Lou Donaldson: Jazz Paths
by JOSEP PEDRO
One of the few remaining musicians that defined the sound of jazz after the bebop musical revolution, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson illustrates the richness and ambiguities of jazz evolution during the crucial period between the late forties and early seventies. During these intense and fascinating times of contemporary United States history, jazz exploded into a variety of paths that ran parallel with different environments, artistic, social and political concerns.
In coexistence with the upcoming Black Power movement and its multiple expressions, jazz took off with different responses and approaches. Some were involved in an innovative search for something higher or qualitatively different, defined by strong personalities and (sometimes) artistic genius. Others were part of a more popular or mass-representation culture that, despite holding generally high standards, was closer to the idea of popular music than to art. With people pulling from both sides—and all the conflicting mix around—both positions were finally criticized, though with the passing of time the innovator leader has usually been valued most, despite many not liking the results of their innovations.
Donaldson fits into the second category, and belongs to a group of musicians that more or less stayed faithful to their sound, aware that the music they played was not only their group creation but also a collective music meaningful for its impact on people. Often underestimated, Donaldson’s music and trajectory not only speak about jazz’s perception and guiding codes but also about more abstract matters such as the functions and roles of artistic expression in the contemporary world.
Born in Badin, North Carolina in 1926, Donaldson moved to New York in 1950, after the insistence of jazzmen like saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Like most saxophonists at the time, he grew up with the influence of Charlie Parker, who inspired him to take in the bebop language. Donaldson’s ability to sound like Bird earned him his first recording date for Blue Note, in fact, where he embodied the label’s bluesy, night-evoking sound. Coming out of the bebop foundations, Donaldson—along with people like pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Clifford Brown—proved his virtuosity and skills, and made a name for himself by participating in legendary recordings including drummer Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland (Blue Note, 1954), a keystone for what came to be known as hard bop, a style that went back to the popular roots of blues and gospel.
Donaldson then took off on his own particular journey, absorbing new and classic sounds into his own language, and stressing the importance and value of groove and feeling. His first and biggest hit arrived in 1958 with “Blues Walk,” an irresistible blues spiced up with percussionist Ray Barretto’s Latin touch. The sensuality and nocturnal ambiance of the tune contributed to making Donaldson a crossover artist, admirable for taking jazz to the people and ultimately aligning himself in the understanding of jazz as popular music for regular people.
Assuming “Blues Walk” as his signature tune, Donaldson’s music announced a changing African American sensibility that looked back to its past to better understand itself and its history. In a move that merged bebop and rhythm & blues as two dominant Black music forms, Donaldson’s subsequent recordings stood out for their straight-ahead approach, blues base, and rhythmic repetition; a swinging soul potion that hung over a common cultural tradition and went for emotional, heartfelt communication.
In opposition to cool jazz arrangements and tricks, hard bop traced back to Black church imagery and devices, combining it with a talkative, colloquial, street-like style. Participating on albums such as organist Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon (Blue Note, 1959), along with a dream team line-up (Art Blakey, trumpeter Lee Morgan, saxophonist Tina Brooks and guitarist Kenny Burrell), Donaldson soon incorporated the organ, contributing to the establishment of blues-based organ combos that would continue from then on. Here ‘Tis (Blue Note, 1961), a relaxed and happy album, was first, followed by The Natural Soul (Blue Note, 1962), where the altoist took a harder pulse and initiated a growing orientation towards dance that would continue with Signifyin’ (Argo, 1963) and Alligator Bogaloo (Argo, 1967), culminating with a new high-point, Midnight Creeper (Blue Note, 1968).
The sound of what came to be known as soul jazz was commercially successful during the mid-sixties because of its connection with the audience. It drew on the “Black is beautiful” spirit of the times, the negritude beauty and body movement, and soul food’s appeal. The music offered a sensual blend of elegant blues, funk and soul that was perfect for a chilling, compromised and smoking atmosphere. But on the other hand, some critical voices aroused within the hard-core jazz world. Not only were they to criticize what they perceived as an accommodated version of jazz that followed a formula (opposed to a constant searching attitude), but they also fell into valuing music in terms of technical difficulty by labeling musicians like Donaldson as “uncomplicated bop.”
It cannot be denied that certain recordings did not work out as smoothly as others, precisely for the difficulty of balancing emotional connection and harmony amongst band members, environment and audience, with a necessary extra touch to stand out. It may be true, then, that, immersed in rules of the entertainment industry and capitalist economy, great players like Lou Donaldson, on Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958), and Lee Morgan with The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1964), among others, overused certain musical treatments for commercial success.
However, the communicative and interactive nature of music must not be forgotten, as well as bearing in mind one of the possible goals of artistic search and expression: to communicate in a language that people can understand and, at the same time, offer freedom for improvisation and innovation in order to express particular personalities, without breaking the bond between the individual and the community.
Overall, the two paths sketched out here should not be seen as necessarily opposed or contradictory; one need not be chosen over the other. Instead, a wider analytical and aesthetic scope allows the distinguishing of different roles, functions and performances. A dynamic process that demands attention to the non-musical aspects that condition the perception of music, this position—rather than towards general acceptance—leads to a critical perspective, towards the valuing of jazz that revises the repetition of clichés.
In an incredible and unexpected opportunity, Lou Donaldson’s recent European tour has given younger generations a more real connection with the glorious and idealized past of jazz and popular music. The energy and strength of the 85 year-old legend has brought many jazz fans and writers the chance to experience, first-hand, the melodies and rhythms that have previously only been discovered through celebrated recordings.
Donaldson reveals himself as a calm, easy-going gent that, unlike many, does not mythicize his past story. It is one of those special moments in a musical lifetime when a historic, mighty presence naturally shows up as a charming, laidback person, ready to hold up his alto saxophone and blow his sweet and winding sound, tracing the down-home flavor lines that have drawn modern jazz.
How do you feel about starting another European tour that will take you through countries like Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, England and France?
Lou Donaldson: Well, I’m doing alright so I’m just giving it a test to see how it can make out. Just getting around to places where I haven’t been for quite a while. You got to keep movin’ so people don’t think you’re gone.
It’s been sixty years since you recorded your first album with the [vibraphonist] Milt Jackson Quintet. What general balance do you make of your extensive career?
LD: I don’t know. It goes and comes; it’s up and down so it’s hard to say. But it’s been fine.
From your experience, what have been the most important things for jazz musicians to express in their music?
LD: The most important thing is try to have some projection. Today music has become so complicated that sometimes is not really compatible with the audience. You have to be careful about that because a lot of musicians get so involved that they forget about the people, and it’s not good.
On previous interviews, you talked about the blues flavor in your music. What is it that blues brings into music in general, and jazz in particular?
LD: It’s the feeling of the music, actually. That’s what it is. If you don’t have that kind of blues feeling you’re not really playing any jazz. The notes are the same but it’s a little different. Jazz was a natural progression from the blues. If you come from another part of the world, you don’t get that like we get in the South where I’m from, from church music and just average blues music.
Do you have any favorite blues artists?
LD: I liked Eddie Vinson; he played the same horn I played. It was a mixture between blues and jazz. I still do that, and try to do a little singing too. It’s the same thing. Nobody is really playing anything now. They’re just replaying what already has been played.
LD: You have to do a little singing in some clubs or else they’ll send a singer up. Rather than doing that I’d rather do it myself [laughs]!
What are your feelings about Bird today? What was your relationship with him?
LD: Well, he changed the style of playing and that was very important. He was a character, so he had some bad habits too. You gotta be careful. Some good, and some bad. We were friends, I used to talk to him a lot and play with him sometimes.
In 1954 you recorded live A Night at Birdland (Blue Note) with Art Blakey and an all-star lineup with Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, bassist Curly Russell and yourself. How do you remember that experience?
LD: It was a great album, I was happy. I would have played for no money. It was nice… best album I ever recorded [laughs]. Horace [Silver] was in my group, so we were very friendly. Art [Blakey] sort of, you know. He was hard to deal with sometimes. It was a date for the company but nobody was the leader. He acted like he was the leader but not really.
How important was Blue Note for capturing the sound that jazz musicians were developing and playing at the time?
LD: The company was doing what everybody else wouldn’t. Nobody would record [pianist Thelonious] Monk, they didn’t like his sound; but Blue Note recorded him and some other musicians too. They gave me a break when I was a young saxophonist. I brought Horace, [trumpeter] Blue Mitchell, [guitarist] Grant Green, [saxophonist] Stanley Turrentine, [trumpeter] Donald Byrd… all those musicians I brought to the label. They first recorded with me. Alfred [Lion] and Frank Wolf were very friendly guys. You didn’t have problems like you did with other labels.
How did the organ change the overall sound of jazz?
LD: You sound more like a big band with an organ. The reason I used organ was because people never had a piano and we couldn’t rent it because it cost too much money. So we just bought an organ; I didn’t know it would work as well as it did, but it did. I stuck with it because I did some records that people liked so I have to have that sound. That’s why I keep the organ.
Looking back at some of your recordings, you can notice similarities between tunes like “Blues Walk” (1958) and “Signifyin'” (1963), “Alligator Boogaloo” (1967) and “Midnight Creeper” (1968). Same thing seems to happen with Lee Morgan and his successful “The Sidewinder” (1964). Where these recordings all part of the same idea?
LD: Once you start making records you’re stuck because after a record sales people remember the music and if you don’t play it like that they get angry. If you play it a different way… no good, especially in the ghetto [laughs]. Once it started working and selling records we followed the same line.
What was the social significance of the music back then and its relationship with the upcoming black power movement?
LD: At the time I didn’t think much about it, but now I realize that music was good because it was associated with that. It means a lot to people. Even Muhammad Ali used my music in his training camp. When he did his ropes and stuff, he used to play “Gravy Train” [laughs].
Your style has been linked to many different jazz subgenres according to the times like bebop, hard bop, soul jazz… how did you think about the music you played as your career kept growing?
LD: Well, I didn’t think about it really. I just had to play my type of music for the people I was working for. But it’s different things for different people. If you’re like in the ghetto you have to play a little different music than you do at the Vanguard and places like that. It’s different music.
Different jazz styles have been associated with different decades. How do you see today’s jazz scene?
LD: They have polluted jazz so there’s nothing happening now. Everything is too technical, too mechanical… there’s no movement going on now. The younger musicians today don’t have the background to play real jazz. They’re playing like a custom-made suit. They got too much from here [the brain] and too little from here [the heart].
Do you notice there’s a different music appreciation in Europe compared to the States?
LD: Of course, much better. I first visited Spain to play in a little club outside from Barcelona. [It was] a couple of years before coming to Madrid [Lou Donaldson performed at San Juan Evangelista Jazz Festival in March 1984, with pianist Herman Foster, bassist Geoff Fuller and drummer Victor Jones]. People over here, they don’t listen too much to what disc jockeys and newspapers try to tell them that’s good and bad. They go by what they like, which is the best way, anyway.
Lou Donaldson, Play the Right Thing (Milestone, 1990)
Lou Donaldson, Hot Dog (Blue Note, 1969)
Lou Donaldson, Midnight Creeper (Blue Note, 1968)
Lou Donaldson, Alligator Bogaloo (Argo, 1967)
Lou Donaldson, The Natural Soul (Blue Note, 1962)
Lou Donaldson, Gravy Train (Blue Note, 1961)
Lou Donaldson, The Sermon (Blue Note, 1959)
Lou Donaldson, Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958)
Lou Donaldson, A Night at Birdland Vol.II (Blue Note, 1954)
Lou Donaldson, A Night at Birdland Vol.I (Blue Note, 1954)
Interview originally published at All About Jazz