Q&A – The Art Scene – Lou Donaldson

In observance of the Stanly County Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, The Stanly News & Press will periodically offer a Q&A with individuals who have made a name for themselves.

Since April is Jazz Appreciation Month, here is a Q&A with Lou Donaldson, a famed jazz musician from Badin.

Briefly tell us what the arts mean to you:

Lou Donaldson: The arts express the soul of a nation and must be supported and preserved. As a musician, I had the privilege of enjoying the arts first hand around the world, including famous portrayals that most people only get to read about. While traveling and learning about diverse cultures through their arts, I had the unforgettable pleasure of inspiring them to feel the unique soul and sound of jazz — America’s “Classical Music” — through my music.

Tell us about your journey. If you started pursuing your passion while in Stanly County, please share with us those who were instrumental in your success (teachers, clubs, etc.):

Lou Donaldson: I grew up on Sherman Street in Badin where my mother, Lucy Donaldson, a music teacher, music director and concert pianist was the key to my success. She recognized my expert ear for music and bought a clarinet from the Badin Band Director, Leo Gabriel, who provided musical guidance that augmented my mother’s tutelage. Later while serving in the United States Great Lakes Navy Band, I began playing the saxophone and, after hearing Charlie Parker play while on liberty, decided that this was the sound for me. Once out of the Navy and completing studies for my Bachelor of Science degree at North Carolina A & T College in Greensboro and performing in clubs with the Rhythm Vets, musicians who had been in the Navy, I heard all the touring bands that came through Greensboro. Many heard me play and luminaries like Illinois Jacquet and members of Dizzy Gillespie’s band encouraged me to move to New York to launch my career. I took their advice and there I met all the celebrity musicians of the day and got to play with many of them, including my idol Charlie Parker. I was signed to join the revered jazz label Blue Note Records after one of the founders heard me play and thereafter recorded many albums that are still considered jazz classics today, such as my signature “Blues Walk.” As my own sound developed, I earned the nickname of “Sweet Poppa Lou” because of the distinctive sweet tone of my horn playing.

Highlights of your career:

Lou Donaldson: I have received numerous honors and awards as a musician, but the highlight of my life was in 2022 when at age 96 Highway 70 in Badin was named Lou Donaldson Boulevard. As a North Carolina native, I am also honored to have been inducted into the Greensboro Jubilee Institute’s Grassroots Jazz Hall of Fame, as well as the esteemed North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. I received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, the highest honor North Carolina bestows upon citizens who have distinguished themselves and obtained notable accomplishments in this field. And I had the honor to serve as Grand Marshall of Badin’s North Carolina Centennial Parade and to give a special performance in celebration of its 100th anniversary in 2013, the same year the National Endowment for the Arts designated me a Jazz Master — our nation’s highest award bestowed upon jazz artists.

Any other information that you would like to share?

Lou Donaldson: I am now 97 years old and am retired, but want to thank all my fans for their continued support of my music and contributions to jazz. You keep my success and legacy alive. I still have family, friends and fans in Badin, Albemarle, Charlotte and surrounding areas and treasure every minute I get to spend with them when I get the opportunity to “come home.” My sincerest appreciation.