To the 88-year-old alto saxophone sage Lou Donaldson, the current scene-with its tourist-friendly, high-cover clubs featuring clean-living, overeducated musicians-is pretty sterile and uninspired. Considering the jazz environment he cut his teeth in, full of soulful, entertainment-minded players, corner-bar venues and an audience that may or may not be packing heat, how could it be anything else?
In this live interview, conducted by bassist and fellow swing-defender Christian McBride as part of the Portland Jazz Festival in February, the soul-jazz trailblazer takes a sidesplitting trip down memory lane.
I call Lou Donaldson the Don Rickles of jazz because nobody’s safe around him. I love how he’s very judicious and fair with all of his “complimentary insults,” as I call them. You tell a great story about when Redd Foxx came to sit in with you at Count Basie’s club. Would you mind telling that story?
He came to the club and when I saw him I said, “No, don’t come up here,” because he agitates. Any time he sees a musician, he’s in trouble. The manager came over and said, “Now, look, people want to see Redd sing a song. You have to let him sing.” I said, “Well, what does he want to sing?” Redd said, “I want to sing ‘I Can’t Get Started With You.'” I said, “We don’t know that.”
I had Larry Young, the organ player, and he really didn’t know it. Redd started to sing it, and it was the worst singing you ever heard. Larry Young, about 23 years old at that time, was 6-foot-4 and weighed about 250, without a pound of fat anywhere. Redd was my size, so he was looking down at Redd and I thought he was gonna hit Redd. Redd had a split in his pants and he could go down to his knees, and he pulled a razor out and hid it. So that made him about three feet away from where Larry Young and I were sitting. He put it around [Young’s] throat and said, “That’s the reason I can talk like that.”
You don’t see that in jazz anymore.
But I got it worse than that. I was working at the Five Spot and they brought in Ornette Coleman.
…and Redd came down to hear him. Everybody was standing on their feet, commenting about this new saxophone player with the new style. Redd came up and someone said, “Well, Redd, what do you think of Ornette Coleman?” Redd said, “Well, they tell me he plays the music of tomorrow, and that’s when I want to hear it: tomorrow.” He said, “Today I want to hear some music of today.” [both laugh]
That’s a new one; I never heard that one before.
And he was right! [more laughs] Ornette told me one time, he said, “Lou, you need to play some of this free music.” I said, “Uh-uh, I don’t do that. I like to get paid.”
Yeah, but it’s interesting. There’s a new thing in jazz now. You play free and you can win a half-million-dollar grant. You want to play free now?
Oh, no. Not me. I told David Murray one night, “David, I just had a pretty good record. I think I’m gonna buy a club and you’re gonna be my first attraction. And I’m gonna let all the people in free and I’ll put Mike Tyson on the door and make everybody pay to get out.” [laughs]
Ornette Coleman, check. David Murray, check. [laughs] I want to ask you about a legendary record you played on: the classic A Night at Birdland with Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, yourself, Horace Silver, Curly Russell. You’ve told me many times that you were actually the catalyst that put that band together. Art Blakey wasn’t even originally on that gig.
He wasn’t even in New York! Art Blakey was stranded in California. The president of the company [Blue Note Records], Alfred Lion, sent Art money two or three times, and Art would call back each time with a different answer. The worst one he ever had was that he was on his way to the airport and a guy mugged him and took the tickets. [laughs]