Interview: Lou Donaldson (Part 3)


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Between mid-1955 and the start of 1957, Lou Donaldson did not record for reasons he outlines below. Instead, he booked a long string of urban clubs across the country and toured them back and forth while fronting a quintet that included organist Big John Patton. Along the way, Lou became creatively comfortable with the sax-organ sound, in which he borrowed elements from r&b and bebop. When he returned to Blue Note in 1957, Lou recorded with organist JImmy Smith in 1958 (The Sermon and Cool Blues). From 1961 onward, Lou was almost always recorded backed by a series of great jazz organists.

Among the earliest examples of this sound between 1961 and 1963 were Here 'Tis with organist Baby Face Willette, Man With a Horn featuring Brother Jack McDuff, and The Natural Soul, Good Gracious!, Signifyin' and Possum Head with Big John Patton. Then came Dr. Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland and Leon Spencer. With each album, the sound grew progressively reliant on inventive hooks, groovy hooks and a strong hip beat.

In Part 3 of my interview with Lou, the alto saxophonist talks about why he didn't record for a year and a half in the mid-1950s, the rise of the sax-organ sound, and why what he played in the 1960s was funky--but not technically funk:

JazzWax: You helped invent hard bop, yet you're not on many of the big hard-bop recordings. Why not?
Lou Donaldson: I got pissed off at the musicians coming to the dates. The drug thing was bad then. A lot of musicians would come into Blue Note's offices and owner Alfred Lion [pictured] would take them back to his room. When they came out, they'd sober up. I said to Alfred, “I'm not going to make any more dates with these junkies you bring in here. They want to get high and come back and mess up a record."

JW: What did you do instead?
LD: I traveled quite a bit on the road. So Alfred got Hank Mobley and just continued the hard bop sound but with a tenor player. I had my own tour, hitting dozens of clubs from New York to California. I just kept working my tour. But I still loved Blue Note. By my count, I brought 58 musicians to the label. I was like Alfred's scout [laughs].

JW: Who did you tour with?
LD: Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Patton on organ, Grant Green on guitar and Ben Dixon on drums.

JW: No bass player?
LD: Big John used his feet on the bass pedals of the organ.

JW: How did audiences react?
LD: We played 25 clubs that had never featured jazz before. They went crazy. But Grant Green was a problem, as good as he was.

JW: Why?
LD: He had to have his stuff with him on the road. If they had pulled us over and found his drugs, we could all get hit with a $10,000 fine and we might do time if we crossed state lines. Grant was a liability, for a touring band.

JW: What set you apart from everyone else during that period?
LD: I wasn't a junkie. And the sound on my horn was a little better than most other guys. I always prided myself on my tone.

JW: What was the thinking behind your tone?
LD: I knew the sound I produced had to project since I played at so many clubs. I developed that tone because as an asthmatic, I'd do a lot of hold and sustain songs to build up my strength. That's what saved me.

JW: Wasn't playing the saxophone only raising the risk of an asthmatic episode?
LD: Many people thought that blowing the horn would make my asthma worse. But doing so actually eased the condition.

JW: In 1957, you recorded a blockbuster album with Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Sonny Clark and others, called Lou Takes Off.
LD: Oh, yeah. That was a good one, you're right about that. It was one of the first recordings where I had an extended band on a Blue Note album. Most of the time I recorded in a quartet setting. Back then there were so many great musicians around New York. They all could play good, and each one played a little different than the other. Everyone had individual styles and sounds.

JW: Were hard bop musicians in competition with the West Coast scene?
LD: Our thing was the opposite of jazz on the West Coast. We consciously tried to do everything that they didn't do. We tried to swing hard, not cool. They had a light touch to their music. We had a heavy touch, with a swinging feel underneath. We knew that creating a contrast was going to be the only way to stand out.

JW: You never played with Miles Davis?
LD: No. Miles wouldn't pay musicians their money, and he'd always have his junkies with him. I wasn't in that category, so I never worked with him nor did I want to.

JW: So not being a junkie put you outside the inner circle?
LD: Yes. Musicians who were junkies tended to hire only people who were using.

JW: Why?
LD: So after the gig the leader could push the others to pool their earnings and buy stuff. Not being called to work with them didn't bother me. I knew that on most of those jobs, the sidemen didn't get paid what they should have anyway. I had a wife and a family by the mid-1950s and couldn't afford that kind of scene as a sober guy.

JW: How did this position you an outsider?
LD: The junkie musicians were afraid of me. On gigs they'd eventually realize they had come up short with their money and they'd think I was scheming. I used to remind them that they were the ones getting high and I was sober and what would happen to them eventually if they kept using.

JW: I would imagine it was hard to trust them, too.
LD: That's correct. Those guys were street smart. They could spot a policeman 1,000 miles away. Then they might stick their stuff in your case, getting you in a jam. You had to be very careful around them. I had to watch myself and keep my distance.

JW: How did you come to invent the organ-sax groove sound?
LD: The blues groove is where I'm from. I was playing whatever music people liked, but with my sound. I used audience reaction as a barometer for what I would go into the studio and record. We'd try out songs on audiences on the road. If they responded big to songs, we'd record them. Every one of those records in the 1960s sold well [laughs].

JW: So the sax-organ sound started on the road.
LD: Yes, while we were traveling cross-country. Jimmy Smith was the one who refined the jazz-organ sound. But he didn't do the circuit. We played ghetto clubs. Jimmy played high-paying jobs.

JW: You recorded a few albums with Jimmy Smith.
LD: I told Jimmy I'd make him famous with The Sermon [laughs]. Jimmy was a great piano player as well as a great organist. What set Jimmy apart is that he discovered stops on the organ and setups that a lot of organists didn't know. He made the Hammond sound like a piano. But with Jimmy, the groove was always there.

JW: So is the sound you eventually created called funk?
LD: No. What we did with the sax-organ thing was what I call “swinging bebop." That's what makes it different. The groove was so strong. Funk is James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire, and I'm not about either one.

JW: How did you come up with specific grooves and riffs?
LD: I'd work out the song in advance with the organist, whether it was Lonnie [Smith], Charles Earland, Leon Spencer or whoever. There was no real mystery to those records. We made them the way we wanted to make them--which was to sell them [laughs].

JW: But the formula was fairly consistent--mostly groovy riffs with a kicky beat, and a standard or two.
LD: I'd be playing all the time in clubs. I'd use riffs on different chord sequences and remember the ones I liked. One of my best albums was called The Scorpion, which was recorded live at the Cadillac Club in Newark, N.J. in 1970. That was with Fred Ballard on trumpet and Leon Spencer on organ. It has a great sound.

Of all your albums, which is your favorite?
LD: Probably Blues Walk. I love the groove on there. But Alligator Bogaloo made me the most money [laughs].

JW: How did Alligator Bogaloo get its name?
It was my title. I'm a golfer and had been playing down in Florida. One day I hit my ball and it went in a ditch. I started to go in to get it and the caddy stopped me and said, “Don't do that." Then he told me why. When I stuck my club down in the ditch with all the foliage, an alligator lifted up his head [laughs]. I liked the way the word “alligator" sounded with “bogaloo," which was a new hot dance then.

JW: Looking back on your career, would you have done anything different?
LD: I doubt it. Every move I made was exactly the one I should have made. That's why I'm still here today. I always made the right decision.

JazzWax tracks: Before we move on to the sax-organ sound, there are a bunch of terrific Lou Donaldson albums you need to know about. The Time Is Right (1959) and Sunny Side Up (1960) feature astonishing piano work by Horace Parlan. Also fantastic is LD + 3, which features Lou with The Three Sounds--Gene Harris (piano), Andy Simpkins (bass) and Bill Dowdy (drums). You'll find these here, here and here.

There are simply too many Lou Donaldson sax-organ sessions to list. Instead, let me provide you with a clutch of my favorites:

  • Good Gracious! (1963)
  • Alligator Bogaloo (1967)
  • Midnight Caper (1968)
  • Say It Loud! (1968)
  • Cosmos (1971)

If you want a superb compilation of the Lou Donaldson sound in the 1960s, download Blue Breakbeats at iTunes or here. It's a punchy, hip roundup of Lou's grooviest tunes. And all have been remastered.

JazzWax clip: Here's Lou Donaldson's Caracas from Good Gracious! The 1963 album features Lou's road band: Big John Patton (organ), Grant Green (guitar) and Ben Dixon (drums)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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