Lou Donaldson has a sugar mama, and her name is Madonna. The 81-year-old alto saxophonist has never met the Material Girl, nor heard much of her music. He doesn't know which Madonna song sampled his music -- triggering the royalty checks he gets now -- or, for that matter, which tune she sampled.
"There's about 15 or 20 acts that have done it but Madonna is the big one, her and Mary J. Blige. I'm not bragging, but I've made some money off it. I don't have to work if I don't want to," Donaldson said by phone from his New York City apartment.
But there's never been any question about Lou Donaldson going to work. Even as he spoke of Madonna and Mary J., he was packing his bags to play a jazz cruise, then take his quartet to Chicago for four nights before arriving in Minneapolis to play the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday and Tuesday. He's been a road warrior for more than half a century, and constantly putting himself in front of an audience has shaped the way he sounds.
Like almost every altoist who emerged in the 1950s, Donaldson's style is indebted to the torrid bebop flights of Charlie Parker. His early recordings and musical associations were with seminal boppers such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, but Donaldson, who was born and raised in rural North Carolina, didn't want to stay put in the city. So he worked the phones along with a like-minded guitarist and another guy moonlighting from a booking agency and built his own itinerary.
"I was in clubs nobody was working but me, what I call 'ghetto clubs' in black neighborhoods, a circuit from New York to California," he said. "We had Rochester, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, down south and out west; we played about 20 clubs twice a year. It wasn't a lot of money, but it kept us busy. But that bebop didn't work right away in the ghetto clubs, and so we had to moderate it down, like in the chitlin circuit. They wanted to hear the blues and some swing -- danceable music. Once I got them in my corner, then I could sneak in some of that other stuff."
Then in the mid-1960s, "everyone had started using Fender basses and electric pianos," Donaldson explained. "But there was a problem getting amplification in some of these clubs that didn't have the electrical setup. So that's when I started working with a B-3 [organist]."
Pop hits and cover songs
The serendipitous result was Donaldson's now-classic blend of razor-sharp bop and down-home blues and gospel. His rich tone has always been sweeter than that of most other Parker acolytes, and meshes well with the soulful but funky bottom generated by the rumbling organ. Taking advantage of the organ-jazz vogue, Donaldson wrote two pop hits during the '60s, "Alligator Boogaloo" and "Midnight Creeper," which, along with another minor hit, "Blues Walk," are still part of his repertoire.
And then there are the samples. Donaldson said that when Liberty Records bought out the Blue Note label in the late '60s, "they had people who suggested we do cover tunes. They were paying good money -- Blue Note had just paid us scale -- so we did it." One of those covers, of the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," includes the riff sampled by Madonna, as well as by rappers De La Soul and Brand Nubian.
Donaldson has kept the same template for decades now, spooling out songs that simultaneously relax and energize. Occasionally he'll throw in a new wrinkle.
"I've got a blues I sing that is very political and very funny, about George Bush and his mistake starting the war, that people really seem to like," he said.
Even better news is that Donaldson seems to be playing better than ever. At the beginning of the summer, he was an emergency replacement at New York's Village Vanguard, and played a week at the hallowed club backed by a piano trio, garnering rave reviews.
"It revitalized me, that people were going crazy because they didn't know I could still play that way," Donaldson said. So you can expect the bebop -- the stuff he "sneaks in" -- to be especially fresh.
"I tell you I'm really feeling good," he enthused. "I'm 81 and I went out the other day and shot a 41 for nine holes, so you know I'm feeling good. Tell the people in Minneapolis that I appreciate the affection they show me. When they come to the club they know my music, and last time after I left there I sold a lot of records. That's not easy because I don't bring any with me [to sell at the show].
"You see, there's over a hundred of them with my name on them -- another 50 with me as a sideman -- so I wouldn't know which ones to take."