Jazz series part IV: Spotlight on Lou Donaldson

Jazz is an important part of America’s musical history. Detroit, in particular, has a strong link to jazz and has been a required tour stop for legendary giants over the years — some even got their starts there. The MSR, in an occasional series, will feature conversations with several jazz artists.

Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson

 No matter when or where he plays, “Blues Walk” is always in the musical rundown, pledges Lou Donaldson. “I always open up with ‘Blues Walk,’” said the alto saxophonist, also known as “Sweet Poppa Lou.”

Donaldson, who is hailed as one of the all-time great alto saxophonists, began playing while serving in the Navy during World War II. He met Clark Taylor, Ernie Watts “and a lot of guys” at the Great Lakes Training Center where he was stationed and where he first learned to master the sax. Over the years, a “Who’s Who” list of musicians such as Horace Silver, Grant Green, Blue Mitchell and Donald Byrd made their first recordings working as sidemen for Donaldson, whose illustrious career started in 1952 as a bandleader, and is still going strong over six decades later.

The MSR spoke with Donaldson prior to his 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival appearance last summer. “We had to play at ‘ghetto clubs,’ he recalled. “If you didn’t play right, they didn’t pay you.” Later, with the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, Canada — Detroit’s “twin city” as a natural backdrop, he performed both “Alligator Bogaloo” and “Blues Walk” to the audience’s satisfaction during his sundown appearance at last summer’s Detroit Jazz Festival. “No fusion or confusion . . . no 50 Cent, who’s not worth a quarter — just be-bop jazz,” joked Donaldson during a momentary break on stage.

Bogaloo [1967] is considered one of his most famous recordings among his 50-plus albums — a combination of “hard bop and soul-jazz,” and features Lonnie Smith, George Benson and drummer Leo Morris, later known as Idris Muhammad. “It was a great record. It was on the charts for 52 weeks,” said Donaldson proudly. He added that he can’t do a concert unless he plays the title track from Blues Walk [1958], which AllMusic.com’s Steve Huey called an “undisputed masterpiece.”

Besides his excellent weed work, Donaldson is a natural born storyteller with an elephant-like memory. He called Art Blakey “a con man,” vividly recalled how Jimmy Smith “played the organ like a piano,” and called Muhammad, who died last year, “the best drummer” he’d ever known. “He was bad,” noted the sax man.

Blue Note, which was founded in 1939, enjoyed its heyday as a standalone record label in the late 1950s through the 1960s. The label deservedly belongs in the jazz history books for its contributions, Donaldson pointed out. “It’s the first company that gave a lot of musicians the break to play music.”

One such musician was Thelonious Monk: “A lot of people wouldn’t record Monk because he was weird,” he continued. “They were the only company to do it. It started playing music like funky jazz,” noted Donaldson. “It was the greatest company that ever made jazz music.” But he switched labels from Blue Note to Chess because “we couldn’t get much money out of Blue Note,” adding that the label “didn’t get [him] credit” for helping Blue Note’s crossover success during the’60s with such albums as Natural Soul [1963] that featured “Funky Mama” with Green on guitar. It was “a giant record,” he surmised.

Yet Donaldson truly believes “The Masquerade is Over,” which is on his Blues Walk album is perhaps his favorite, stating, “[That’s] the best song I’ve ever made. I’ve made more popular [songs] but none better than that. It’s a great song.”

Finally, as some argue that too many jazz masters aren’t getting the gigs as the younger musicians today, the 88-year-old Donaldson said, “I’m not jealous. It’s a different kind of music.” However, he quickly advised today’s musicians that “getting high and wearing baseball caps” isn’t a requisite for playing music or achieving musical success.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com