Lou Donaldson

Man holding a saxophone.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart


When it comes to a jazzy soulful groove, it doesn't get much groovier than Lou Donaldson. His distinctive blues-drenched alto has been a bopping force in jazz for more than six decades. His early work with trumpeter Clifford Brown is considered one of the first forays into hard bop, and his first recordings with organist Jimmy Smith led to the groove-filled jazz of the 1960s and '70s.

Donaldson began playing the clarinet at age nine, and by 15 was enrolled in North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, where he would later receive a BS degree. He was drafted into the United States Navy in 1945 and became a member of the Great Lakes Navy Band—which gave Donaldson the opportunity to play with older musicians such as Clark Terry, Ernie Wilkins, and Luther Henderson—playing both clarinet and alto saxophone. Following his time in the Navy, Donaldson eventually moved to New York City in 1950 on the advice of Illinois Jacquet. He attended the Darrow Institute of Music on the GI Bill but played at the clubs in Harlem at night. Charlie Parker was initially an influence on Donaldson's sound, as he was on just about every saxophonist who followed him, but the younger musician eventually developed his own style.

Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records, heard Donaldson playing at Minton's Playhouse and invited him to record for his label. First as a sideman with the Milt Jackson Quartet (later the Modern Jazz Quartet), Donaldson was instrumental in bringing Clifford Brown and Horace Silver to Blue Note, and made the recording with Art Blakey, Night at Birdland, considered one of the first in the hard bop genre. Donaldson was also instrumental in getting many legendary musicians their debut sessions with Blue Note, including Grant Green, Blue Mitchell, John Patton, Ray Barretto, Curtis Fuller, and Donald Byrd.

During the 1950s, Donaldson spent much of his time as a bandleader touring with a band that featured organist John Patton. Donaldson began using the organ-saxophone format exclusively, which led to his recording on Jimmy Smith's seminal recording of the late 1950s, The Sermon. He has gone on to employ a variety of other great organists through the years, including Dr. Lonnie Smith (along with George Benson on Donaldson's acclaimed recording Alligator Bogaloo), Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, Leon Spencer, Pat Bianchi, and Akiko Tsuruga. The organ-sax groove sound—which Donaldson called "swinging bebop"—helped, for a time, make jazz as popular as it had been during the swing era.

Donaldson is the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from his alma mater—now called the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University—that also awards an annual scholarship in his name to the school's most gifted jazz musician. He was also inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996, among other honors.

Selected Discography:
Art Blakey, A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1, Blue Note, 1954
Blues Walk, Blue Note, 1958
Alligator Bogaloo, Blue Note, 1967
Live in Bologna, Timeless, 1984
Relaxing at Sea, Chiaroscuro, 1999


Sweet Poppa Lou talks about the musical roots of his swinging bop saxophone sound.

Lou Donaldson—Podcast Transcript

DONALDSON: First time I heard jazz was on the radio station, WBT from Charlotte, North Carolina, which was a country and western station. That's all they played. But…they had one disc jockey there, a guy named Grady Cole -- never will forget him -- and he had one record, Louie Armstrong and it was St. James Infirmary. And he played that every day because he loved that. And that's my first time hearing jazz music. And I liked it. In fact, I waited for that one record.

Whenever I play a ballad, I always try to get a tone like Johnny Hodges, like he used to slur notes and sustain certain notes on his saxophone. And, when I tried to move through the chords, I would try to move through them like Charlie Parker. So that's, that's about the style I played.  

(Music Up)

JO REED: That was saxophonist and 2013 NEA Jazz Mater Lou Donaldson.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

While most of you are preparing for the holidays and the New Year, here at the NEA we are getting ready for the new class of Jazz Masters, and they are, Mose Allsion, Lorraine Gordon, Eddie Palmieri, and Lou Donaldson.

Lou Donaldson's alto sax has been a force in jazz for more than six decades. He spent his early years in the bebop era, influenced heavily by Charlie Parker but Donaldson combined bop with a more soulful sound that was absolutely his own, it was a style of playing that earned him the nickname, Sweet Poppa Lou.

Donaldson made a series of classic records for Blue Note in the 50s, and he takes great pride in having showcased many musicians who made their first records with him including pianist Horace Silver, and trumpeters Donald Byrd and Clifford Brown. But impossible to categorize, Donaldson's first records with organist Jimmy Smith led to the groove-filled jazz of the 1960s and 70s. At the age of 86, Lou continues to perform his swinging bebop with tunes that are always soulful, thoroughly swinging, and steeped in blues.

Donaldson has received many awards and honors throughout his career including being inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996, and now he has been named a 2013 NEA Jazz Master. I spoke with Lou at Jazz at Lincoln Center soon after he found out he was named an NEA Jazz Master.

I knew Lou Donaldson had come from a musical family and I wanted to know more about his musical roots.

DONALDSON: My father was a minister and preacher. And my mother was music director and classical pianist.

JO REED: Your brothers and sisters, they all play the piano?

DONALDSON: All of them played the piano, right.

JO REED: But you don't.


JO REED: How come?

DONALDSON: Because our mother was a music teacher and she used to give lessons. And when the kids would miss a note, she had a switch. Boop! Right across that hand. And I never took it up.

JO REED: How did you begin to play music?

DONALDSON: Well, what happened, I'm asthmatic, you know and I never thought about playing an instrument anyway. And one thing my mother told me, she said, you know, "Louis," she called me "Louis," she said, "You've got more music talent than anybody in this family." Because back when the kids would play these little etudes, I used to go around humming them and I knew all of the things. And when they'd miss a note I'd say, "Ah! That's not the right note." You know. And she said, "Well, you've got music abilities, we'll have to get you to play some kind of instrument." And they had a band in my hometown. Because nothing' was there actually, but Alcoa Aluminum, it was a factory, and everybody in the town, except the teachers and doctors and things, they worked in the factory. And they had a band. And she went over to the bandmaster and got a clarinet. And brought it back and we, you know, learned how to play the clarinet. That's how I got started.

JO REED: You went to college…


JO REED: And ended up joining the Navy in 1940…?

DONALDSON: I didn't join, I was drafted. Forcibly drafted.

JO REED: In '44?

DONALDSON: '44 or '45, yeah.

JO REED: And that was the time you switched from the clarinet to the saxophone?

DONALDSON: Actually, what happened to me is, I was going to college at the time I was drafted. And when they give you the intelligence test, they put everybody, you know, in a bracket. And they had me in a bracket where I was going to be a radar specialist. First time that black people had ever done anything except be a cook or something like that. I came by the band room one day and I heard this clarinet squeaking. And I just stuck my head in the door, you know, like people do in the Navy. And I said, "Who in the hell is that, making all that noise in there with that clarinet?" And the band instructor was giving a guy a lesson.

And so he said, "What…are you talking about?" And I said "Give me that clarinet, let me show you how to play." So I played it. So he put up a little music and I played it, and he put up some harder stuff and I played it. He said, "Man, you're one of the best clarinet players. What are you? What band are you?" And I said, "I'm not in no band." He said, "Well what are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to radar school." He said, "Well, you just got you just got demoted. We're putting you in the band."

Well that day he asked me, he said, "You play clarinet. You play saxophone, too?" And I had never touched a saxophone. I said, "Oh yeah, I play sax." And he never knew that I didn't play saxophone. Because when I got in the band, they issued me a clarinet and a saxophone, and I took both of them back to the barracks and practiced them. And by the time they called me back, I was able to play it.

JO REED: Did you take to the saxophone right away? I mean, the sound of it?

DONALDSON: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I loved it. I loved the alto.

JO REED: Do you remember the first saxophonist you ever saw play?

DONALDSON: I don't know who it was, but I know that I used to like Johnny Hodges. I used to see Duke Ellington in the band. And, I used to like Johnny Hodges. Bands would come through my hometown and I'd see saxophone players and, I used to try to like all of them. Louis Jordan, people like that. You know. They didn't really play that much jazz, but I liked them anyway.

JO REED: What did you do when you got out of the Navy?

DONALDSON: I went back to school. Went back and finally got a degree. '47. Bachelor of Science. And then I was a baseball player, I played a little semi-professional baseball, that's all I wanted to do. I didn't really want to play the music. But bands kept coming through, like Dizzy and Lionel Hampton and I'd sit in with the bands, you know, because I'm a college kid so they'd give you a shot. And they kept telling me to come to New York, so eventually I said, "Well, maybe." So I came to New York.

JO REED: What was New York City like then? In terms of music.

DONALDSON: Oh, it was great. It was great. We had about ten clubs right in Harlem where you could go and play you know, music. Wouldn't make much, ten, fifteen dollars a night, but you know it was good.

JO REED: When was the first time you heard Charlie Parker?

DONALDSON: Oh, I heard Charlie Parker when I was in the Navy. That's what made me really stick with the alto, I heard Charlie Parker. I just about forgot about the clarinet, I liked Charlie Parker's sound. I heard him playing with Jamie Chan's band, and it was great. I never heard anything like that before.

JO REED: Can you talk about what it was you heard that was so different?

DONALDSON: Well, it was him. He played a different style; the way he moved through all the songs and stuff like that. The way, his was variations on the songs. So different from everybody else. And all of the musicians, of course, around Great Lakes were talking about it too. I just liked it. I liked it.

JO REED: And you've said hearing Charlie Parker had you change your approach to the saxophone.

DONALDSON: Yeah, it did. It did. It changed my approach completely. Because I wanted to play like that. And I'd buy the records and wear them down to the aluminum. You know, they had an aluminum base then. And I'd play them so much I'd run, I'd wear out the record. But I finally picked up a few things, and it was good.

JO REED: Can we take a moment, because I know, you've done a lot of thinking and writing about this, the transition from swing to bop?


JO REED: You wrote a thesis about it.


JO REED: For people who may not know, can we begin with the basics and tell us, what is swing?

DONALDSON: You mean jazz swing?

JO REED: Yeah, yeah.

DONALDSON: That's what it is. Swing.

JO REED: Jazz is swing?

DONALDSON: Yeah. "Don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing." But what I was talking about, see, most of the jazz before bebop was dance music. Normally, jazz was dance music. All the bands played for dancing. Every band played for dancing, very few bands ever played, like, concerts. Maybe Duke Ellington or someone like that once in a while. But everybody, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford… Earl Hines, Erskine Hawkins, you know -- all the bands. Tommy Bradshaw. All them played, they played for dancing. That's, that's what they were. Dance bands.

JO REED: And then what happened with bebop? What was the transition?

DONALDSON: The transition was that Dizzy and Charlie Parker had a new way of playing music, and it was a small -- smaller group. Small group. Wasn't big band when it first came out. Actually, what happened, they talked Coleman Hawkins into making a record with called Woody and You. It was written for Woody Herman. And that set everybody on that trend and started them playing that way. And it… it was a smaller group, and they played… a lot of solos. In the dance bands, you didn't have many solos. You maybe had one or two and that was it. And you never had a drum solo but once a night. You'd usually feature the drummer one time a night and that was it no more. And it was great. It was great. But bebop you could play, everybody could play on every song. It was a different kind of setup.

JO REED: Can we talk about Minton's?


JO REED: What was Minton's like? You were the house saxophonist there.

DONALDSON: Yeah. For a while, yeah. Minton's was like a joint. It wasn't really a club. It had a, had a bar that faced the door. Before you got to the bar, it was a floor there like a, like a dance floor. But people didn't dance, but it was there. And…the band was right on the side of the bar, on a stage. And, it was what we called a walk-in place. You know, you didn't have to pay anything. And, everybody came there. It was like a celebrity hangout, because you had people say, like Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. They worked downtown. But their jobs ended at twelve o'clock or one o'clock. Minton's stayed open 'til four o'clock. So about two o'clock, all of them were there. You know, they'd come up to get a drink And everybody would be there. So the people knew they would be there and so the people would flock in to see them. Joe Lewis came in there, the famous fighter. Malcolm X used to come in there, you know. All those kind of people came in. Adam Clayton Powell. The big shots used to come in to hear the music. It was great. Great.

JO REED: So how many sets would you do a night?

DONALDSON: Four -- Four sets.

JO REED: Four sets a night?

DONALDSON: We'd start at ten and we'd end up at four. Unless, at the end of the night, see, in that place a lot of hustlers came. And if the ladies had made a lot of money, they'd come in about 3:30, 4:00, and say give everybody a drink. And then the manager would say, "Well, you've got to play a couple more tunes because he, he wants to hear…"So some time we'd play 'til 5 o'clock.

JO REED: And you used to do breakfast sessions.

DONALDSON: Yeah. Right.

JO REED: Describe a breakfast session.

DONALDSON: Well, actually, it wasn't a breakfast session. We had a place up in Harlem we called Wales where after, after four o'clock, everybody would go up and eat chicken and waffles, and chicken livers and grits. And right up the street, half a block, was a place called Carney's. And everybody would, after they eat, they'd go up there and play 'til eight or nine o'clock in the morning. You know, jam sessions. It was great. Can't beat it. You never see any days like that anymore.

JO REED: You sat in with Charlie Parker, didn't you?

DONALDSON: Yeah, couple of times.

JO REED: How did that happen?

DONALDSON: Well, actually, he came down to Paradise Club on 110th Street and Eighth Avenue. And the manager wanted him to play. He said, "Okay." So he came up to play, so everybody left the stand. In fact, I was leaving, too, and he said, "No. You stay and play with me." And I said "Oh, no. Not going to be, not like that." He said, "Yeah," he said. And then he told the manager he said, "If Lou doesn't play, I'm not gonna play." So the manager made me play with him. That's the only reason you see me standing up there. I wasn't the one who wanted to play with him. But it was great. Very great.

JO REED: Your very long association with Alfred Lion and Blue Note which began in '52. How did that happen?

DONALDSON: Oh yeah, right. Right. Well, what happened is I used to train with a guy. Used to be, you know, fight him. I wasn't a fighter, but I used to train for…

JO REED: Boxing?

DONALDSON: Yeah, boxing. You know, for protection. You know. And, the guy, his name was Art Woods, and he was a friend of Milt Jackson's. And he told Milt about me so Milt had heard me play, and he said, "Okay, you need to make a date with me." So we made a date with Milt Jackson. Actually, it was 1950. And that's how I first met Alfred Lion. And he liked me so naturally the rest is history. He started recording me and a few of the records started selling, so he kept recording me for many years.

JO REED: You are one of the people, with Art Blakey, performing on one of the great live jazz albums, A Night in Birdland.

DONALDSON: Yes. It's the best, best-recorded session ever done live, yeah.

JO REED: Tell me about that recording. How did it happen? How did it come to be?

DONALDSON: Well, actually, it was a company date. It was a Blue Note date. Blue Note, Alfred Lion got everybody together and wanted us to make this date. What happened is he put Art on the drums and Horace, and myself. And I had made this record with Clifford Brown a year before then. And they liked Clifford Brown so well, they brought Clifford Brown in on trumpet. And, and Curley Russell on bass. And that's, that's the way it developed. But once we got to playing, and it go to be so successful, between Art and Pee Wee Marquette, they forgot it was a company date. And he started Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. And it wasn't really the Jazz Messengers, that wasn't the Jazz Messengers group. People don't know the difference and the record sold, so nobody said anything about it.

JO REED: What made it so great, Lou?

DONALDSON: It was live. It was a live session. The people were into the music. And Clifford Brown was so dynamic you, wouldn't believe. I would've played job for no money. This cat was great. To be so young and have so much stuff together at that age, it was amazing. He was amazing. And Art actually played well on that himself. So it was amazing, amazing. You got the energy, the projection from the music to the people, and you can hear it on the record. And it was great, it was great. It was a different kind of music. As anybody knows that plays music, sometimes you're just into it better, you play better. Same songs every night, but it's a different thing. Some nights a different thing.


JO REED: Blues Walk in 1958 became your signature song.

DONALDSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That's my theme song.

JO REED: How did it come about? Talk about that.

DONALDSON: Well, you won't believe it, I hate to leak, leak out this information because I'm gonna put it in my book. But anyway, I had a meeting with Al Lion and Frank Wolf. And I told them, I said, "Look, I'm not recording any more music with no, with any junkies. The junkies got to go." I wanna pick the musicians, I wanna pick the band, and we're going to make this record."

So I picked this guy, Herman Foster, who played piano. He was blind. He was singing in a church. But I had been playing jam sessions with him up at Carney's, and I liked him. And I picked Dave Bailey, drummer. Dave was a liquor salesman, but I had played some stuff with him and I liked him. And I got Ray Barretto on the congas. And the bass player I had was Peck Morrison who lived with me. I was living in a housing project at that time up in Throggs Neck in the Bronx, and he got in, and he was my neighbor, so he played the bass. And we made this record and it was a hit. I can't, I couldn't believe it.

Now Frank Wolf told me, it's the first record that Blue Note got on a jukebox from New York to California. That's a good tune. It's got a good groove, got a good groove to it. Good groove to it.

JO REED: That leads to my next question because you talk about musician saxophonists as having a musical ID.


JO REED: How did you develop yours?

DONALDSON: Oh, I don't know how I did. It's just a cross between blues and bebop, you know. It's in between there somewhere. Because, naturally most of my stuff is what we would call on the soul side. Because of all the experience I had with my father and church music, spiritual music, which I heard, you know, all my life. And I just interject some of that into my playing and that's, that's what it is.

JO REED: How did you get the name Sweet Papa Lou?

DONALDSON: Bob Porter. Bob Porter got me. I was making a date for him one time, and he just started to call me Sweet Papa Lou. Because I played this ballad, If I Should Lose You, or something, and he liked it. And he said, "Oh, Sweet Papa Lou." And then that's what he called me. And he named the album, Sweet Papa Lou.

JO REED: Did you play with Thelonious Monk?


JO REED: What was that experience like for you?

DONALDSON: Well, it was all right. All right, except he would never write anything out. You had to learn it, you know. And, he never said anything. Unless you made a mistake or something, he'd say something. But he wouldn't much. Monk was one of the funniest guys I ever saw in my life. Because Monk would never talk to anybody. I'd talk to him all the time, but he'd never talk to anybody. And when he did, he'd talk out the corner of his mouth. He'd come and I'd say, "What the hell are you saying, Monk?" But he was an amazing guy. I used to see him when I first came. He'd be down to Blue Note all the time. Monk and Nelly, his wife. Any time I went down there, he'd be down there. At first I thought he worked for the company. And the guy said, "Oh, that's Thelonious Monk!" He is piano player.

JO REED: I really would love to talk about the circuit. Can you describe the circuit that you developed?

DONALDSON: The circuit was the most amazing thing that I think has ever happened since I've been in the jazz business. Now you had the big band circuit, which was big bands would go from New York to Florida playing these dance halls, you know. But this was across the country. We started in Rochester, we hit Buffalo. Then we'd go to Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, Louisville, Kentucky, St. Louis, Kansas City. And every one of these clubs had a personality that ran the club.

And it was amazing because, we could do this two or three times a year. There wasn't a whole lot of money, but it was a job. And you got to know the people in the town, and you know a lot of things you could do free, like go to a restaurant they'd give you food for nothing. People today, they don't even know about that kind of stuff. What happened to me, it was the most amazing experience in the world because back then everything was segregated. And when you got in these towns, there wasn't but one hotel you could go to. The black hotel. And I got to meet everybody, all the football players, Jimmy Brown, all the guys. I knew all of them. Knew all of them. And used to meet them and talk to them and we'd have fun. And a lot of them liked jazz. So they'd come around to the clubs. That time was amazing.

JO REED: You're known for being able to read an audience.

DONALDSON: Right. Yeah. Well, we had what we'd call a "feel 'em out" set. The first set.

JO REED: Feel 'em out?

DONALDSON: Feel 'em out. When we went to a new place that we never played, we played a cross section of music. We played fast, we played slow, we played blues, we played ballads. Whatever the people responded to, that's where we laid. Then we'd sneak in a couple of bebop tunes and anything that we wanted to play. But once we got them in our pocket, that's what we did. It's, it's very simple, you know. And it worked. It's still working now.

JO REED: Your other great jazz innovation, the series of recordings with Jimmy Smith that popularized the organ-sax trio sound.

DONALDSON: That's it. That was it. Jimmy was a genius. Jimmy was a good piano player, too. But Jimmy was a guy that found that organ and found a new way of playing the organ. Like, like you could play a piano. Up until then, all those players, they didn't really play like piano players. You listen to Neil Budner, Wild Bill Davis, and all those kind of people, they play an organ a different way. But Jimmy played it like a piano. It looked like he was Art Tatum playing an organ. And he was great. He was great. And, my sound, we were very compatible. Yeah, we worked together without a doubt. We had two or three straight hit records, you know. Just like that. It was great.

JO REED: Did he travel the circuit with you?

DONALDSON: No, no, no. He didn't travel the circuit, no. I had other organ players, all of them got to be famous, John Patton, Charles Earlin, Dr. Lonnie Smith. All those people, they, they got to be famous from traveling that circuit.

JO REED: And you traveled with an organ. You had an organ in a U-Haul?

DONALDSON: Had an organ. And I used to put it in the U-Haul and pull it wherever I went. And I did that for about 30 years, never had an accident, never got late, nothing. Sometimes I sit back and think about it and I'd say, "Well, God must have been on my side." And I'm not a religious man. My wife was. She was religious. And she used to tell me, "Well, I'm praying for you. That's why you're all right. Cause if it were up to you, you'd be gone." 

JO REED: Another big hit you had was Alligator Bogaloo.


DONALDSON: Oh, yeah. No, that was the best-selling record I ever made. And what happened, see, actually, it's a funny story. A lot of people don't believe it. I'm a golfer and I happened to be in Florida on vacation. And I went to the golf course, and I hit a ball in a ditch. And I had a caddy, so I'm going to get the ball and he said, "No, no, don't go in there."… I said, "Man, I got to get this ball. That's a Titleist. It cost me $1.25. I'm getting my ball!" So I stick my club in there and I hear this rattling down there. I said, "Uh-oh!" And he went back and opened up the weeds and there's an alligator down there. So when I was in the studio, we couldn't find a name for this song, so I said, "Well, let's call it the Alligator Bogaloo."

JO REED: You also played with singers. I'm thinking of a stint you did with Betty Carter at the Audubon. How did that happen?

DONALDSON: Yeah. Right. And this is a story I'm telling you, now this is a story that you, you won't believe. I was working in Washington D.C., and I went down there to play something. It wasn't the Jazz Mobile but it was like, something like the city parks had some things and I played from 5 to 8. And we had to come back to New York, we got to come through Baltimore which is about 30 miles away. And I knew that Miles was working in Baltimore. So I said, "Let's go by and catch Miles's last set." Saturday night. So I get there about 9 or 10 o'clock, no Miles. I see his band, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe, Red Garland, sitting out on the stoop with their instruments. And I said, "What? What's happening? Why are you sitting out here?" They said, "We're not playing, and the guy won't give us any money." I said, "What happened?" "Miles drew all the money up on Friday night." And they haven't seen Miles since. They was stranded. And I said, "What?!" And naturally, they didn't have any way to get to New York. So I didn't have anything in my station wagon, so I said, "All right, put the bass and drums and things in there, and I'll take you to Philadelphia." Which I did.

And when I got to New York, Red Garland called me, said, "Man, we're quittin' Miles. We see you're working up at the Audubon, say, can we make a couple of weeks up there?" I said, "Yeah, of course you know."But I didn't have anyone but local musicians, so I put up this big sign: "Lou Donaldson with the Red Garland Trio." So many people came they didn't have the space. And so what had happened, I booked the place myself. I rented the place. I had rented it for the summer. And we played from 5 to 9 every Sunday evening. And the business got so good, I said, "We better bring in a singer." So I brought in Betty Carter. That's how she got there. In fact, she wasn't even famous then, because she sang straight-ahead music then. And her big number was "Perdido." And she was young, good looking, you know. And she'd get to shaking when she sang. And it was great, it was great. It was a great group. Great time.

JO REED: And what happened?

DONALDSON: Everybody made a lot of money and got famous.

JO REED: What makes a good jazz, a good jazz group?

DONALDSON: I don't know, it's hard for me to say. You got to be compatible with whoever you play with.

JO REED: Do you mean compatible in terms of personality, or compatible in terms of the..?

DONALDSON: Personalities and music. Now I've seen groups that played so well that it's no way that all those guys didn't love each other. I've seen groups like that. They just played good together. I was in one group like that with John Burke, myself, Art Taylor, Doug Watkins, and Red Garland, when he showed up. He was so bad about showing up, we had people like Winton Kelly, they hang around every night about 9 o'clock to see was he gonna show. If not, they had a job for that night. But when he showed, it was a great, it was a great band.

And I had my band with Herman Foster. Peck Morrison and people like that. We didn't even rehearse sometime, unless we had a record date. We played months and months never even had a rehearsal 'cause everybody was so compatible. It just, things just happen that way. And I've been told now, by people that I know that, like say, when Duke used to play he used to have a drummer named Sam Woodyard. And he'd say Sam would play so good, he'd say some nights after the job, Duke would go over there and kiss him. 'Cause…he was so happy.

JO REED: Another big song you had, you actually sang on it.


JO REED: Whiskey Drinkin' Woman.

DONALDSON: Oh, yeah. I do that now. People love that. And that's another interesting story about that song. I was in London at Ronnie Scotch Club, and I'm singin' my regular blues, you know that I sing. This guy comes up with his tuxedo and everything, and this gold, all these watches, there's so much gold. He put his hand up, he's blind in one eye, he said, "Lou, use these words." And I said, "What do you mean, 'Use these words'?" He said, "These some good words for your blues."

So I started, and I start singing it. "Whiskey drinkin' woman." And then when I ask, "Who are you?" He said, "My name is John Turner." He's one of the prime, baritone singers at the London opera at that time. He wrote those words. They're not mine, they're his. And he said, "Don't put my name on it, because I don't want to lose my job with the opera!"

JO REED: When did you start touring in Europe?

DONALDSON: I started touring in Europe… when? I don't know. It was late for me, because I didn't have any reason to go over there because I, I had my own tour. I think it was in the mid-'70s when I started touring in Europe. And it was so amazing, I did it a long time. In fact, I was just over there in May. It was almost astounding, people come up to me with tears in their eyes, you know, remembering the stuff we used to play back in the '50s and '60s. Way back. And I didn't know those records were selling that well until I went over there.

JO REED: Audiences…they different in Europe than here?

DONALDSON: Much different. Well, in the first place, they know what you're playing. And they research every personality. They can tell me my mother, my father. They know my home town, Badin, North Carolina. Where I went to school, I was in the Navy. They know everything. They love the music. And you can't even go to eat. Like me, when I'm in a foreign country, naturally I don't, I don't like, I don't like the food in a lot of countries, so I go to the Burger King. Kentucky Fried. And when you come out, there's a line of people out there with albums for you to sell. You don't even know they know you.

JO REED: For you, even though jazz has taken some hits, you were always able to stay on track. Is that because of the circuit?

DONALDSON: I, probably so. I built up a following over the years, so actually when I play it's like a nostalgia, you know what I mean? If you want to hear the kind of stuff I play, you got to hear me because [SHRUGS] nobody else is playing it. Nobody else really knows how to do that but me, right now. In fact, nobody, 'cause everybody else that even tried to do it, they're deceased now. But if you want to hear that kind of stuff, you got to, you got to hear me. And I never have any doubt about my playing.

JO REED: If you could go back to that time and play at one club, what club would it be?

DONALDSON: Probably Minton's. Minton's Playhouse. Best club to play in. Best club. I knew everybody. It was an amazing club. And Teddy Hill, who ran it, he was, he was an old bandmaster himself. He had a band himself. But he was a nice guy. But it was a great place. Never be another place like that. Not for jazz music.

At my age, I'm nothing really excites me that much. 'Cause I've been, I've done everything that I wanted to do in music. And I'm one of the lucky ones, because I, you know, I made a profit off it. Not rich, but I'm comfortable. And, I know, like, millions of people, which is amazing anyway, to anybody, 'cause I can go anywhere, any country.

It's just a rewarding profession. I don't know anything else that a person could do more rewarding than being an artist, especially a musician. It's amazing thing to even think about. I'm still able to play just about as well as I always did. Not as long. And I play golf. I can hit balls just as far as I always did. Can't put, but I'm all right.

JO REED: What more can you ask for? Lou, thank you so much.

DONALDSON: Alright, thank you very much and thank you to the NEA jazz masters program, and everything. Thank you, it's a wonderful program and it gets to give awards to people who would probably never get them without it. Thank you.

JO REED: That was alto saxophonist and 2013 NEA Jazz master Lou Donaldson. Lou Donaldson and the other 2013 Jazz Masters will receive their awards on January 14th at 7:30 PM Eastern Time.  The NEA is webcasting it live. Go to Arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information.

You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts of Bye Bye Blackbird, composed by Mort Dixon, performed live Dizzy's Club, Coca Cola by the Lou Donaldson Quartet,  used courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center. 

Excerpts from Whiskey Drinkin' Woman, performed by the Lou Donaldson Quartet, composed by Lou Donaldson from his album, Relaxing at Sea: Live on the QE II, used courtesy of Chiaroscuro Records. 

Excerpt from the Blues Walk composed by Lou Donaldson from his album Blues Walk, used courtesy of Blue Note Records, a division of EMI Capitol. 

Excerpt of Alligator Bogaloo composed by Lou Donaldson from his album Alligator Bogaloo, used courtesy of Blue Note Records, a division of EMI Capitol. 

Excerpt of Quicksilver composed by Horace Silver and performed by the Art Blakey Quintet, from the album, A Night at Birdland, used courtesy of used courtesy of Blue Note Records, a division of EMI Capitol. 

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. 

Next week, we're taking a break. But we're back on January 3rd with 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Lorraine Gordon
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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