Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lou Donaldson's Sufferin' Music

I took a long, long ride out to Co-op City in the Bronx a couple weeks ago to check out a free Lou Donaldson show -- part of Jazzmobile's summer festival. Here's a late post about it. It took me about 2 hours to get out there, largely because I had no real clue where I was going. It was well worth it. It was a very different type of jazz experience for me, at once extremely enjoyable and a bit disheartening. I'll get back to that, but first the music.

I arrived about 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, so I may have missed some of the set. I got there in time to catch the Erroll Garner tune Gravy Train, which is the kind soulful, Blue Note sound I associate with Lou Donaldson. It was pretty much what I expected -- an 82 year old man having a good time with his old tunes.

Best I could do on the Blackberry.. Then he did some talking. I have to say, Lou Donaldson's rap on the bandstand was about as entertaining as any I've heard, and the crowd really connected. He talked about a music they have back in North Carolina, called suffering music...the blues. He then proceeded to perform an untitled piece that I'll call the talking viagra blues. I'll spare you the details, but it was funny and had the audience (judging by the average age, I might have been the only person who didn't understand exactly what he was talking about) laughing. He sang a blues he called Whiskey Drinking Woman, another very funny song ("she puts whiskey in her coffee, she puts whiskey in her tea, she puts whiskey in her whiskey, then she pours the rest into me"). Lou's voice is great, and was the musical highlight of the night for me. He has that weathered, yet casual tone of an old man who sings the blues as a matter of course.

He also sang his own lyrics to Things Ain't What They Used To Be, which, from what I remember, were about a quest to recoup a $2.50 Woolworth wig from an unfaithful lover. Another highlight was the crowd pleasing Bye-Bye Blackbird. And, just as I was planning to write about how Lou has lost his wind and speed, he unloaded with some of the Bird-like maneuvers of his youth on a tune called Fast and Freaky, at a tempo he claimed young musicians can't handle.

His band included Randy Johnson on Guitar, Fukushi Tainaka on drums and Akiko Tsuruga on Organ. They supported Lou well and got the job done. They were all a lot of fun to watch.

What was somewhat bittersweet about the set is that, despite the fact that I live in New York City, I had to travel a couple of hours to the world's largest naturally occurring old age home to see jazz with an audience who knew how to have a little fun. I was quite literally the only person there who wasn't either over 70, or there with their grandparents. Are those the only people left who appreciate jazz for what it fundamentally is -- a dance music?

Yes, jazz is high art. It's both the greatest artistic form and the most important cultural creation ever conceived in this country. Period. But it is also, in its heart and its origins a celebratory music, played for and born of weekend dances. I hate more than anything going to a downtown jazz club and watching people stare at musicians like they're paintings on a wall. You're experiencing art, yes, but you're not at the goddamn Moma. Tap a foot, please.

Jazz's greatest artists, even the ones who most demanded to be taken seriously as artists, understood what it was about. Can you count the number of people who danced to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s to the legendary Blond at Newport '56? Could anyone play the blues, I mean play in a way that you can feel in your soul and in your gut, and not just appreciate coldly, like Charlie Parker? Thelonious Monk, every bit as important a modernist as the abstract expressionist painters of his time, danced to his own music. Those guys understood the balance between jazz as serious art and jazz as basic emotion. Most of the jazz patrons I see around treat the music as if it's solely an intellectual exercise.

That's why it was so fun and really just touching to hear the audience at Co-op City, for instance, sing along to Bye Bye Blackbird. I have never heard an entire audience sing the words to a standard like that. And I could just see that these were people who probably came home from their nine to five 50 years ago and actually spun a Lou Donaldson record to unwind -- a little soul after a hard day's work. Jazz isn't just a trip to the museum to fans of that generation, it's part of the rhythm of daily life.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that jazz, if already fading, was still a relatively popular music in this country when Lou Donaldson was making records and the residents of Co-op City were buying them. That's no longer the case. It goes to the question of whether jazz is on its deathbed -- a hot topic these days. But even those who say it is won't deny that there are some of us who still partake in, consume, travel to see, pay for jazz. I'm just asking if we can crack a smile once in a while we're doing it. How can we possibly convince the potential audience out there that jazz is still alive when so many of us act like we're already at the funeral?

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