"Sweet Poppa Lou" Donaldson has long been an excellent bop altoist influenced by Charlie Parker, but with a more blues-based style of his own. His distinctive tone has been heard in a variety of small-group settings, and he has recorded dozens of worthy and spirited sets through the years.
Donaldson started playing clarinet when he was 15, soon switching to the alto. He attended college and performed in a Navy band while in the military. Donaldson first gained attention when he moved to New York and in 1952 started recording for Blue Note as a leader. At the age of 25, his style was fully formed, and although it would continue growing in depth through the years, Donaldson had found his sound. In 1954, he participated in a notable gig with Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver and Tommy Potter that was extensively documented by Blue Note and directly predated the Jazz Messengers. However, Donaldson was never a member of the Messengers, and although he recorded as a sideman in the 1950s and occasionally with Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Jimmy Smith, he has been a bandleader since the mid-1950s.
Donaldson's early Blue Note recordings were pure bop. In 1958, he began often utilizing a conga player, and his bands often had an organist rather than a pianist. Donaldson's bluesy style was easily transferable to soul-jazz, and he sounded most original in that context. His association with Blue Note was succeeded by some excellent sets for Cadet and Argo. The altoist returned to Blue Note in 1967 and became caught up in the increasingly commercial leanings of the label. For a time, he utilized an electronic Varitone sax, which completely watered down his sound. The success of "Alligator Boogaloo" led to a series of funk recordings.
Lou Donaldson's artistic return in 1981 and subsequent soul-jazz and hard bop dates for Muse, Timeless and Milestone have found the altoist back in prime form, interacting with organists and pianists alike and showing that his style is truly timeless.He has continued to play in between commercial and jazz music -- sort of modified in places where the avante garde or what is called ultra modern -- might run into some problems with the audience. Using this system, he has survived and continues to work as much as he possibly can at his age. This octogenarian has to space his appearances to suit his health and availability. He works locally in New York, his home town, twice a year at the Village Vanguard and twice a year and the Birdland Club, as well as many jazz festivals, concerts, and one nighters throughout the country and around the world. He is very proud of his current group that boasts the musical excellence of Randy Johnston on guitar, Akiko Tsuruga on organ, Fukushi Tainaka on drums along with Lou on alto sax.