‘Sweet Poppa Lou,’ Still in His Groove

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NY CULTURE

After a 60-Year Jazz Career Built on the Road, an 83-Year-Old Saxophonist Keeps Searching for the Perfect Note

By MARC MYERS
Updated Aug. 28, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Few musicians today can claim to have changed the direction of jazz. Lou Donaldson did so twice—once in 1953 with Clifford Brown and again in 1957 with Jimmy Smith. From Tuesday through Sept. 5, the 83-year-old alto saxophonist will lead an organ-guitar-drums trio at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

If Mr. Donaldson’s name isn’t familiar, it’s likely because he spent long stretches away from New York. Like many other artists who combined country blues and jazz, “Sweet Poppa Lou,” as he’s known, built his career on the road. While long tours were a financial boon for Mr. Donaldson, being away from New York for extended periods lowered his visibility. Despite his six-decade career, he has yet to be named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lou Donaldson and Randy Johnston performing together at the PDX Jazz Festival in Portland, Ore., last year. ENLARGE
Lou Donaldson and Randy Johnston performing together at the PDX Jazz Festival in Portland, Ore., last year. GETTY IMAGES
“I just do my thing—which is getting audiences’ feet shuffling,” said Mr. Donaldson in a recent interview. Long compared with saxophonists Charlie Parker, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges for his fluid attack and blues infusion, Mr. Donaldson is among the last of a generation of jazz-musician entertainers.

Born in Badin, N.C., in 1926, Mr. Donaldson spent his youth glued to a short-wave radio that picked up the big bands from New York. At age 9, he started playing the clarinet.

Mr. Donaldson attended North Carolina A&T State University before being drafted into the Navy in 1944, where he switched to the alto sax. Baseball was his first love, and following his discharge in 1945, Mr. Donaldson returned home to complete college and play semipro baseball. But a finger injury forced him off the field and onto the stage.

In the late ’40s, after sitting in with Illinois Jacquet’s big band in Greensboro, Mr. Donaldson was urged to move to New York. He did just that in 1950, when his girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife), Maker, took a job in the city. Mr. Donaldson played gigs at Harlem clubs.

“The tenor sax was the boss instrument then, but by playing standards other musicians didn’t know and using power on the alto, I stood out,” he said.

Mr. Donaldson’s first break came in 1952—at the gym. “A guy I trained with was friends with vibraphonist Milt Jackson,” he said. “He urged Milt to use me on a recording because I sounded like Charlie Parker.” At the April 1952 recording session, Blue Note’s owner Alfred Lion was so wowed that he called Mr. Donaldson the following month to record with pianist Thelonious Monk.

Hearing Mr. Brown on the trumpet at a club in early 1953, Mr. Donaldson insisted they record together. The six tracks they recorded for Blue Note in June with pianist Elmo Hope sparked a jazz revolution that became known as “hard bop.”

“That was tough music early on because it was original and very few people could play like that,” said Mr. Donaldson. “You needed a hard, gutty sound—a different swinging feel from anything else going on then.”

In February 1954, Mr. Lion assembled a Blue Note all-star band and recorded “A Night at Birdland.” The searing hard-bop gig featured Mr. Donaldson, Mr. Brown, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Curly Russell and drummer Art Blakey.

As hard bop took off, Mr. Donaldson surprisingly never played or recorded with the major groups of the period. “I didn’t do drugs, and many of the musicians who did wouldn’t hire me because I wanted to keep my pay rather than chip in to score,” he said.

Between 1955 and 1957, Mr. Donaldson was on the road leading a quartet. “We’d play clubs in black neighborhoods from New York to Los Angeles and back,” he said.

When Mr. Donaldson resumed recording for Blue Note in 1957, he was teamed with Smith. Their spirited collaborations on albums such as “A Date With Jimmy Smith” (1957) and “The Sermon!” (1958) helped launch the jazz-soul movement, which incorporated gospel, funk and R&B elements into jazz.

Energized by the popularity of these albums, Mr. Donaldson recorded routinely with organ trios starting in 1961. His sessions for the Argo and Cadet labels between 1964 and 1966 further leveraged the jazz-soul form with an expanded use of organ-sax blues riffs.

Back at Blue Note in early 1967, Mr. Donaldson recorded his biggest seller, “Alligator Bogaloo,” which resulted in a multi-album union with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. For the next three decades, Mr. Donaldson toured and recorded with leading organists, including Charles Earland and Leon Spencer Jr.

“It doesn’t matter what I’m playing, I’m always shopping for the groove,” Mr. Donaldson said. “One way or the other, I always find it.”

—Mr. Myers writes about jazz and R&B daily at JazzWax.com.

Jazz Giants Ben Tucker and Lou Donaldson Still Have the Music in Them

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herald-mail.com

(Excerpted)

By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

crystal.schelle@herald-mail.com

5:22 PM EDT, June 27, 2012

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va.

Louis Armstrong once said, “Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them.”

Jazz legends and old friends Ben Tucker and Lou Donaldson still have the music in them. That’s why the octogenarians are still touring and playing the music they love.

On Saturday, both Tucker and Donaldson will perform at the Don Redman Heritage Award and Concert at the Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. They will also each receive the Don Redman Heritage Award for their contributions “in jazz education and music as well as the individual musicianship, humanity and dignity that illuminate the spirit of Don Redman.”

The award was named after jazz arranger Don Redman, a West Virginia native, who studied at the historically black Storer College in Harpers Ferry…

…Lou Donaldson, alto sax

At age 85, jazz alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson believes in keeping active — that means playing golf and making sure his musical chops are tight.

And at a time when most men have decided to retire, Donaldson isn’t hanging up his alto saxophone any time soon.

About six months a year Donaldson is gigging, showing the younger generation what jazz once sounded like.

There’s no practicing anymore for Donaldson. “I practice on the stand,” he said during a telephone interview from his New York City home.

Music was always a part of his upbringing in Badin, N.C.; his mother was a music teacher and concert pianist, and his father was a minister.

But Donaldson had different dreams. He didn’t want to spend his days practicing music and keeping to his mother’s wishes.

“She tried as hard as she could, but I wanted to play baseball, so it was a big conflict,” he said.

By the time he was in high school, though, he was in marching band. It was there that he started to find his musical way by playing the clarinet.

At age 15, Donaldson entered the North Carolina A&T College. He earned a Bachelor of Science, because they didn’t have a music degree.

In 1945, Donaldson was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Great Lakes, Ill., where he played the clarinet in the band.

“But we had to play for dances, and they needed a saxophone,” he said.

It was the Navy who introduced him to the alto saxophone, an instrument he immediately fell in love with.

“I just like the tone of it,” he said.

The Navy, he said, taught him a lot of things, perhaps, most importantly, “that a kid at 18 can learn discipline, strict discipline.”

But it was his time at Great Lakes where he got his education in music. The town is just 40 miles from Chicago and Donaldson would make the trip into Chi Town to see the greats.

“I had never been to a big city like Chicago, so I would go into the city on the weekends and see all these great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Billy Eckstine, he said. “I saw them and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’”

It was jazz saxophonist and composer Parker, though, who made the biggest musical influence on Donaldson.

“I heard Charlie Parker, and I wanted to play like him,” he said. “I wanted to play that style so that kept me interested in it.”

In 1952, Donaldson moved to New York City, where he was a bandleader for Blue Note Records.

Donaldson’s career took off when he recorded “Blues Walk” in 1958. The record could be found in jukeboxes and allowed people to dance. His next big hit was in 1967 with “Alligator Bogaloo,” which became a bona fide hit for Donaldson.

But “Blues Walk” still holds a special place in his heart.

“It’s my theme song, my warm-up song,” he said. “(The crowd) knows it. That’s why I play it.”

But it would be 20 more years before he earned the nickname of “Sweet Poppa Lou.” Bob Porter, a DJ for WBGO, was the one who gave Donaldson his moniker.

“I made a record for him and I played a couple of sweet songs,” he said. “And (Porter) said ‘The tone is sweet. He’s Sweet Poppa.’”

As he continues in his career, Donaldson admits that jazz music isn’t what it used to be.

“There’s not too much good jazz being played,” he said.

Today’s jazz, he said, is too intellectual.

“It’s not compatible with the general public because the musicians study too much,” he said. “They go to school and they study and they know too much about the music. Back in our days, we played whatever the people liked. That’s what we played.”

Donaldson blames it on the generations raised on television, who think show first, music second.

“We might have stood up, but we never did any dancing or anything like that,” he said. “We just played the music.”

He said when it comes to music, he remembers the teaching from his mentors long ago: “Don’t try to teach them, entertain them.”

That, Donaldson said, is good advice.

Donaldson, too, said he’s looking forward to his time in Harpers Ferry to meet up with Tucker, who he’s known for at least 30 years.

“He’s a great guy,” Donaldson said. “He’s outstanding.”

If you go …       

WHAT: Don Redman Heritage Award and Concert

WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 30

WHERE: Mather Training Center lawn, Fillmore Street, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

COST: Free admission

CONTACT: For information and directions, call 304-535-6298

Harpers Ferry NHP hosts 11th annual Don Redman Heritage Awards and Concert

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Celebrating the Heritage of Jazz

(Excerpted)

June 28, 2012
By Angela Cummings – Special to the Journal , journal-news.net

HARPERS FERRY – One of the many wonderful things about summer is the abundance of free concerts performed throughout the area; however, very few – if any – offer up award winning musical legends like the Don Redman concert and heritage award ceremony held annually at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.Each year, two jazz musicians are chosen as recipients of the award based on their dignity and merit as musicians, and work and education in music that continues the spirit of Don Redman today.”Don Redman was the greatest musical mind to come out of Storer College,” said Todd Bolton, event coordinator with the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Redman was a 1920 graduate of Storer College and went on to be known as ‘the little giant of jazz.’ Over the 88-year history of the college, Redman was probably the most significant graduate with an influence on music. We commemorate his life with this award.”

This year’s honorees and performers include legendary alto sax player Lou Donaldson and bassist Ben Tucker.

Bolton said he is extremely excited to see these two jazz greats be recognized and honored with this year’s award.

“Tucker has been a groundbreaker in a lot of areas,” he said. “He’s been playing for over a half-century and was a pioneer in back radio. He was actually the owner of the first black radio station in Savannah, Ga., promoting African American music as well as jazz, and he’s made jazz education a priority. He’s been an incredible contributor (to jazz music). Lou Donaldson, who celebrated his 88th birthday last year, has been one who has maintained a bluesy as well as R &B sound within his jazz repertoire. He’s expanded the genre and bridged that gap through his music and his interpretation. Both men have been innovators in their field as well as ambassadors of the music.”…

…Lou Donaldson, on the other hand, has a much more laid-back approach to educating music lovers about jazz and what jazz means.

With a tone as smooth as soft butter, Donaldson said he believes rhythm and blues is the root of jazz music and listeners can certainly hear it in horn.

“I try to educate ’em and entertain ’em,” he said. “That’s my style.”

During a telephone interview from his New York City home, Donaldson said he just returned from a European tour where he played in Paris, London and Milan – as well as many other cities.

He said he has so many favorite songs, that he can’t pin down just a few, but he’s looking forward to playing for area concert goers and once again meeting up with his protege, Tucker.

Tucker said that he’s excited about coming to Harpers Ferry and sharing the stage once again with Lou Donaldson.

“I’m bringing my big violin with me,” said Tucker with a smile in his voice.

Tucker and Donaldson will be joined on stage by the Howard Burns Quartet where they will perform many of their old jazz favorites.

The 11th annual Don Redman Award Ceremony and Concert will be held outside on the grounds of Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry. For more information, call 304-535-6029.

Lou Donaldson Receives Ellington Medal

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Posted on Music at Yale  Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Lou Donaldson, the legendary saxophonist and recently named NEA Jazz Master, was awarded an Ellington Medal last Friday, October 5. Willie Ruff, the director of the Ellington Fellowship at Yale, conferred the medal during a concert featuring Donaldson and his quartet.The concert, which took place in Morse Recital Hall, was the second event of the 2012–13 season of the Ellington Jazz Series at Yale. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the concert series.

In 1972, Yale President Kingman Brewster presented the first Ellington Medals to thirty jazz greats, including the Duke himself. That year marked the beginning of a series of extraordinary jazz concerts performed by a virtual Who’s Who of jazz: Eubie Blake, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joe Williams, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Charlie Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name just a few.

Since then, the Duke Ellington Fellowship has brought the giants of jazz to Yale’s concert halls and to the city’s public schools. Ellington Medal recipients in recent years have included Frank Wess, the Heath brothers, and James Moody.

The NEA’s biography of Donaldson reads, in part: “When it comes to a jazzy soulful groove, it doesn’t get much groovier than Lou Donaldson. His distinctive blues-drenched alto has been a bopping force in jazz for more than six decades. His early work with trumpeter Clifford Brown is considered one of the first forays into hard bop, and his first recordings with organist Jimmy Smith led to the groove-filled jazz of the 1960s and ’70s… Donaldson is the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from his alma mater – now called the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University – that also awards an annual scholarship in his name to the school’s most gifted jazz musician. He was also inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996.”