Jazz giants Ben Tucker and Lou Donaldson still have the music in them

June 27, 2012|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE |
  • Ben Tucker and Lou Donaldson will perform Saturday at Don Redman concert in Harpers Ferry.
Graphic by Chad Trovinger

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Louis Armstrong once said, “Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them.”

Jazz legends and old friends Ben Tucker and Lou Donaldson still have the music in them. That’s why the octogenarians are still touring and playing the music they love.

On Saturday, both Tucker and Donaldson will perform at the Don Redman Heritage Award and Concert at the Mather Training Center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. They will also each receive the Don Redman Heritage Award for their contributions “in jazz education and music as well as the individual musicianship, humanity and dignity that illuminate the spirit of Don Redman.”

The award was named after jazz arranger Don Redman, a West Virginia native, who studied at the historically black Storer College in Harpers Ferry.

Ben Tucker, bass

At age 81 years old, jazz bassist Ben Tucker doesn’t believe in letting the stressors of life get to him.

“I don’t believe in stress, I don’t stress at all. I dismiss stress. Stress will gain you nothing,” Tucker said during a telephone interview from his Savannah, Ga., home.

One way to relax is with a few rounds of golf, but most nights Tucker can be found strumming away on his bass.

He started playing trumpet when he was 13, growing up in Nashville, Tenn., but it lasted about 6 months.

“I traded it in on a brand-new bass violin that came in a box and I had to put it together,” he said with a laugh.

Tucker said he learned to tune it with an out-of-tune piano in the family home.

“The upper register had one pitch and the lower register had the other pitch but it was like that the whole way up and down the piano,” he said. “And that’s the way I able to tune the instrument — until I learned better.”

He eventually taught himself the tuba in high school, but the bass was his first love.

“The instrument exemplifies foundation to me,” Tucker said. “That’s why I like Bach. When he writes music, he starts out with the bass line first and then everything’s built on top (of) the bass line. If you listen to improvised jazz music, you listen the bass. You can tell what song they’re playing if you listen to the bass line because he’s playing the structure of the composition.”

After high school, Tucker entered Tennessee State University as a music major. But the school offered no instruction in bass violin, so Tucker decided to teach himself.

After college, Tucker entered the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Victorville, Calif.

“I’d travel from Victorville every weekend to meet new jazz musicians,” he said.

Tucker was in his late 20s by the time his stint with the Air Force was over, and he was more determined than ever to be a jazz musician.

He paid his dues, honing his skills and playing with the greats such as Peggy Lee, Buddy Rich and Cy Coleman, to name a few. His work paid off because in 1959, Tucker was named by Metronome Magazine as one of the world’s top 10 bass players.

Tucker never gave up on music, but the pressures of performance can take its toll.

“I love to play. I love to create. I just got tired of being in the studio,” he said.

Usually, he said, a musician would walk into a studio for someone, say, Quincy Jones, who would ask the musician to play the music cold.

“You got to play it right then and there,” Tucker said.

If you did it and he liked it, you got the job. If you had trouble with sight reading, you’d get a few minutes to work it out. But if you didn’t deliver, you didn’t get the job.

Tucker said he luckily was never denied a job, but it made him want to branch out.

In addition to his playing, Tucker is an accomplished composer, having written 300 titles. He wrote “Devilette” and “The Message” for Dexter Gordon and “Right Here, Right Now” for Billy Taylor.

One of his biggest hits was “Comin’ Home Baby,” which was made popular for Herbie Mann. Today, Tucker said it can still be heard in movies and commercials. It was even recently recorded by Michael Buble.

Additionally, Tucker became involved in the publishing side of the music business. One of the songs he published was Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” The song firmly established Tucker in the publishing industry and it also gave him the backing to expand his ventures.

After all, Tucker said, he believes in free enterprise. And in 1972, Tucker purchased WSOK Radio in Savannah. Of the 8,500 radio stations across the country, Tucker became the 15th black U.S. radio station owner.

Under his direction, the radio station hit No. 1 in the AM market, and remained so for 13 years. He eventually sold it to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson.

“I have no regret because a deal is a deal,” he said.

Next stop for Tucker was political lobbying. He appeared before the Federal Communications Commission and a Congressional subcommittee on communications to change the economic status of black entrepreneurs.

He testified before various Congressional committees. And in 1989, Tucker continued his own entrepreneurial spirit when he opened Hard-Hearted Hannah’s jazz club in Savannah.

And through it all, he continued to keep producing music.

His album, “Sweet Thunder” was based on a book by Whitney Balliett called “Such Sweet Thunder.” The book was one of a handful that Nelson Mandela was given to read while he was in prison. Tucker said he dedicated the album to Mandela and had to pull a lot of strings to have the album shipped to the activist and former president of South Africa. He received a note saying Mandela’s secretary had loved it and had put it on the president’s desk.

Tucker said he’s looking forward to his trip to Harpers Ferry, mostly because he can swap stories with his old friend, Lou Donaldson. The two worked together on Donaldson’s “Gravy Train.”

“I am absolutely elated,” Tucker said. “I have a tremendous respect for Lou Donaldson.”

Lou Donaldson, alto sax

At age 85, jazz alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson believes in keeping active — that means playing golf and making sure his musical chops are tight.

And at a time when most men have decided to retire, Donaldson isn’t hanging up his alto saxophone any time soon.

About six months a year Donaldson is gigging, showing the younger generation what jazz once sounded like.

There’s no practicing anymore for Donaldson. “I practice on the stand,” he said during a telephone interview from his New York City home.

Music was always a part of his upbringing in Badin, N.C.; his mother was a music teacher and concert pianist, and his father was a minister.

But Donaldson had different dreams. He didn’t want to spend his days practicing music and keeping to his mother’s wishes.

“She tried as hard as she could, but I wanted to play baseball, so it was a big conflict,” he said.

By the time he was in high school, though, he was in marching band. It was there that he started to find his musical way by playing the clarinet.

At age 15, Donaldson entered the North Carolina A&T College. He earned a Bachelor of Science, because they didn’t have a music degree.

In 1945, Donaldson was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at Great Lakes, Ill., where he played the clarinet in the band.

“But we had to play for dances, and they needed a saxophone,” he said.

It was the Navy who introduced him to the alto saxophone, an instrument he immediately fell in love with.

“I just like the tone of it,” he said.

The Navy, he said, taught him a lot of things, perhaps, most importantly, “that a kid at 18 can learn discipline, strict discipline.”

But it was his time at Great Lakes where he got his education in music. The town is just 40 miles from Chicago and Donaldson would make the trip into Chi Town to see the greats.

“I had never been to a big city like Chicago, so I would go into the city on the weekends and see all these great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Billy Eckstine, he said. “I saw them and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’”

It was jazz saxophonist and composer Parker, though, who made the biggest musical influence on Donaldson.

“I heard Charlie Parker, and I wanted to play like him,” he said. “I wanted to play that style so that kept me interested in it.”

In 1952, Donaldson moved to New York City, where he was a bandleader for Blue Note Records.

Donaldson’s career took off when he recorded “Blues Walk” in 1958. The record could be found in jukeboxes and allowed people to dance. His next big hit was in 1967 with “Alligator Bogaloo,” which became a bona fide hit for Donaldson.

But “Blues Walk” still holds a special place in his heart.

“It’s my theme song, my warm-up song,” he said. “(The crowd) knows it. That’s why I play it.”

But it would be 20 more years before he earned the nickname of “Sweet Poppa Lou.” Bob Porter, a DJ for WBGO, was the one who gave Donaldson his moniker.

“I made a record for him and I played a couple of sweet songs,” he said. “And (Porter) said ‘The tone is sweet. He’s Sweet Poppa.’”

As he continues in his career, Donaldson admits that jazz music isn’t what it used to be.

“There’s not too much good jazz being played,” he said.

Today’s jazz, he said, is too intellectual.

“It’s not compatible with the general public because the musicians study too much,” he said. “They go to school and they study and they know too much about the music. Back in our days, we played whatever the people liked. That’s what we played.”

Donaldson blames it on the generations raised on television, who think show first, music second.

“We might have stood up, but we never did any dancing or anything like that,” he said. “We just played the music.”

He said when it comes to music, he remembers the teaching from his mentors long ago: “Don’t try to teach them, entertain them.”

That, Donaldson said, is good advice.

Donaldson, too, said he’s looking forward to his time in Harpers Ferry to meet up with Tucker, who he’s known for at least 30 years.

“He’s a great guy,” Donaldson said. “He’s outstanding.” 

If you go ...       

WHAT: Don Redman Heritage Award and Concert

WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, June 30

WHERE: Mather Training Center lawn, Fillmore Street, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

COST: Free admission

CONTACT: For information and directions, call 304-535-6298

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