A Charlie Parker-inspired bebopper who began his recording career in the company of such musicians as Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson has always been concerned with pleasing the people. Building his distinctive approach around the blues and ballad aspects of the tradition, he was playing "crossover” music long before marketing strategists coined that term to describe jazz that has commercial appeal beyond the hard-core jazz audience. Over the years. Donaldson has scored such jukebox and radio favorites as "Blues Walk,” "Funky Mama,” "Alligator Boogaloo,” and "Midnight Creeper.”
"He mixes a warm, full tone, remarkable dexterity, and a roaring sense of swing, but has little resort to stylistic crutches,” New York Times critic John S. Wilson has stated. "Unlike most other neo-Parkerites, he can project a ballad with deeply felt expression.”
Donaldson returned to recording last year after a five-year hiatus with Play the Right Thing, a winning mix of swinging blues (including a rare Donaldson vocal) and soulful standards. His new Milestone release, Birdseed, follows a similar stylistic course, expressing the saxophonist’s ongoing commitment to playing jazz that is uncompromising, yet accessible.
"We’re trying to get this music settled back down, ‘cause it’s kinda gotten outta hand,” he states. "People are losing the identity of the music. I’m trying to bring it back to where at least somebody will understand what we’re trying to do, instead of this confusion music.”
Aiding Donaldson on the new album is a crew of like-minded musicians: organist David Braham, drummer Fukushi Tainaka, and—on hand from the sessions for Play the Right Thing—conga player Ralph Dorsey and guitarist Peter Bernstein.
Bernstein, a remarkable young New York-based picker, is a Donaldson discovery. "Peter was someone I heard for the first time when I was passing a bar en route to Birdland,” the saxophonist explains. "At first, I thought I heard a jukebox playing a Grant Green record. I never even got to Birdland. I stayed right in that little joint all night. These cats were cookin’. I told Peter, ‘I can’t use you in my piano group, but if I ever get a date for an organ, I’ll give you a call.’ He thought I was joking.”
Although Donaldson’s current group is composed of piano, bass, and drums, he got the opportunity to call Bernstein when producer Bob Porter suggested that he use an organist for Play the Right Thing. That session also marked a reunion of Donaldson and organ master Lonnie Smith, with whom the leader first recorded in 1967 (in a group that included George Benson on guitar) on his best-selling Blue Note album, Alligator Boogaloo.
Donaldson is pleased to be playing with an organ again. "It gives you a sound where you can duplicate a big band in spots and the bass is so prominent,” he says. "It makes the thing commercial, although you’re really not playing commercial music. People can feel it.”
Born in Baden, North Carolina on Novemher 1, 1926, Lou Donaldson studied at North Carolina A&T University, graduated with a degree in political science, played in Navy bands during World War II, then returned to his hometown. Musicians who passed through the area, including members of the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra and drummer Jo Jones (then with the Illinois Jacquet band), heard him play and encouraged him to come to New York.
He moved to New York in 1950, studied at the Darrow Institute of Music, and landed a job leading the band at Minton’s, the fabled Harlem club where such musicians as Gillespie, Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Christian had worked out many of the ground rules of bebop a decade earlier.
"It was the greatest place you ever want to see,” Donaldson says of Minton’s. "It was a place where they had a band, but all during the night, people would come in—I mean people like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday—and they’d want to play or sing. I worked from ten to four, and about two o’clock, everybody would come in from other jobs. From about four to five o’clock, you had a jam session.”
It was while playing at Minton’s that the saxophonist was spotted by Blue Note co-owner Alfred Lion and his talent scout, saxophonist Ike Quebec. Donaldson made his debut for the label in 1952 on a Milt Jackson-led date with John Lewis, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke (not yet named the Modern Jazz Quartet) that included the original rendition of the now-classic "Bags’ Groove.” Sessions with Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, and Horace Silver followed, leading to Donaldson’s own long-term contract with the company.
In honor of its distinguished alumnus, North Carolina A&T now awards a Lou Donaldson Scholarship for Music Excellence. In 1975, he received the Charlie "Bird” Parker Memorial Medal for his contributions to young jazz musicians and his help in founding the Charlie Parker Institute in Kansas City.
Donaldson currently spends eight months a year on the road with his quartet and performs frequently in Europe and , where, he says, "the music is appreciated much more than here, unfortunately.” Recently, however, he’s been finding increasing numbers of young people attending his engagements in the
"The music is new to them,” he says. "The way we play sounds almost fresh and new to them. Actually, music rotates every 15 or 20 years. We’re catching it right in the cycle here now, I hope, with this album.”
Judging from the no-nonsense, swinging, ultimately soulful jazz he delivers on Birdseed, Donaldson can’t be wrong.