Before & After: Lou Donaldson

If we’re lucky, Lou Donaldson will write his autobiography. He was not only in the thick of things during the hard-bop, soul jazz and funky crossover eras, but the 82 year-old alto saxophonist has stories to tell, a biting sense of humor and, as he showed in front of an audience at the 2009 Portland Jazz Festival, he shoots from the hip.

1. Hank Crawford
“Save Your Love For Me” (from Low Flame High Hear, Label M). Crawford, alto saxophone; James Clay, tenor saxophone; Leroy Cooper, baritone saxophone; John Hurt, Phil Guilbeau, trumpet; Sonny Forrest, guitar; Edgar Willis, bass; Bruno Carr, drums. Recorded in 1966.

Before: [after two notes of saxophone]. That’s Hank Crawford; Beautiful tone, beautiful soul, from Memphis, Tennessee. He came up with me. We met in the ‘50’s, he was playing with Ray Charles. He wrote arrangements for Ray, too. If you can’t play the blues, you can’t play no jazz, I don’t care who it is or how much you study.

Can you teach someone feeling?

No. But you can put them in a band that plays like that and they pick it up. My father was a preacher and my mother was an organist in the church, so I heard the soul music subconsciously. When I started playing, I would inject some of that in my music.

Do you make a distinction between the feeling you get from blues and the feeling you get from church music?

No, it’s the same thing. You get into a groove and that’s the way you play.

Any favorite Hank Crawford records?

Yeah, “Misty” is the best record he ever made. One reason is, it was a hit [audience laughter]. And I played it myself so I could see what he put into it. I made a solo on “The Masquerade Is Over” and the critics all rated it the fifth best alto solo ever recorded. I had to go back and learn it, ’cause I’d go to places and I’d play it differently and the people would get angry. A lot of guys used to hum it back to me and say “you didn’t play that right.” So I had to get the record and go home and memorize it [laughter]. The same thing happened to Moody. He couldn’t remember “Moody’s Mood For Love.” He was drinking wine and everything and he couldn’t remember it and the people wanted to beat him up! He had to go back home and learn the solo.

After: Hank Crawford was one of the greatest of our time. He made his mark.

2. Oliver Nelson
“One For Bob” (from More Blues and the Abstract Truth, Impulse). Nelson, composer, arranger; Thad Jones, trumpet; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Phil Bodner, tenor saxophone; Pepper Adams, baritone saxophone; Roger Kellaway, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Grady Tate, drums. Recorded in 1964.

Before: It’s a nice record. It’s got a nice groove, a nice beat to it. The arrangement’s all right. That’s Pepper Adams. I can tell you that right away. I know these guys because I played with them. I know the way they move over the horn. I studied them a lot too. Pepper was the greatest. I never liked Gerry Mulligan, none of that kind of stuff. Pepper had the feeling and that big heavy sound. [listens to alto player] I don’t know; off-hand I’d say it was Cannonball. Two or three guys played that way. That’s a little behind me. I’m a Charlie Parker man, anything else is just another saxophone player. A lot of people don’t know that Cannonball came to New York after Charlie Parker was dead. If he’d have come while Charlie Parker was living you probably would never have heard of him, ‘cause they didn’t push nobody but Charlie Parker. It seems they only push one person, like they do Wynton Marsalis now. In fact, I think nobody would know nothing about jazz except Wynton Marsalis from the way, you know, every time they ask a question they have to get Wynton. So I asked him, are you the only one who knows anything about jazz? Evidently, ’cause every show I see, Wynton Marsalis is on there talking. Half the stuff he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s talking [audience laughter and applause].

Why do you think they always go to Wynton?

I don’t know. I’m asking you ’cause you’re one of the reporters. You guys always ask Wynton. I see his picture go on your magazine cover all the time. I never saw mine on there. And I know I know more about jazz than he does [laughter]. I’m 82 and I can play better than a lot of these young guys.

After: Phil Woods sounded like Cannonball, and I’m gonna tell him that when I see him. Phil’s a good friend of mine. He’s one of the few that I really liked. I like him as a man. He did a lot of stuff for integration. He used a lot of soul brothers–he didn’t have to do that. I watch all that kind of stuff. Oliver Nelson was one of the greatest arrangers I’ve ever known. He wrote an album for a guy named Leo Gooden. You never heard of him. He owned a club in East St. Louis, Illinois. He was a racketeer but he wanted to sing so he got Oliver and made Oliver write a whole big band arrangement for him and he sang it. I got the record. I’m one of the few people that has it. And it’s great. I told Oliver that’s the best you ever did. Leo Gooden weighed about 450 lbs. He owned The Blue Note in East St. Louis, right across the river from St. Louis. St. Louis closed at 1:00 am, and East St. Louis stayed open until 5:00. I went into his office and he had a carbine, a .38 and a German Luger lying on his desk. I didn’t ask him about money or anything [laughter]. That was a rough town.

3. David Binney
“Solo” (from Third Occasion, Mythology ). Binney, alto saxophone. Recorded in 2008.

Before: I tell you one thing; you can take that off, whoever it is. I don’t even care. That’s got nothing to do with jazz at all. They say he’s searching, but I know what he’s searching for—a saxophone teacher. That’s what he needs.

Have you ever played free?

No, I never played free ’cause I wanted to get paid [laughter]. A lot of people asked me why did you play those funk records? I said, look man, in the record business the record company will keep you on if you sell some records. If you don’t sell any records, you fired. I know a lot of great, well not exactly great but a lot of good musicians who could have sustained a little longer if they’d have just bent, just a little. Not a whole lot, just a little. But they wouldn’t do it so they were unemployed. They’re on welfare.

After: Find a teacher, quick. Learn how to play some blues. Get him some Charlie Parker records. I’m around if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, he can come anywhere I’m playing and I’ll show him. Fortunately, as old as I am I still can play just about as well as I always did. I might break down tomorrow but today I’m alright.

4. Cannon Re-Loaded
“Sack O’ Woe (from Cannon Re-Loaded: An All-Star Celebration of Cannonball Adderley, Concord). Tom Scott, alto saxophone; Terence Blanchard, trumpet; George Duke, Larry Goldings, keyboards; Marcus Miller, bass; Steve Gadd, drums. Recorded in 2008.

Before: You don’t have to play any more of that. That’s Cannonball and Nat. No? Who is it then? Vincent Herring? Whoever did it, they got him. They copied him real good. Who’s the trumpet player? The feeling is pretty good.

After: Yeah, well it’s unfortunate. I’ll leave it at that. I know both of them. Neither one of them can play anything. They’re reading it. I can copy Jesus Christ if I’m reading it. I saw a comedian the other night who looked like Obama and talked like Obama, but he wasn’t Obama. I tried to copy Charlie Parker. I can play a lot of Charlie Parker solos: “Now’s The Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” But I don’t sound like him.

You knew Cannonball after he came to New York?

Yeah, I knew him real well. He was great. Nat was great too, not as great as Cannon, but he was great. He had that soul, that stuff that I was telling you about. He had that feeling that I like. I wouldn’t put him in no category with Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt, people like that. They did it from the inside. He just copied a lot of stuff they played, which is easy to do. If somebody else gives you the idea, it’s easy to take it and git.

5. Frank Morgan
“You Must Believe In Spring” (from You Must Believe In Spring, Polygram). Morgan, alto saxophone; Hank Jones, piano. Recorded in 1992.

Before: What do you want me to say about that? It’s a song. It sounds like he just got that horn yesterday. Could be Frank Morgan or somebody like that. I knew him. As a jazz player he was an amateur. He couldn’t play anything. He went around telling people he was getting high, but getting high doesn’t help you play. You couldn’t pay him to sit in when I came to town, ‘cause I was waiting for guys like him.

After: Hank Jones is a great man, a great pianist. But he wasn’t a be-bop piano player. No. In that period of time he was making a great deal of money ’cause he was the accompanist for big singers like Lena Horne, Ella, Eartha Kitt, people like that. He made big money. Frank was alright. He just wasn’t what they said he was. He was a good friend of mine.

Was his playing different before he went away?

Before he went to jail? It might have been a little better. Once he came out he got all this publicity and they put him on tv and said he was associated with Charlie Parker. But Charlie Parker kind of used him.

Did Charlie Parker use you?

No. He didn’t bother me at all. I was one of the guys that wasn’t doing anything. He was afraid to do anything crazy around me. No telling what I might have done to him. I had to tell Art Blakey one night, you’re a junky and I’m sober. There’s nothing you can do to me. If you beat me up now, just wait till you get high, then I’ll break off the back of a chair. That’s the way it was back in those days. They write these books and all these myths about these musicians, they’re common people. I hate to tell the truth ‘cause it’ll put a lot of favorite musicians in a bad light. Look, everybody lives the way they want to live. If I do write a book, it’ll be authentic.

6. Machito
“Congo Mulence” (from Kenya, Blue Note). Cannonball Adderley, alto saxophone; Joe Newman, trumpet; Machito’s Orchestra. Recorded in 1958.

Before: Well, that’s Cannonball. I know that record with Machito. It’s alright. See, I worked in the ghetto clubs during segregation. I played for soul brothers down in the ghetto and you had to play the blues. I’m the one who gave Ray Barretto his first date. I used to work in a place called the Showman’s bar in New York, right next to the Apollo. And Ray Barretto used to come by and sit in for free and just play. I told him I don’t have any money to pay you but next time I do a record date I’m gonna put you on it. Lo and behold, I made “Blues Walk” and “The Masquerade Is Over,” and the record was a hit.

After: Cannonball was a good saxophone player. He just wasn’t what they said he was. What can I tell you man?

They said he was the new Charlie Parker?

They tried to put him in that category. Not so.

But he didn’t think so, did he?

He might have. He never expressed that to me but he might have. I know Sonny Stitt thought he was Charlie Parker II. He might have been; Sonny was bad, no doubt about it.

6. Sonny Stitt
“Try A Little Tenderness” (from Jazz ‘Round Midnight: Strings Attached, Verve). Stitt, alto saxophone; Ralph Burns Orchestra. Recorded in 1961.

Before: That’s Sonny. “Try A Little Tenderness.” I never heard that record before. He made a record with strings? See, he was nervous, he had to run his stuff. He couldn’t just play that melody and hold it there. I’ll tell you a story about Sonny. I used to live at 127th and 8th Ave, so I came down to 125th St one day and Sonny was out there. Naturally, he was out there every day trying to get some money from some body. I had made a gig in Brooklyn, and I get off at 4:00 and it takes me about an hour to get back to 8th Ave and I come out of the subway and Sonny is standing there. There was a little place that sold snacks and Sonny says give me a dollar, I need a dollar and a quarter. So Sonny goes in this place and orders a bowl of soup and a life saver. So the man gave him a bowl of soup and I’m waiting for the lifesaver. I thought the life saver was candy, you know. You know what the life saver was? A hot dog. [laughter]

Just by listening, how can you tell the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt?

Let’s see, let me explain it so the average person can understand it.

Even me?

Even you [laughter]. Jazz critics are the worst. They’re good writers but they don’t know what’s what. When you play music, you have the concept of the song. Like when Charlie Parker plays “April In Paris” with strings, no mater how he plays it, it still sounds like “April In Paris.” But when Sonny Stitt plays it he plays a little bit of the melody then he has to run his harmonics. And it’s not “April In Paris” no more, it’s Sonny Stitt’s harmonics. That’s the difference. That’s the difference with the way the guys play today ‘cause all of them play like Coltrane. They play a melody, then after the melody you don’t know what the hell they’re playing. But Charlie Parker played the song.

After: Ralph Burns. Good arranger. I knew him when he wrote for Woody Herman. That’s a good record. I never heard that before. Maybe they put it in the can and never let it out. My record “Lush Life,” they released it in Japan but not in the United States.


It was made in 1968 and that year I made “Alligator Boogaloo,” and “Alligator Boogaloo” got so popular it stayed on the charts for 52 weeks and my pockets got heavy. They wanted me to keep making records like that, so I followed it with “Midnight Creeper,” which is almost the same thing. But hell, the people bought it so we made it. They were trying to make a commercial record for Blue Note, ’cause Blue Note had been sold to Liberty Records and they had these big promotion men and they wanted to sell records and compete with the general market. Horace got “Song For My Father,” Eddie Harris was on a different label but he got “Listen Here.” Now I’m going way back, that’s before your time.

7. Earl Bostic
“Flamingo” (from The Very Best of Earl Bostic, Collectables). Bostic, alto saxophone; unidentified group. Recorded in 1951.

I’m telling you, Earl Bostic was the greatest saxophone player I ever knew. I didn’t like him ‘cause sometimes he’d play stuff that I’d consider corny, [with] that wide vibrato and the sound of growling in the mouthpiece. But the man could play three octaves. I mean play ’em, I don’t mean just hit the notes. He was bad. He was a technician you wouldn’t believe. But he never put those things on a record. And I asked him one time; “Earl, with all this stuff you can play”–and he said let me tell you something. “Don’t play anything you can play good on a record, [because] people will copy it.” And the man was dead right. Now you’d see him, we’d run up there and think that we’re going to blow him out, and he’d make you look like a fool. Cause he’d play three octaves, louder, stronger and faster. But he never put that on a record.

Did you like his records? He had some hits.

I love those records. I used to practice them. Bostic was down at Minton’s and Charlie Parker came in there. They played “Sweet Georgia Brown” or something and he gave Charlie Parker a saxophone lesson. He was a swing player, melodic, and he could read anything. Great musician.

8. Gigi Gryce
“Gallop’s Gallop” (from Nica’s Tempo, Savoy). Gryce, alto saxophone; Thelonious Monk, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1955.

Before: It sounds like Monk. I don’t need to hear that. It’s got to be one of two cats; either Ernie Henry or Gigi Gryce.

It’s Gigi.

I know. I know my stuff [audience laughter]. It sounded like Gigi’s tone. Back then it wasn’t but one or two guys could play that kind of stuff. Ernie used to work with Monk. And Gigi was a good friend of mine, we came up together. He was great but he just had a hard head. He tried to go into the publishing business and the agents threatened him because they didn’t want black people in publishing. And he went ahead and tried to buck them and they wouldn’t give him no work. Put him out of business. Same with Lucky Thompson. What they do is they cut off your distribution. If people don’t hear it, shit, how are they gonna like it?

After: Monk was a composer. He wasn’t no great player. No. He was a genius. I didn’t really like his stuff, but you know how it is. When you’re young you try anything. I never recorded his tunes because I knew I couldn’t sell ’em. Too far out.

9. Dr. Lonnie Smith
“A Matterpat” (from Rise Up, Palmetto). Smith, organ; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Matt Balitsaris, guitar; Donald Harrison, alto sax; Herlin Riley, drums. Recorded in 2008.

Before: He’s swinging. At first I thought it was Eddie Harris. It’s just something they threw together to make a record date.

After: [speaking of the saxophonist] I know him. He can’t play nothing. Lonnie will hire anybody to make some money. I just talked to Lonnie this morning. He just had surgery but he’s back home now, so he’s ok. You know, Lonnie worked for me for about 40 years. Lonnie’s the greatest organ player alive now. He plays underneath the horn. Everything you do projects because he doesn’t get in your way when you’re playing. We made about 10 or 15 hit records. The biggest one we made, “Alligator Boogaloo,” we made the date and we were three minutes short. I said we don’t have no more material. And the guy said just play anything for three minutes so we can fill out the time. So I just made the riff and naturally the guys could follow it. That’s the only damn thing that sold on the record. All that other stuff we had been rehearsing, our relatives wouldn’t even buy it. Music is a funny thing. Sometimes it’s what you don’t do that works. That’s what happens today. Too many cats are playing past the money. You know what I mean? They want to play like Trane. And Trane played past the money. See if he played the joints where I played, they’d throw him out after one song.

Photos by Larry Appelbaum and R. Andrew Lepley

4 comments on “Before & After: Lou Donaldson

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