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

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5:22 PM EDT, June 27, 2012


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