Lou Donaldson

Written by Debrah Lovan

February 23, 2022

Lou Donaldson was born November 1, 1926  in Badin NC to parents Lucy Wallace Donaldson & Louis Andrew Donaldson.  The second of four children, Lou showed an exceptional aptitude in music, baseball and academic studies.  

Years later, “Sweet Poppa Lou”  Donaldson helped invent two major jazz movements: hard bop in 1952, and the sax and organ trio sound in 1957. Throughout the 1960s, Lou’s merging of the hard bop feel and R&B groove resulted in a long string of successful albums for Blue Note.  The formula revived jazz as popular music in the country’s vast network of urban clubs and bars.

The Formative Years  In his own words… excerpts from Smithsonian Interview:

Panken: Were your parents from there, or had they migrated there? 

Donaldson: No-no. They migrated. 

Panken: Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken: Which college did he go to?

Donaldson: The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina.

My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family. (It was Livingstone College)

Donaldson: Yes, I have two sisters and one brother. 

Panken: Would you mind stating their names? 

Donaldson: Yes. My brother’s name is William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken: You grew up in Badin, North Carolina? 

Donaldson: Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina. 

Panken: What kind of town is it? 

Donaldson: It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant. Panken: So it was a company town.

Donaldson: Company town

Panken: Did they all play music? 

Donaldson: Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich. 

Panken: Was your mother the main teacher?.                                                               

Donaldson: Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken: Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing? 

Donaldson: It wasn’t too much… 

Panken: Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson: You KNOW it was segregated. 

Panken: But was it a bad town, were there ways… 

Donaldson: No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken: What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet. 

Donaldson: Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it. 

Panken: You studied yourself out of the book? 

Donaldson: Yes. 

Panken: So you had a quick learning curve.

Panken: Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson: Yeah, evidently.

Panken: So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily. 

Donaldson: Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now about the New York Yankees in 1936. 

Panken: You mean the lineup? 

Donaldson: The whole lineup. I was a paperboy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken: I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics. Donaldson: Yeah. 

Panken: But what were some of your other academic interests?

Donaldson: Nothing really. I just…

Panken: You just did well. 

Donaldson: I did well with anything, you know.

Panken: So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42… 

Donaldson: ‘42. 

Panken: You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson: Yes. 

Panken: Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University].. Panken: How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson: From my hometown, 64 miles north.

Panken: What was that school like? 

Donaldson: Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right. 

Panken: What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing… 

Donaldson: Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken: Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin? 

Donaldson: No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz. 

Panken: No black bands were coming through. 

Donaldson: No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz. 

Panken: Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson: That’s right. On that record.

Panken: When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more? Donaldson: No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it. 

Panken: So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos… 

Donaldson: Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music. I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them. 

Panken: You learned the solos off the transcriptions. 

Donaldson: Right.

Panken: Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years. 

Donaldson: Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball. 

Panken: You were a third baseman? (for Badin Tigers)

Donaldson: Right.

Panken: What sort of player were you?

Donaldson: I was the best. Nobody better. 

Panken: Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson: Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors. 

Panken: So you were the best in North Carolina… 

Donaldson: Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken: Scrappy player. 

Donaldson: Scrappy. I could bunt. 

Panken: Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson: I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out. They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I  was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball. 

Panken: You had good hands. 

Donaldson: Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got. 

Panken: Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson: Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance. 

Panken: Is that how you would describe yourself? 

Donaldson: Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that. 

Panken: So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina A&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson: Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken: You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson: Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music. 

Panken: On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson: Yeah, on the G.I. Bill. 

Panken: Where was Darrow Institute of Music? 

Donaldson: 58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken: What sort of school was it? 

Donaldson: You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice. Panken: At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone? 

Donaldson: Alto saxophone. 

Panken: Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now. 

Donaldson: Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away

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