"Blowin' the Blues Away," a gala evening of Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrating blues and jazz at Apollo Theater on Monday night, June 2, 2003.This image:Lou Donaldson.(Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images) (Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images)
He remembers it just like it was yesterday.
“Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson, 92 years young, was talking about being a witness to one of sports’ most iconic moments.
“Usually I stood on the viaduct overlooking the Polo Grounds with my binoculars because I didn’t want to pay the $1.75 price to sit in the bleachers,” says Donaldson, adding, “there was always about 100 of us up there.”
This particular afternoon, October 3, 1951 to be precise, Sweet Papa Lou was in those $1.75 bleacher seats to watch history.
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“I used to like to sit in the bleachers to watch Willie Mays,” he recalls. “Sometimes when Willie made a running catch he would throw the ball into the bleachers.
“I got a lot of balls that way.”
When ending a good story, Donaldson leaves you with his signature half giggle, half chuckle.
“It was a beautiful day, but by four o’clock you couldn’t see the pitcher or the catcher; only the shadows,” he recalls.
What came next was the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” as the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson connected on a drive to left field off Dodger hurler Ralph Branca.
When Bobby Thomson launched the Shot Heard 'Round the World at the Polo Grounds in 1951, jazz great Lou Donaldson was there in the stands. (Bettmann / Bettmann Archive)
“I knew it was a home run because the people in Section 21 stood and went crazy,” he says, laughing. “I also knew it was a home run because I watched Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese put down their gloves and walk toward the clubhouse [in centerfield]. I remember watching Eddie Stanky running to third and jumping on Leo Durocher who managed the game from third base.”
The Giants won the three-game playoff and advanced to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees four games to two.
“I didn’t realize what a big deal the home run was until I got home and listened to Russ Hodges on the radio,” states Donaldson.
Sweet Lou was all of 24.
It’s hard to say whether Lou Donaldson, arguably the world’s greatest living alto sax player, is a Forest Gump or a Zelig character, but he always seems to be at the right place at the right time.
Like the time he got a chance to caddie for an all-time great.
“I was a student at North Carolina A&T Technical State University (now North Carolina A&T) shagging balls for a few dollars at the Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, around 1942 or 1943. A golfer asked me to caddie for him for nine holes. Did I know it was Ben Hogan? I did when I saw his name was on his bag,” says Lou with that infectious laugh. “He didn’t say too much.”
With Lou, there’s always another story.
“One day when I was on the seventh hole shagging balls, I usually stood about 150 yards away from whoever was hitting because they couldn’t hit it that far. Well, this one guy hit it over my head. Then he hit the next one so hard and fast, it almost hit me in the head. That golfer was Sam Snead.
“I also played golf with Jackie Robinson. I told him I was a scratch golfer. Whenever I swung, I scratched myself. I played better than him that day, but remember, he was sick then.”
Born in Badin, N.C., Donaldson attended A&T where he got his Bachelor of Science degree in political science in 1946. (“My family wanted me to be a lawyer, but I had music in my blood.”) He enlisted in the Navy during WWII and trained at the Great Lakes bases in Chicago where he was introduced to bop music, but Donaldson has played bebop, hard bebop, soul, and, of course jazz.
He’s been a bandleader, composer and a bad-ass saxophonist.
And to think he almost became a clarinet player.
“I used to work out with the baseball team at A&T,” he remembers. “I used to play third and I told them I may be small, but you’re not hitting it by me – and they didn’t. I showed them I could play because when I hit, they couldn’t get me out. I used to watch the ball hit the bat. I don’t know if they do that today, but I did.”
But despite the love of baseball, music came first.
“I was too busy being in the marching band playing the clarinet, but the first time I heard Charlie Parker play the sax, I threw my clarinet into Lake Michigan. I’m joking, but that’s when I switched. I knew him, but he was a junkie then,” he recalls of Parker’s battles with heroin.
The music in Donaldson’s blood must have come from his mother, Lucy, who was a music teacher and a concert pianist. His father, Andre, was a minister.
Education was important in Lou’s life. His mother graduated from Cheney University and his father from Livingstone College.
Donaldson who has played around the world with a who’s who of A-listers like Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Grant Green, George Benson, Charles Earland and countless others.
The great jazz pianist Monte Alexander, a New Yorker by way of Jamaica, knows the importance of Donaldson.
“His legacy is making soulful music,” says Alexander getting ready for a European tour. “There’s a joy and humor in his music from the earth. He’s about life. That cat uses his sharp tongue and great wit. He was playing hard on his sax from back in the ‘50s. He’s a beloved senior survivor.”
Lou’s sound can be as warm as a blanket on a cold winter’s night and electric enough to wear out a hole in your shoe from tapping to the beat on his Blue Note albums from 1952-74.
He doesn’t play much anymore. Remember, he’s 92 with a bad tooth.
“Old age got me,” he says. “Can’t play my horn with a bad tooth.”
When asked if he’s going to get it fixed, he pauses. No more Alligator Bogaloo? No more Blues Walk?
“I’m semi-retired,” he says, proudly.
We’ll have to wait and see and hopefully, not too long. He’s been around the world, but the stories, the sports stories are not far from his lips and memory.
Football seems to be high on his recall list especially when the topic is NFL bad boy Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb who played in the league from 1953-1962 with the L.A. Rams, Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“He told me when he played against Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns he stopped him on the first play and he started talking about him and his mother saying all kinds of things,” says Donaldson. “He told me Brown looked at him and said, ‘We’re going to run the same play.’ So they ran it and he went for 75 yards and a touchdown. I think he scored four touchdowns that day. Someone asked him why they couldn’t stop him. Big Daddy said, ‘We hit him, but he kept running.’”
Lipscomb died of a heroin overdose in 1963.
Lou starts that laugh again and quickly talks about Fritz Pollard, the first black man to be a head coach in the NFL in addition to being one of the first to integrate the league as a player.
“Fritz told me Paul Robeson, the singer, was the best football player he ever saw,” Donaldson says noting and they had a memorable meeting on the gridiron. Robeson played on the defensive line at Rutgers and Pollard was a halfback at Brown. “Fritz told me Paul hit him so hard he broke two of his ribs.
Willie Wood, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a defensive back, played quarterback in college at USC. He was the first black man to play quarterback at a major university and his time behind center raised a ruckus in Green Bay. His running of the offense was outstanding.
“Willie told me he was playing quarterback against the Packers’ No. 1 defensive unit and he was effective,” he states. Defensive end Willie Davis and a future Hall of Famer went to Coach Vince Lombardi and told him he’s better than Bart Starr.
“Lombardi acted like he didn’t hear him,” he says.
With all the protesting by today’s athletes, Donaldson had a short observation.
“It’s good,” he says. “It’s about time somebody did it.
“You have to remember I was born during segregation,” he says, slowly. “We didn’t think that much about it because that was the way it was.”
There was a silver lining if you believe Sweet Lou.
“I knew and met so many people during segregation, all the athletes, musicians, dancers and comedians because we all stayed at the one hotel in the big cities [that took in blacks],” says Donaldson. “There was the Hotel Theresa in New York, the Gotham Hotel in Chicago and the Adams Hotel in Los Angeles.”
There always seemed to be fun in Lou’s life when he was around athletes.
“I used to hang out at Big Wilt’s Smalls Paradise on Seventh and 135th Street. It was owned by Wilt [Chamberlain] and I’d play and hung out with him and Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson of the Giants and Roy Campanella of the Dodgers. His liquor store was on Seventh and 134th,” says Lou going back in time. “One night I’m in Smalls and there was a club across the street called Connie’s and we heard Leo Durocher was there with his wife actress Lorraine Day. She was a fine woman. Man, we ran out of Smalls to get their autographs.”
Being a musician in America during segregation wasn’t all chuckles and smiles, but there were moments that have stayed with Sweet Papa.
Legendary Jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson circa 1970. (GAB Archive / Redferns)
“I played in a club somewhere down south and the dance floor had a rope down the middle of the club,” he says like it was yesterday. “When I asked what the rope for was, they told me blacks danced on one side and whites on the other.
“When I was in the Navy and stationed in Corpus Christie, Texas, they had another added rope. The club owner told one was for the whites, one was for the blacks and one was for the Mexicans.”
Have things really changed that much in this country?
“Not really,” he says. “It’s something worse.”
No matter how rough it may seem, Donaldson always knows how to lighten the load whether on stage or just reminiscing. He’s been there a lot and seen that a lot.
“One time I was playing in Pittsburgh and we always got out late. I always got up at nine in the morning to go to this place to get some chicken and grits. Well, this day I overslept because a party came in and we had to play until five in the morning. It was 11 o’clock when I got up and I rushed to the place, but the only place open was the Kentucky Fried [Chicken] and there was this long line. I didn’t think I’d be able to get any chicken, but people started to recognize me and they let me move up to the front so that I got my chicken and sat down to eat,” says Donaldson with that chuckle of his starting to build. “After a while the whole restaurant starting screaming and I thought it was for me and I felt very honored until I realized the people were watching the TV. Willie Stargell of the Pirates had just hit a home run. The deal was when Willie hit a home run, everyone got free chicken. So the screaming wasn’t for me.”
Again, that infectious laugh, but when it comes to today’s musicians, Lou isn’t chuckling.
“Does anyone impress me?” he pauses then answers, “No.
“They don’t know too much. They go to school and study, but nobody has a style. They all seem to play the same. They play like robots. None of them have any feelings. They don’t pat their feet and shake their hips. They have knowledge in their heads, but music has to come from your heart.”
Spoken like a man who’s played with great players. He learned from the best.
“When I started out, I sounded like (alto saxophonist) Johnny Hodges,” he says, who passed in 1970. Then he developed his own style. “I played dance music, bop, bebop, jazz and now I think I sound like Charlie Parker. Nobody better that that.”
His talent has taken him all around the world, but one particular trip stands out even to this day.
“The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when I went to South Africa in 1981,” he remembers. “I went with singer Dakota Staton and sax player Willis Jackson. Apartheid was slowly dying then. When we landed, they told me I couldn’t get off the plane just yet. When I did, they had a red carpet just for me to walk on. Man, Dakota was so mad. She didn’t even want to sing.
“She was the big star, not me, but I had a hit out called ‘Funky Mama’ and she didn’t. The Africans loved it and they bought it.”
Lou Donaldson maybe 92 years old, but the saxophone legend still keeps busy in the jazz community. (Photo courtesy of Tony Paige)
Even at 92 years of age and semi-retired, Donaldson keeps busy.
“I’m going to a showing of a documentary on Blue Note Records [It Must Schwing – The Blue Note Story] and I have to speak at a class at The Julliard School taught by Wynton Marsalis,” he declares, adding, “and I’m getting ready to head to Florida to get away from the New York winter.”
He and his late wife and business manager, Maker, who died in 2006, spent 56 years together and raised two daughters in the Bronx; Lydia (deceased in 1997) and Carol. Lou has one granddaughter.
“I miss my wife’s companionship,” he says. “She was from my hometown and I knew her for a long time before we got married and she knew my family.
“She took care of my business. That’s why I have what I have.”
What he has is talent, family, legacy and memories.
“If you live long enough, you see a lot of things and you know a lot of things. You’re not exactly intelligent or smart; you just know it because you saw it,” words spoken from the heart from Donaldson.
He has indeed seen and heard a lot like this one from the great piano player Earl “Fatha” Hines.
“Earl said he played all night at this club in Chicago and was getting ready to leave when the manager told him he had to keep playing because a special guest just came in,” explains Donaldson. “Earl said, ‘I’m going.’ The manager told him the special guest was Al Capone.
“Earl said, ‘I guess I better start playing.’”
Good Gracious! There will never be another “Sweet Papa Lou” Donaldson.
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