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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Lou Donaldson's swinging alto sax ushered in the groovy soul jazz era

 Lou Donaldson.
Bob Lasky Photography
Lou Donaldson.

"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing," these words from Duke Ellington in 1931 also describe the music of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson.

Donaldson’s music embodies the intangible jazz spirit and transformed the sound of Blue Note Records beginning in the late 1950s. He became known as "Sweet Poppa Lou" for making his saxophone swoon like Johnny Hodges, and playing with the intensity of Charlie Parker.

Born in 1926, Donaldson grew up in Badin, North Carolina, a small town east of Charlotte. His father was a minister, exposing him to gospel music, and his mother was a classical piano player and teacher.

While all his siblings played the piano, Donaldson chose not to. Yet he couldn’t help soak up the melodies he heard while his mother gave piano lessons to others, eventually learning to hum all the songs. After a while, his mother insisted he study some sort of music, and Donaldson began playing the clarinet.

His charisma and outspoken confidence helped land him in the U.S. Navy jazz band after being drafted. In an NEA interview, Donaldson said he was originally on track to be a radar tech, but was reassigned to the band after an impromptu critique of the “squeaking” clarinet player. Donaldson joined the band as the new clarinetist and for the first time in his life, the alto saxophone.

After the Navy, Donaldson moved to New York. While he was there, he was the house saxophonist at the famous Minton’s — remembered as one of the birth places of bebop and known for it’s after hours jam sessions that included Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and countless others.

That move and those players, also got him involved at Blue Note Records where he recorded for nearly 25 years. His first recordings were in 1952 with Milt Jackson and John Lewis, and a separate session with Thelonious Monk.

In 1953, he recorded as a leader for the first time, with the young trumpet virtuoso Clifford Brown.

Those two, along with Horace Silver and Curly Russell recorded with drummer Art Blakey for one of jazz's most definitive live sessions, A Night at Birdland.

Into the late '50s and early '60s, Donaldson would record with Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton, recordings which helped popularize the Hammond B3 organ in jazz. Donaldson used it in his sets from that point onward, towing the mammoth instrument from gig to gig, as he trekked out on cross country tours.

On record and in person, Donaldson’s music pleased crowds across the country. Building on the organ grooves, the melodic blues of R&B, and international rhythms; his sound defines the transformative years between the intensity of the bebop into the laid back and groovy soul jazz era of the 1960s.

His 1958 album Blues Walk is known as a masterpiece and to Donaldson, it’s his “theme song."

He built on these soul grooves for a string of albums including the popular Alligator Boogaloo, Everything I Play is Funky, and more.

Donaldson’s music also saw new life in hip-hop a few decades later. Snippets of drum breaks, horn lines and just about any catchy part of his songs have been looped and chopped into countless beats and mosaic orchestrations, a testament to the energy of Lou’s playing and the bands and players he led.

Named a NEA Jazz Master in 2013, Donaldson retired from playing in 2018. He celebrated his 97th birthday in style on November 1, 2023 at Dizzy's Club in New York.
Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Justus is host of Evening Jazz and Tree of Jazz at KNKX Public Radio, Jazz24's sibling station in Seattle and Tacoma. He previously worked at KBEM FM Jazz 88.5 in Minneapolis where he held a various roles producing a variety of programming highlighting new jazz artists, Indigenous voices, veterans, history and beyond.