted to compete with the more popular musicians. So we started covering a lot of tunes, like James Brown's "Say It Loud." We got into the commercial market and made a lot of money.

AAJ: So you adapted the music from that time period.

LD: Yeah, we recorded the hits.

AAJ: Who are some of the people with whom you've worked over the years?

LD: I've worked with anybody you can name. I was in New York, and I worked with everyone who was there at that time.

AAJ: Did you work with Miles Davis?

LD: Yeah, I worked with him, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland. In fact, I had a group with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones as my rhythm section. And Betty Carter was my vocalist.

AAJ: Oh, really! Did you record with her?

LD: No. But we used to work at the Audubon Ballroom every Sunday evening. In the early '60s, I worked with Kenny Dorham and Dizzy Gillespie.

AAJ: Did you ever work with Mickey Roker?

LD: Oh, sure. He was in my band.

AAJ: Who's in your band now? Do you have a steady group?

LD: I got an organ player—a Japanese girl—Akiko Tsuruga, Randy Johnston on guitar, and Fukushi Tainaka on drums.

Lou DonaldsonAAJ: Did you meet these folks in Japan?

LD: No, I met them in New York.

AAJ: Have you made some recordings together?

LD: Not with this group.

AAJ: At which clubs do you perform, these days?

LD: We play all over the country. We just came from Chicago and Minneapolis. We're going to play at Birdland here in New York City. We play a few times a year at the Village Vanguard. We just did the North Sea Festival in Europe and played in Paris and London.

AAJ: What do you do to relax?

LD: I play golf every day. That helps me stay in good shape.

AAJ: Are you married?

LD: I was married 55 years. My wife passed away two years ago.

AAJ: Do you have children?

LD: I have two daughters, but my daughter Lydia is deceased. She had a Masters degree, the other has her PhD, and my granddaughter is a lawyer. My grandson works on Wall Street. My daughter Carol Webster is a psychologist, and she also runs my website. She lives in Florida, and I go down and visit her in the winter time.

AAJ: And you live in New York, right?

LD: Yeah. They're trying to get me to move, but I won't—I'm a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. I'm like Redd Foxx. He said, you can live in New York all your life and never have a job. [Laughs.] You know, I grew up around 127th Street and Eighth Avenue, and the local folks there are still there doing the same thing after 60 years!

AAJ: That's in Harlem. There was a time when Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and others all lived there.

LD: I played with Monk. I played with Rollins.

AAJ: You don't appear in Art Kane's famous Esquire magazine photo entitled "A Great Day in Harlem."

LD: I'll tell you a secret. The musicians in that photo were all unemployed then—that's how he got them all together! [Laughs.] I was in California with the Modern Jazz Quartet. If we hadn't been away, we would have been in that picture. They were disappointed they couldn't get us.

AAJ: There were tough times during those years.

LD: The only one who was working was Roy Eldridge, down at Eddie Condon's.

AAJ: By the way, J.J. Johnson had a couple of rough years then when there were no gigs. Did you know J.J.?

LD: I used to work with him a lot.

AAJ: There was a time when they all had trouble getting work.

LD: Yeah, that was because they couldn't get their cabaret cards—like Billie Holiday, and so on. Thank God, Frank Sinatra broke all that up. He told them that if they didn't book Billie Holiday, he wouldn't work in New York, so they revoked some of those crazy rules and regs. Sinatra did a lot to help the musicians.

AAJ: Do you know the disc jockey, Sid Mark, who does a regular all-Sinatra show in Philadelphia?

LD: I know Sid very well.

AAJ: Did you know the pianist Richie Powell? He and his wife died in that tragic car accident with Clifford.

LD: He was Bud Powell's brother. We were neighbors in Sugar Hill. Jackie McLean lived there too. Richie was working with the Max Roach group.

AAJ: Who were your saxophone idols?

Lou DonaldsonLD: Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges.

AAJ: How about Sonny Stitt?

LD: Well, Sonny Stitt, of course. But he came along later. He was a wonderful saxophonist; I loved to hear Sonny.

AAJ: How about tenor sax?

LD: I liked Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Lester Young—the more soulful, bluesy kind of tenor.

AAJ: Did you ever hear Lester Young in live performance?

LD: Are you kidding? I used to see him every night for years. I was in the house band at Birdland, and he lived right across the street at the Avalon Hotel, and he'd come over every night. He was the greatest.

AAJ: Dexter Gordon?

LD: We hung out with each other, especially when we were in Denmark.

AAJ:John Coltrane studied and practiced spirituality. Other musicians do as well. Do you?

LD: My father was an AME Zion minister. I grew up that way. I knew Coltrane in North Carolina. He grew up 18 miles from my town. I grew up in Greensboro. He was born in Hamlet but moved to High Point, near Greensboro. I saw him in one of the band contests. Unfortunately, his later music left something to be desired. It wasn't spiritual in my opinion.

AAJ: Some say he was like a preacher when he played.

LD: That's nonsense. I liked him in the earlier days, when he played with Miles, and way back with Earl Bostic's band.

AAJ: Did you ever play in big bands?

LD: Yeah, I played in a lot of big bands. That's all I played in until I came to New York. I played with Dud Bascombe's band—he had been with Erskine Hawkins; I played with Hot Lips Page's band. He was a great trumpet player: he could hit some high notes! But, once I came to New York in 1950, the music started changing from large groups to small groups. The big bands played for dancing. The small groups were for night clubs. Once bebop became prominent, people preferred a more intimate setting. The only big bands that did bebop were Dizzy Gillespie's band and maybe Billy Eckstine's band.

Lou DonaldsonAAJ: Charlie Parker played in Eckstine's band.

LD: Parker, Art Blakey, Fats Navarro.

AAJ: Did you do time on 52nd Street, where all those clubs were?

LD: No, they closed around the time I came to New York. I played at Minton's Playhouse and Small's Paradise in Harlem.

AAJ: Did you know Pat Martino back then? He often played at Small's Paradise.

LD: I knew him real well! He was in Willis Jackson's band. He worked with Willis for five or six years. He was a kid then. Willis worked in the winter at Small's Paradise, and in the summertime he went down to Atlantic City and worked at the Club Harlem. Pat got his blues training with Willis.

AAJ: Did you ever play at Sweet Basil in Greenwich Village?

LD: I was the house band there. I had a blind pianist, Herman Foster. He's from Philadelphia. He was my pianist on Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958) and all those great albums I made in the late 1950s. They're great. You're really missin' somethin' if you don't have those.

AAJ: What are your plans for the near future?

LD: I just play it by ear. At my age, you got to take it easy.

AAJ: How old are you?

LD: I'm almost 82.

AAJ: God bless you! You don't sound that old.

LD: I don't look that old either! I live near two golf courses in the Bronx. When I play golf, I take all the money from the younger guys. They can't figure it out!

Selected Discography

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

Lou Donaldson, Sentimental Journey, (Columbia, 1994)

Lou Donaldson, Lush Life (Blue Note, 1967)

Lou Donaldson, Rusty Dusty (Cadet, 1965)

Lou Donaldson, Gravy Train (Blue Note, 1961)

Lou Donaldson, Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958)

Jimmy Smith, Sermon! (Blue Note, 1958)

Art Blakey, Live at Birdland, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 1954)

Lou Donaldson, New Faces, New Sounds (Blue Note, 1953)

Clifford Brown, Brownie Eyes (Blue Note, 1953)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Daniel Rommens

Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Lou Donaldson

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