Jazz Icon Lou Donaldson has seen a lot of changes in the Jazz landscape during the 60 years he has been making music.
“It’s watered-down jazz now. Too many students go to school for music and you have to learn too much technology,” said Donaldson, 84, who resides in Florida. “Television doesn’t give us a boost and because people don’t see Jazz on television, we can’t compete with the other music that’s out there.”
Despite the roadblocks for Jazz performers nowadays, Donaldson has continued to make a good living in the genre over the past six decades.
The alto saxophonist, who was born in 1926 in Badin, N.C., began his illustrious music career by playing the clarinet that his mother, Lucy Wallace Donaldson taught him to play.
When he was 15 years old, Donaldson attended North Carolina A & T College where he earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree and joined the marching band playing the clarinet. He was drafted into the Navy in 1945 and played in the Great Lakes Navy Band where, while playing for dances, he began playing the alto saxophone much like Tab Smith, Pete Brown and Johnny Hodges.
After performing in Chicago several times, Donaldson heard musical enigma Charlie Parker and decided to make Parker’s unique style of Jazz his own.
“Charlie Parker was a genius and I thought that the music that he was playing was so different,” Donaldson recalled.
After returning from the military and going back to college, Donaldson played in a college dance band led by great saxophonist Billy Tolles. Tolles played with numerous touring bands including Count Basie, Buddy Johnson and Andy Kirk. These bands used to travel through North Carolina periodically throughout the summer.
Donaldson and his classmates would sit in with the bands and were promoted to go to New York and establish themselves as musicians.
However, Donaldson didn’t move to the Big Apple until around 1950. Soon after moving to New York, he was asked by Blue Note Records’ Alfred Lyons to make a Charlie Parker-style recording. The record was such a success that Blue Note asked Donaldson to make another cut.
Those early recordings at Blue Note allowed Donaldson to bring several musicians to the company. Donaldson’s album, “LD Plus 3” was a big hit for Donaldson on the Blue Note label.
Donaldson’s record, “Blues Walk,” is still a big seller today.
That’s why he’s not concerned about making any new albums in the near future.
“I’m not releasing another album. ‘Blues Walk’ and ‘Masquerade’ are the best songs I made in 1958. ‘Masquerade’ was special to me because it was almost a hit and it is on jukeboxes and that meant that people really liked it,” Donaldson said.
“Music is a very powerful medium and if you give a good groove, it brings you up if you are down,” Donaldson laughed.
He was to bring his “Bebop…Funk…& back again” to the Cabaret Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District for one show only Nov. 23, however the show was cancelled due to health problems.
Donaldson is no stranger to Pittsburgh. Early in his career, Donaldson played shows at the Crawford Grill and Birdie’s.
“I have a lot of fans in Pittsburgh and they were very friendly. Back in the early days, we would play at a club for two to three weeks and that built a following for us. Pittsburgh and other places that I play are like nostalgia because I talk to (my musician friends) about the old days.”
Lou has been awarded several accolades for his musicality including the honorary Doctorate of Letters by North Carolina A& T University and a scholarship was established in his name that is given to the most gifted jazz musician at North Carolina A& T University annually. He also has been inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame.
When he isn’t mesmerizing audiences with his music, Donaldson enjoys spending time playing golf and cruising the seven seas.