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Interview: Lou Donaldson (Part 2)

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Jazz writers aren't in complete agreement about the first hard-bop recording. Many point to Miles Davis' Walkin', recorded in April 1954. Others choose recordings from slightly later. I'd have to say that the first hard-bop date--where the trumpet and saxophone operate in unison with an r&b feel, backed by big steady, swinging beat--would have to be a Blue Note session of June 9, 1953. On this date, Lou Donaldson co-led a group that featured Clifford Brown, pianist Elmo Hope, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Philly Joe Jones. [Photo by Francis Wolff]

The first track recorded that day was Hope's Bellarosa, a hard-bop anthem if ever there was one. Today, this session can be found on a CD called The Clifford Brown Memorial Album, and it still sizzles with a singular freshness. Which brings me to my next point: For too long, Lou has been categorized as an r&b or funk player. Both grossly underestimate Lou's significance and the deep scope of his playing and ideas. Lou is a hard-bop Founding Father, which means he forged the foot-tapping qualities of r&b while retaining the daring and ferocity of bebop. And Lou is still on the scene today! [Photo of Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson at the June 1953 Blue Note session, by Francis Wolff]

In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Lou, the alto saxophonist talks about moving to New York in 1950, playing clubs and starting hard bop with Clifford Brown:

JazzWax: How did you wind up in New York in 1950?
Lou Donaldson: I had played semi-pro baseball in North Carolina for two years after I returned from the Navy. I played third base for the Badin Tigers. I thought I was the best third baseman in the world, and I wasn't too far off. I was hitting over .400. Then one day I picked up a ground ball barehanded and hurt my pinky. Those fields we played on had more rocks than soil.

JW: What did you do?
LD: I stopped playing ball. Then Illinois Jacquet came through town with his band. I had learned Jacquet's Flying Home on my alto saxophone, so I went up on stage and played it with him. After I finished, he said, “Man, you should be in New York." My girlfriend, Maker Turner, had already left for New York to work in a wealthy person's home. I followed her to New York in 1950 and soon afterward married her. We were married for 56 years before she passed away in 2006. We lived in Harlem, on Sugar Hill.

JW: What was happening in New York in 1950?
LD: A lot. There were clubs on every block. I attended the Darrow Institute of Music on the GI Bill and I lived with my brother-in-law for a while, which meant I didn't have to pay rent and could save. Soon I moved in with Maker. But I didn't have time to finish with school. I was too busy with gigs. When I first came to New York, they said I had to learn to play tenor. They said that in the clubs, all the hot musicians play tenor.

JW: Why?
LD: Audiences didn't like the alto sound as much.

JW: What did you do?
LD: I went around to about 15 or 16 clubs in Harlem and worked them all on alto. What I figured out is that most of the guys then couldn't play the melody to songs. They could riff on the blues and things they knew but they didn't have a deep song vocabulary. Fortunately, I did. Also I was always clean. I'm an asthmatic so I never smoked, did drugs or drank. [Photo of model Charlotte Stibling waiting backstage in 1950 at a Harlem fashion show, by Eve Arnold]

JW: In 1953, you recorded the first hard bop recording with Clifford Brown and Elmo Hope.
LD: Clifford was amazing. He could play a strong trumpet. Other trumpeters would play three sets a night, but by the third set, they couldn't play anything. Their lips were gone. This happened to Miles, Kenny Dorham and Joe Gordon. Not Clifford. He could play the last set as good as the first.

JW: In February 1954, you're with Art Blakey and Kenny Dorham on A Night at Birdland.
LD: That was probably the greatest live jazz recording ever made. But it wasn't a Jazz Messengers date nor was Art the leader. Art already had a band in Brooklyn that he called the Jazz Messengers. The quintet we had a Birdland was a studio band that Blue Note put together. It wasn't Blakey's. It was just a recording band.

JW: How did Blakey become the leader?
LD: Art owed a lot of money to someone. Blue Note made it his date so he could get more money as the leader and pay off his debt. It was just a blowing session. We didn't have a lot of time together and it was all new music, much of it written by me and Horace Silver.

JW: What made that band and hard bop in general sound different?
LD: The blues sound. We wanted to keep the blues sound firmly in the band. R&B was coming on strong, and the blues had to be a part of what we were doing so the music would stand out. Blues gives jazz its identity anyway, so it wasn't too foreign.

JW: Was there anything borrowed from old-fashioned bebop?
LD: Oh sure. Charlie Parker was one of the greatest blues musicians who ever lived. We just played what he played--but with more conventional, standardized music. We also were swinging more.

JW: What about the hard-bop rhythm?
LD: Our rhythm was more definite than bebop's. The bebop drummers were always trying things, adding this and that. What many people don't realize is that Art Blakey wasn't actually a bebop drummer in the purest sense.

JW:
How so?
LD: He was first and foremost about a strong beat and a strong rhythm. He was a swing drummer. Enormous rhythm.

JW: What's the big difference?
LD: The effect or impact was different. Art's style, and the style of all good hard-bop drummers then, is that his sound would project out more to the people listening. The hard-bop drummer was less about nuances and more about a big, driving beat.

JW: What was it like playing with Horace Silver?
LD: Amazing. Horace was originally a sax player and started piano late. Hard to believe, right? He had trouble with his back and couldn't hold up the instrument for long periods. We used to rehearse together all the time. On the keyboard, he was a piano player and a bass player and a drummer all at once, that's how good he was back then.

JW: The Birdland recordings sound like everyone was having a lot of fun during that run.
LD: I would have played those jobs for no money. It was nice and free and light what we were doing. Most of the time we'd be playing and just thinking of what to do with the song's melody line.

JW: What makes up a great group?
LD: Musicians have to play together for a couple of weeks in clubs so each one knows exactly what the others are going to do. You sense what each musician is going to do and the result is this perfect sound. Unfortunately today you don't have those kind of clubs where musicians stay together for extended periods. [Photo, from left, of Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and Curley Russell at Birdland in February 1954 by Francis Wolff]

JW: You toured the country and played clubs quite a bit in the mid-1950s.
LD: I was working steady during this period, playing many clubs in urban markets across the country, so I didn't make many records during this period. Whenever I was in New York, I was the house saxophonist up at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. It was a fantastic, experimental period. [Photo, from left, of Clifford Brown, Curley Russell, Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey at Birdland in February 1954 by Francis Wolff]

Tomorrow, Lou talks further about why he didn't record much in the mid-1950s, his sax-organ period starting in 1957, and how one of his most popular albums, Alligator Bogaloo, got its name.

JazzWax tracks: Lou's early 1950s recording period is especially rich. His first leadership date was in June 1952, with Horace Silver, Gene Ramey and Art Taylor. These recordings, his dates with Blue Mitchell from the same year, and a session from 1954 with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and trombonist Matthew Gee are on Quartet, Quintet, Sextet (Blue Note), which is only available as an import. But fortunately, all of these sides can be found at iTunes on Lou Donaldson: Ultimate Jazz Archive No. 31.

Lou with Clifford Brown in 1953 can be found on The Clifford Brown Memorial Album (Blue Note) at iTunes or here.

A Night at Birdland in February 1954 is indeed one of the most exciting live dates ever recorded. The fire and energy virtually leap out of the speakers. The recording can be found on two Blue Note CDs at iTunes or here and here.

Lou recorded three exceptional hard bop albums in 1957 after spending three years on the road. They are Wailing with Lou (with Donald Byrd and Herman Foster), Swing and Soul (also with Herman Foster) and Lou Takes Off (with Donald Byrd and Curtis Fuller), which is exceptional. All are must-owns. They can be found here, here and here.

JazzWax clip: Here's what I believe is the first hard-bop recording, from June 1953. It's Elmo Hope's Bellarosa, featuring Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson. Dig Lou swing in and out of the chord changes with force and confidence...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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