Lou Donaldson, the alto saxophonist fondly known as “Sweet Papa,” tends to characterize his colorfully sprawling life in jazz as the pursuit of a fundamental aim. “I always had my music geared to the people,” he says. “‘Cause when I played, I listened to what they were giving me the applause for.”
During a career spanning more than six decades, Donaldson met that standard with style to spare — in the earliest hard-bop bands, alongside Art Blakey and Clifford Brown; with a winning series of 1960s Blue Note albums, like Alligator Bogaloo, that would come to epitomize soul jazz; as a blues-and-bebop legacy artist, recognized as an NEA Jazz Master; and as a core sample source for hip-hop artists like Pete Rock and De La Soul.
Donaldson, 92, has lately been enjoying a retiree’s easy pace in Florida, but he’s no less garrulous and mischievous than he ever was, as we’ll hear in this episode of Jazz Night in America. Our host, Christian McBride, visited Donaldson at home, and their conversation is an unguarded and salty treat. (“The only jazz I hear,” quips Sweet Papa Lou, “is when some old people play it.”)
We’ll also hear plenty of music, pulled not only from Donaldson’s storied catalog but also a 2009 date at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with his longtime organ quartet. We’ll hear Don Was, the president of Blue Note, explain why Donaldson has been key to the label’s legacy. And we’ll hear Pete Rock break down the magic of those tracks from a hip-hop point of view. “To me, Lou was special,” Rock reflects — a sentiment we all share at Jazz Night, in a vibrant present tense.
Lou Donaldson, alto saxophone, vocals; Randy Johnston, guitar; Akiko Tsuruga, organ; Fukishi Tainaka, drums
Host: Christian McBride; Producers: Trevor Smith with Alex Ariff; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Recording Engineer: Rob Macomber; Executive Producers: Amy Niles, Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundman; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey; Production Assistant: Sarah Kerson; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Special thanks to Hannah Harris Green, Sam Turken, Roberta Magrini, Belviana Todmann, Cem Kurosman, and Colin Moreshead