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[whitespace] Lou Donaldson
Photograph by Frank Lindner

Lou Diddy: Lou Donaldson has been sampled many times over.

Funky Good Time

Lou Donaldson and Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith heat up the Stanford Jazz Festival

By Yoshi Kato

CERTAIN VENUES get a bit warm in the summer. Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, for instance, is a big room that can be hard to cool down. During Stanford Jazz Festival (SJF) shows, therefore, short sleeves are usually in order.

For certain concerts, the climate and setting only add to the experience. When the masterful Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés led his monster quartet to open the Stanford Jazz Festival in 1998, the temperature of the room and the virtuosity of the playing seemed to transport listeners to a muggy hall in Havana.

Similarly, this year's SJF opener is suited for warm conditions, as alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and his quartet, featuring organist Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith, kick off the festival's 30th year. The band (which also boasts guitarist Randy Johnston and drummer Fukushi Tainaka) serves up a funky, sweat-inducing brand of jazz that calls for a fashion forecast of linen or madras.

"We love to kick off the season with some wonderful music that has a great spirit. Lou and Dr. Smith provide that, because they're soulful and down-home," says Jim Nadel, founder and executive director of the Stanford Jazz Workshop (SJW), the organization that presents the festival.

"Their music is aware of the roots of jazz and encompasses them. Lou certainly brings the bebop mentality to the music," Nadel continues. "At the same time, it's soulful and merges jazz with an awareness of the contemporary forms. It's very accessible and feels good all the time."

A native of North Carolina, Donaldson didn't grow up near the variety of sounds that one has access to today through cable and the Internet. "Hillbilly, country & western--that's all they had on the radio," says the 75-year-old, by phone from his home in New York. "And there were no musicians in my hometown. The only musician was my mother, and she played for the church. But there was this all-white band we used to go listen to occasionally. They had a clarinet, which I liked and wanted to play."

Donaldson's mother gave him piano lessons, and he learned theory and basic keyboarding skills. But other pursuits beckoned. "I didn't like piano, because it required too much practicing. That interfered with my baseball playing, and I didn't like that," he recalls.

Donaldson's mother agreed to let him take up clarinet and acquired one for him. He started studying it at age 15. Later, after joining the Navy, he played in its dance bands and switched to alto saxophone. "That was in the '40s, right in the middle of the swing era. And it was great," he remembers. "It was really the best training in the world. All the musicians that came in the band I was playing in were 18, 19, 20 years old."

Finishing his time in the Navy, he moved to New York in the early 1950s and became part of the area's fertile jazz scene. Gigging and recording with everyone from alto saxophone deity Charlie Parker and drum guru Art Blakey to trumpet wonder Clifford Brown and piano papa Horace Silver, he was a founding developer of that era's hard-bop movement.

"I just happened to come along at the right time," he says of his status among jazz pioneers. "It was a time period where there were a lot of excellent musicians, and many of them were compatible. It was also right after World War II, so little companies like Blue Note and Prestige and Savoy took a chance and recorded people like Monk. A big company would never do that, because music like that was weird to them. These companies recorded these musicians because they liked them, basically."

By the early 1960s, he had switched from piano to organ in his rhythm section, giving his band a grooving sound that could be equally smooth and chunky. He met Smith, who was then a member of guitarist-vocalist George Benson's group, and the two began to play together.

With Smith on board, Donaldson recorded the seminal soul-jazz albums Alligator Boogaloo (1967) and Midnight Creeper (1968) for the Blue Note label. At this point, he was bringing jazz back to its swing-era dance roots.

"In some spots, we played nothing but ghetto clubs. And they danced as much as they wanted to," he says. "It wasn't like it is today, where you play concerts, and people sit around and listen to it. They listen to it, too, but they got up and danced."

With the acid-jazz scene of the '90s and the more recent success of the "jam band" scene, Donaldson periodically gets recognition for his accomplishments. At a time in his life when he figured he'd be retired or at least semiretired, he's working more than at earlier points in his career. He reasons that people will take a jazz class in college, graduate and then want to explore the music further. In fact, he sees a spike in sales of his back catalog every decade and every show.

Another theory he offers is that rap and pop fans may start to check out jazz. And his music is an obvious starting place, since he's been sampled many times over by the likes of US3 (that's him saying "Funky! Funky!" on its smash hit "Cantaloop Island"), Main Source ("Just a Friendly Game of Baseball") and Madonna ("I'd Rather Be Your Lover").

"I haven't really even heard too many of [the recordings that use his samples], but I have seen them on my royalty statement," he admits. "It's been quite profitable, which amazes me."

Finishing out this year's SJW opening weekend is the Bay Area's own 15-piece Marcus Shelby Orchestra. Contrasting a rising star and a veteran act is one of the festival's programming philosophies, says Nadel.

"Lou is an elder statesman of jazz at this point, and Marcus Shelby represents the new generation," Nadel states. "Marcus has captured the real spirit of the early Duke Ellington Orchestra. He writes in that genre and has the feeling."

Another festival highlight is the pairing of pianists Taylor Eigsti (17 years old) and Hank Jones (83 years old) on July 13. Just as Donaldson and his young band mates were able to play with and learn from their elders in Navy bands, so, too, do jazz musicians mix and match with players of all ages.

Eigsti, the Menlo Park resident, began first as an SJW attendee and later a faculty member. Although there's a 66-year gap between the pianists, they both draw from the same roots of jazz and can both hold their own at the 88 keys.

"They say music is a universal language," Nadel observes. That's definitely true with jazz, where you cross cultures, borders and chronological ages."

The Stanford Jazz Festival 2002 opens June 29 with Lou Donaldson and Lonnie Liston Smith. The festival takes place at Stanford University and continues through Aug. 10. Tickets are available through Ticketweb or by calling 650.725.ARTS. See www.stanfordjazz.org for details.

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From the June 20-26, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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