Lou Donaldson is a national treasure. He is not just a great saxophonist, but he is the epitome of what it is to be a great jazz musician. He has always made music with great feeling, swing and has always played the blues. He can say more in four bars than most musicians can say in a whole gig. Every time I hear Lou Donaldson play, I know that I am going to hear a soulful and thoroughly swinging performance steeped in the blues.
Lou Donaldson was born on November 1, 1926 in Badin, North Carolina. Early in his career he played with people like Billy Tolles and Dud Bascombe and Sabby Lewis. While he was still in North Carolina, Illinois Jacquet came through with a band and Lou sat in. Drummer Jo Jones told Lou that he should make his way up to New York which he did in late 1949 or 1950.
Lou quickly became known and accepted within the jazz community and in the early 1950s was approached by Alfred Lion to record for Blue Note records. The record was a success and led to him being asked to record his first records as a leader. Lou made a string of excellent recordings with many musicians who made their very first records as sidemen with Lou Donaldson including such people as Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Grant Green, John Patton, Blue Mitchell, Donald Byrd, Horace Parlan, Tommy Turrentine, Al Harewood, George Tucker, Jamil Nasser, and Curtis Fuller and others.
Lou was certainly influenced by Charlie Parker but he listened to all of the great musicians and not just saxophonists. The great pianist Horace Parlan states the following: “One of the unique qualities of Lou’s work is that he incorporates a great deal of the whole jazz tradition in his playing. He’s listened to just about everyone, and not only alto players. With this knowledge of the entire jazz language, Lou is definitely an individual voice.” I wholeheartedly agree and that is one of the reasons why Lou is one of my favorite musicians and has been since I first heard him on records and then in person.
I first heard him my first year in college in a friend’s dorm room and it was the famous record called “A night at birdland” with Clifford Brown, Art Balkey, Horace Silver and Curly Russell. His solos on those records are classic examples of how musical and fresh his playing is as well as his mastery of the so-called “bebop” language of his predecessors such as Charlie Parker. When I later discovered his records like “Blues Walk” and “Fried Buzzard” and others, I was hooked. I played those records so much I nealy wore them out!
I think I first heard Lou play live at a place in Newark, NJ called Sparky J’s around 1978 on the corner of Halsey St. and William St. in downtown Newark, NJ where I had been doing some regular gigs. I also know that I heard Lou every time I could whenever he performed in New York. I caught him often at Sweet Basil’s and The Village Vanguard as well as some of the New Jersey spots that were around t the time.
The first time I had a chance to sit in with Lou was in Sweet Basil in 1982. It was a memorable experience and I also remember that pianist Harold Mabern also sat in that night in addition to Tony Scott on clarinet. We played Star Eyes and Bye Bye Blackbird and I had a ball. The thing that amazed me is that ever since then, Lou always remembered me and he would ask me how I was and where I had been playing lately.
The next time I sat in with Lou’s group was about 25 years later! I recently sat in with his quartet at the Village Vanguard when he performed with a great rhythm section including pianist Michael Weiss and drummer Kenny Washington. Of course, it was once again, a very enjoyable experience. I am very honored to have been invited up to play with a master such as Lou Donaldson and the fact that he has always been very complimentary and encouraging to me is something that I shall always be very grateful for.
Lou is 82 and is still playing at his best and continues to perform quite frequently throughout the world. His performances in Europe, the US and all over the world are met with enthusiastic appreciation and he always gives the audience a swinging performance and is truly entertaining as well, often singing the blues with feeling and soul.
So here’s to you, Lou Donaldson, a musical legend, icon and a personal hero of mine for many years. God bless you, LD and keep on swinging forever!
Written by Adam Brenner, pictured above with Lou Donaldson backstage at Carnegie Hall after the Sonny Rollins concert in 2007.