POSTED IN JAZZ NOTES
Papa Lou Donaldson, Gw Carver Museum
by Ron Scott
July 27, 2023
Scott Thompson, Lou Donaldson and Ron Scott (Ron Scott photo)
Prior to the presidency of the twice-impeached dictator idol-worshipper Red Barron 45, Florida was the ideal place to be, with sun-filled days and beautiful starry nights. The weather remains superb but now there’s an insane governor who believes in banning books and his deranged rants suggest the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was just a century long, live-in internship program that prepared our ancestors for great jobs as farmers and tradesmen. And all the daily torment, physical and mental abuse, rape, and lynchings were just overzealous slave owners helping their students adapt.
Regardless of the negative “Right” obsessions, what inspires my visits to Florida is spending time with the humorous, charismatic, and renowned alto saxophonist “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson. My good friend Scott Thompson (former publicist for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and now an independent publicist) and I take joy in driving down to Fort Lauderdale to visit Donaldson (oh, and did I mention it’s Scott’s car). Visiting him has been our joy for some years. Prior to Dr. Lonnie Smith’s transition, he made our foursome. We would stop and pick up the famed organist and meet Donaldson at the Golden Corral ; at the time he was driving his mean El Dorado that was transported down from New York.
Sweet Lou has since retired his El Dorado and is living in a luxurious assisted living complex with a swimming pool, tennis courts, a health club, and golf course. Jazz is piped in throughout the building; pretty sure Papa Lou had something to do with the choice of music. Of course, the retired saxophonist is a superstar at the complex: all the women giggle like schoolgirls when speaking with him and the guys take time for quick chit chat. And the staff, from what Scott and I saw, all praise his name.
Unfortunately, the Golden Corral, our favorite restaurant, had closed, so we quickly found a substitute: A Chinese restaurant, all you can eat…the food was good and for at least two hours, probably more, the NEA Jazz Master, now 96, astounded us with his captivating jazz tidbits, now history. We were hysterical listening to his jokes; some by Redd Foxx. Lou could have survived as a comedian, which was evident during his six decades of jazz performances riddled with comedy. He and Foxx were friends, as were Slappy White, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.. And trust, he has stories for all of them. An avid sports fan, he loves Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes. He loved playing alto sax, but his true love was baseball with aspirations of becoming a professional. That dream was shattered after an injury he suffered while playing as a student at North Carolina A&T State University..
Fortunately, when we are together, he allows me to record his in-depth oral history lessons. He always says, “Ron, you recording this, right? This is stuff nobody knows unless they were there.” Book agents should note Donaldson has a completed manuscript with a plethora of information as it relates to his unique experiences as a Black jazz musician from segregation to Harlem; Blue Note Records with dilemmas and triumphs in between. Having read the manuscript, it is well worth reading: fascinating, humorous, and seasoned with the brutal jazz truth.
Donaldson very seldom returns to Gotham these days, but expect to see him at Dizzy’s jazz club celebrating his 97th birthday (November 1), which is usually a week or two before or after the actual date. The evening will include an all-star band featuring a host of special guests and words from Donaldson, maybe even a song. There’s only one Sweet Papa Lou!