Keeping the Sugar in the Great Cake of Jazz

Posted in REVIEWS

By Susan Broili : The Herald-Sun
Jan 19, 2008

DURHAM — North Carolina native Lou Donaldson, 81, turns out to be a diplomat of sorts. The alto saxophonist joins musicians David “Fathead” Newman, Houston Person and The Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio for the “Soul Jazz Summit” performance tonight at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater.

This historic gathering that brings these musicians together for the first time launches the Duke Performances Soul Power series that features seven gigs over two months.

When contacted by phone in Plantation, Fla., where the Bronx resident was visiting his daughter to get a break from cold weather, Donaldson said he thought the name of their concert fits what they do.

“That music has the soul and rhythm to it,” Donaldson said.

The musician became known for his bluesy, soulful sound and recorded for the famed Blue Note label, including “Alligator Boogaloo,” with Dr. Lonnie Smith and George Benson.

When Smith played in Donaldson’s band, Donaldson said he gave the organist some fatherly advice about the business side of music.

“To me, Smith is a consummate organ player because he doesn’t drown out the other music,” Donaldson said. Back in the days of playing clubs, the organ proved a crowd-pleaser — so much so that club owners would often extend the band’s engagement for a second week.

“You can make it sound like a whole orchestra,” Donaldson said of the organ.

Growing up, Donaldson did not have a music teacher for horn because Badin, N.C., was so small, with a population of 3,500 — “if you count the hogs and chickens,” he said.

So Donaldson’s mother bought him a book and taught him to read music to help him learn to play the clarinet when he was around 9, he recalled.

A piano teacher, his mother had started him at age 7 on the piano.

“The piano was all right, but the lessons weren’t all right. She had a switch. When you missed a note, she’d rap it across your hands,” Donaldson said.

He took to the clarinet and went on to play it in the marching band at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, where he majored in political science because the school offered no music degree, he said.

When he entered the Navy in 1945, he had been chosen for training as a radio man on a submarine when he heard some “squeaking and squawking” coming from a marching band rehearsal at the base in Great Lakes, Ill. “Somebody was messing up music in there,” he recalled.

He wound up going inside and picking up a clarinet.

“Everything [the band leader] could pull out, I played,” he said.

Then, the bandleader asked if he could play alto sax and he said he could, despite the fact that he had never played the instrument. They needed a sax player for the Navy dance band. So, he went back to his barracks and by the time of the first dance, he could play it.

“I wanted to be in the dance band because that was the only time you got to see any women,” he said.

The Navy would bring groups of women to the base to dance with soldiers, he added.

Even though his Navy service consisted of playing in the marching and dance bands, he said the entire year and a half he served proved tense because there was always a chance he could be tapped to be in a band on a ship where he would have war-related duties as well — something he saw happen to other musicians who did not come back, he added.

While Donaldson and the other guest musicians tonight have all played with Smith at one time or another, tonight’s performance marks the first time they’ve all played with Smith at the same gig.

Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald said he orchestrated this historic musical summit of these powerhouse musicians.

“To start this thing off with a real bang was really important,” Greenwald said of the Soul Power series.

And so was the ending, which is why he chose saxophonist Maceo Parker, a Kinston native and resident, as the last act in the series. Parker played for many years with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

The series features luminaries along a soul spectrum that includes gospel’s Dixie Hummingbirds; soul singer Solomon Burke; hip-hop’s DJ King Britt and DJ Spooky and those soulful jazz masters Smith, Donaldson and company.

“I think it’s closer in feel and manifestation to soul music than mainstream jazz,” Greenwald said of the latter musicians’ sound.

Donaldson said the blues feeling and strong rhythms their music embodies is an essential part of jazz that many of today’s classically trained jazz artists leave out. His music continues to be sampled for its rhythm tracks by today’s hip-hop artists, Donaldson said.

In his opinion, taking the blues out of jazz doesn’t leave much.

“It’s like taking the sugar out of cake,” Donaldson said.


WHAT: Soul Jazz Summit with The Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio and guest musicians David “Fathead” Newman, Lou Donaldson and Houston Person.
WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight (Jan. 19). Show will go on, snow or no snow.
WHERE: Reynolds Industries Theater, Bryan Center, Duke University.
TICKETS: General public: $38, $32; Duke students: $5. Purchase at the door or through

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