‘Sweet Poppa Lou,’ Still in His Groove

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

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.