Lou Donaldson: NEA Jazz Master

Ed Hamilton pays tribute to the soulful alto saxophonist

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Lou Donaldson is now an NEA Jazz Master—the Nation’s highest honor bestowed in jazz. So at 85 1/2 (he’ll be 86 in November) Lou has been selected—truly a magnanimous honor for the alto saxophonist.

In 1965, when the Federal Government created the NEA, Lou was 48 years old and it’s taken 47 1/2 years for his selection. At that time his career was a mere 15 years old—yet what a resume he had attained by 1965.

Lou started playing clarinet in high school in Badin, North Carolina, graduated Valedictorian at 15 years old and entered North Carolina A&T receiving a B.S. in Music. He was drafted into the Navy and stationed at Great Lakes Naval station and was in the band with Clark Terry where he took up alto. After his discharge, Lou went to Chicago and saw Billy Eckstine’s band with Bird and said that’s how I want to sound—like Bird.

Moving on to New York, he played with Monk and Bags and was an unofficial Jazz Messenger with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Clifford Brown, on two Live At Birdland sessions. Lou was the first sax employed with the Messengers—later Hank Mobley took his place. Lou has had some great collaborations with Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell and Lee Morgan on Sermon; Ben Dixon and Grant Green on The Natural Soul; and George Benson and Lonnie Smith on three albums---Midnight Creeper, Alligator Boogaloo, and Mr. Shing-A-Ling.. But Blues Walk remains the ever most requested and my first Lou Donaldson listening. Blues Walk is his most famous music done in 1958 for Blue Note. Yet his playing with Jimmy Smith on The Sermon remains my all-time favorite.

While playing in St. Louis, he discovered Grant Green and Ben Dixon and got them a recording contract with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note Records. And later George Benson and Dr. Lonnie Smith followed in their footsteps and as George once said, “Lonnie and I could play up some blues with Lou.”

His alto sound is organically pure—Lou’s never drank nor smoked. Lou has kept a bluesy R&B sound within his jazz repertoire with a tone as smooth as butter. He has a laid-back approach to educating music lovers about jazz and what jazz means. Lou says, “R&B is the root of jazz music...I try to educate em and entertain em--that’s my style.”

Satchmo once said, “Musicians don’t retire they stop when there’s no more music in them.” And Lou believes in staying active and in a time when most men have decided to retire, he most definitely isn’t hanging up his alto. His bookings take him throughout Europe and Japan.

In my Blue Note liners for Man With A Horn, Lou’s testament to his playing has been that he’s musically taken us on A Blues Walk, ridden on The Gravy Train, played with Natural Soul, been The Midnight Creeper, and done The Alligator Boogaloo. And if you want funkiness or lushness Lou Donaldson is indeed the greatest alto blowing today.

Congratulations to Lou Donaldson for his steadfastness in jazz pursuing it as a business way of his life to the fullest. His NEA Jazz Master selection is finally an honor to a man who truly loves playing his alto horn.

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Ed Hamilton