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Lou Donaldson: The Clifford Brown Connection and Beyond

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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