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Interview: Lou Donaldson (Part 1)

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Lou Donaldson helped invent two major jazz movements. In 1952, he led a Blue Note recording that became one of the earliest hard bop sessions. The date included Blue Mitchell, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Art Blakey. Seven months later he recorded with trumpeter Clifford Brown. Then in 1957, Lou began recording a series of albums with organist Jimmy Smith that popularized the sax and organ trio sound. Throughout the 1960s, Lou's merging of the hard bop feel and r&b groove resulted in a long string of successful albums for Blue Note that were built on catchy sax-organ riffs. The formula revived jazz as popular music in the country's vast network of urban clubs and bars, and the sound remains the major bridge between jazz and soul.

Today Lou is still going strong and playing to sold-out crowds in the U.S. and abroad. Yesterday, Lou told me about fans' exuberant reaction to him during a recent trip to the Netherlands. Lou went on to say that he experienced the same crowd excitement in San Francisco last week. Which makes perfect sense: Only a handful of artists who graced the covers of Blue Note albums in the 1950s are still on the scene today.

In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Lou, 83, the Charlie Parker-influenced alto saxophonist talks about North Carolina, learning to play the clarinet, graduating early from high school, attending college at age 15, joining the Navy and taking up the saxophone:

JazzWax: You grew up in Badin, N.C. What was that like?
Lou Donaldson: It was alright. Segregation was a drag, and there wasn't any jazz on the radio down there, just country and western music. Eventually, my family had a shortwave radio that could pick up the New York stations and the big bands led by people like Benny Goodman, Harry James and Xavier Cugat, and sometimes Duke Ellington and Count Basie from the Cotton Club.

JW: Where is Badin?
LD: Toward the center of North Caroline, about an hour south of Greensboro. I went to school in Greensboro, which is where the bands played that came through the state, in the city's dance halls. I saw Buddy Johnson, Erskine Hawkins, Andy Kirk, Lionel Hampton, Jay McShann--all of them. Every so often the Basie band came through, and Duke played there once. All the originals were in Duke's band at the time, like Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Jimmy Hamilton.

JW: Did you meet the Ellington band?
LD: Later, when I was in college. They came by the Mombassie Club where I was playing in Greensboro and complimented me when I was done. That was exciting.

JW: Did you start playing the alto sax right away?
LD: I started on the clarinet when I was 9 or 10 years old. There was an Alcoa Aluminum plant in my hometown and the company had a band, which, of course, was all white. My mother went over to the bandleader and spoke to him. I have no idea what my mother said but he gave her a clarinet to give to me.

JW: Did your mother know him or have any connection to the plant?
LD: From time to time the Alcoa band would have some tough music to play. They'd call my mother, who could play anything on the piano. She was a music teacher in town. When her students missed notes, she'd have a switch to encourage them to make the notes the next time [laughs]. That's why I was the only one in my family who didn't play piano. I didn't want to get whacked with that switch [laughs].

JW: Did you have a large family?
LD: Two sisters and one brother. I'm the second oldest. They were excellent pianists. I studied hard and finished high school early, starting college at age 15. I was the valedictorian of my high school class. I also was an All-State baseball player. But back then, if you were black, you couldn't play professional baseball. You couldn't even go in the ballpark. We had to peep thorough the holes in the fence.

JW: Where did you go to college?
LD: I was admitted to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. At the time, they didn't have a music degree or a band. I was there for two years and then joined the Navy in 1944.

JW: You were in a Navy band with Willie Smith, Clark Terry and Ernie Wilkins?
LD: And Major Holly, Jimmy Nottingham, Wendell Culley and Luther Henderson. We were all at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago. That band was a great education for me. I didn't take any lessons. When I went up there, they gave us these intelligence tests. Naturally having been in college, I could do all the math. So at first they assigned me to the radar school--where I became the first black specialist. Before that, blacks at Great Lakes were bakers, stewards and cooks. [Photo of an African-American swing band at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1943]

JW: Did you stick with radar?
LD: I loved it. I was beginning to go to radar school. Then one day I passed by the base's band room and heard a clarinet squeaking. I stuck my head in to see who was making the noise.

JW: What did you see?
LD: The bandmaster was giving a guy a lesson. The guy was playing Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, a march. So I went in. Eventually the bandmaster saw me and asked if I could play. I told him I could. He gave me a clarinet, put music up on the stand and asked me to read it. I did. He put up another song. I read that down, too. No matter what he put up, I played it flawlessly. [Photo of pianist Hazel Scott signing autographs at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1943]

JW: What did the bandmaster say?
LD: He said, “You are the best clarinet player I've heard around here. Do you want to join the band? Do you play the saxophone, too?" I had never touched the saxophone up to that point. I said I'd love to join the band and would be happy to play the saxophone. So he issued me an alto sax and clarinet.

JW: What did you do with sax?
LD: I took it to the barracks. Two weeks later I knew the instrument cold and joined the band.

JW: Why didn't you audition for the band from the start?
LD: When I joined the Navy and reached Great Lakes, I had been placed in a pool of 200 sailors. Many of those guys had brought their horns with them and said they had played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. So I never bothered to take the band test. I was too intimidated by them. It turned out many of them had, shall we say, exaggerated their experiences [laughs]. [Pictured: Main gate to Great Lakes Naval Training Station]

JW: Was there one big band at the base?
LD: No, at Great Lakes you had an “A" band, a “B" band and a “C" band. I wound up initially in the C band, which was made up of young guys. The musicians in the different bands used to get together and hold jam sessions. I'd sit in and learn stuff. That's where I met Clark Terry. [Pictured: Graduates congratulate each other at Great Lakes Naval Training Station]

JW: How long were you in the Navy?
LD: For 11 months. I joined in 1944, the war ended in the summer of 1945, and I was discharged in September.

JW: What did you do when you got out?
LD: I went back to back to college. Then I heard Charlie Parker and my whole approach to the saxophone changed. I got what he was doing instantly. I had seen him a few years earlier in Chicago, when I was on leave, when he was with Billy Eckstine's band. Parker was so messed up he could hardly play anything. The suit he wore looked like he had been wearing it for six months. At first I thought he was a bum [laughs]. Then someone told me he was the guy I liked so much on the Jay McShann records [laughs]. [Pictured: Billy Eckstine and Charlie Parker]

JW: Which early record of Parker's did you listen to most at the time?
LD: I still remember it: The Jumpin' Blues with Jay McShann in 1942, which had Sepian Stomp on the other side. I played that record until you could see the aluminum in the disc [laughs]. Parker was the only one playing that way even then, and all of us were trying to figure out what he was doing.

Tomorrow, Lou talks about returning home to North Carolina after being discharged from the service, moving to New York in 1950, playing with Horace Silver and Clifford Brown and why Art Blakey isn't technically a bebop drummer.

JazzWax tracks: The Charlie Parker-Jay McShann tracks Lou Donaldson referred to above can be found on Jay McShann and His Orchestra: 1941-43 (French Classics) here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Lou Donaldson and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith playing Ornithology in 1993...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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