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Friday, January 16, 2009

Donald Washington interviewed by Bill Graham

I wasn’t even half way through this interview when I started thinking, in the back of my head, “how will I ever do justice to this rich tapestry of love of life and music that this wonderful man is unfolding before me?” One hour later, Donald sent me home with a fresh picked apple and a smile on my face, and the result was the following.

Renowned reed player and music educator Donald Washington was born in Mobile AL, where he spent most of his childhood before migrating to Chicago with his family. In the windy city Donald took his first serious step towards becoming a musician after his father bought him a clarinet. Upon the completion of two hitches in the army he returned to the south to attend college at the University of Southern Alabama, where he received a degree in music education in 1970. Mr. Washington moved to Detroit and worked as auto assembler at a Chrysler plant—Donald says “that was a hum dinger”—for five years. It was in Detroit that he met his wife of 33 years, Faye, and began working as music educator for the public schools.

His wife convinced Donald to stay in the motor city, and it wasn’t long before he organized the internationally known youth big band: Bird Trane Sco Now. Cassias Richmond, Roy Whitaker, Kevin Washington, and James Carter are just few of the many young people who came up in this ensemble and went on to great careers.

The Washingtons moved to Minnesota in 1987. Donald has taught in Minneapolis Public Schools, and been a staple of the Twin Cities music scene for the past twenty years. Though he has ‘officially retired’ from teaching as of 2005, Donald is by no stretch of the imagination an idle man. He recently agreed to return to teaching for the Mpls board of education on a part-time basis, and his calendar remains as busy as ever, full of gigs and rehearsals with his many friends and colleagues in the arts community.

I caught Donald at his beautiful home in Fridley and asked him the following questions:

Question # 1 - How did jazz come to be divorced from the black community? I mentioned Wynton Marsalis’s statement to the effect that once the drug epidemic had made its mark on jazz musicians the glue that held the community and the artist together began to disappear.

Donald said that he thought that had a lot to do with it, but he doesn’t believe that was the whole story. He mentioned the perils of being on the road all the time. And that the unfair treatment that black musicians faced on the road had sometime to do with the need to hide behind drugs. He also related that, fortunately for him, he determined early on that life on the road was not for him personally, because of its lack of stability. Another major factor that Donald pointed to was the fact that black parents stopped playing the music for the children in their homes. He tells how he had just recently played some Blue Mitchell for his students and their immediate response was to start popping their fingers and patting their feet. Proof positive that black kids—whose only exposure to music has been hip-hop—will respond to jazz if only they are given a chance. Finally, he brought up the pernicious role that labels have played in isolating the people from the music. Donald recalled Duke Ellington’s warning to Charlie Parker “that once they label your music be-bop they have put you in a box.” Washington went on to explain that labels are unreliable because, while he thinks of John Coltrane and Lou Donaldson when he hears the word jazz, others may think of something else entirely.

Question # 2 - Gary Giddins says that what makes jazz special is, one, the fact that it is a soloist music, two, that it is blues based, and three, that it swings. What do you think of that?

Donald thought that Giddins was headed in the right direction with the notion about the importance of the blues, but he cautions that there most be more than just the notes, ‘it’s got to have the feeling.’ He said that he recalled that jazz pianist Randy Weston had made a similar statement asserting the importance of the blues. As for Giddins' assertion about the importance of swing, he says that is mostly true, but Washington is quick to point out that there is some jazz music, like that of Sun Ra for instance, that you can’t necessarily pat your feet to. Donald maintains that this sort of jazz is just as valid as the swinging kind. “Our music is very vast. Sometimes you can’t pat your feet. The important thing is that the music is saying something. When you listen to Bird you can’t pat your foot. Music is the way we live. It’s our life, and that’s why our music is different.”

Donald likes to quote his colleague Dave Baker of the University of Indiana who said “that black music is music written by black people and played by black people.” He also told me the story of his recent trip to Detroit, where he hooked up with a former student, Michael Carry, and the two of them “tore the roof off the sucker.” Donald says that reminds him “that black musicians play for the love.” On that same trip he said he also had the opportunity to play with an ex-student who was playing on the street corners. Mr. Washington reported that his student was optimistic, “because the music will keep you optimistic.” By way of summary he said “that he plans to keep the blues, keep the swing, and keep the creative thing also.” Washington said that he loves Richard Abrams, LeRoy Jenkins, Michael Carry, Douglass Ewart, and Lester Bowie because “these are the guys that keep it on the edge.”

Question # 3 – I asked what it was like to see the legendary John Coltrane Quartet live, and I also asked him to tell me about any other special jazz listening moments that he has had.

Donald told me that he and a couple of buddies traveled 178 miles from Mobile to New Orleans to see Trane at the New Era club in 1962. He said the club was no where near being full that night, but that didn’t seem to bother Trane, he went on playing as if there were 50,000 people there. Washington says that he still remembers the look of bassist Jimmy Garrison as he played. Donald went backstage and asked Coltrane what he was going to do next musically, and Trane told him that he was going to come out with an album composed entirely of ballads. After the set was over, Donald and his friends followed the Quartet over to a club owned by Ellis Marsalis. Everything was going along great until a waiter spied the bottle that they had snuck into the joint. Fortunately, the waiter graciously overlooked the whole incident and Donald et al were allowed to stay.

Donald related that in 1972 he saw the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was blind, at the Eboe coffee house in Detroit. He said that this particular night was memorable not just for Kirk’s phenomenal playing, but also for something that happened in the audience. When Joe Texador, who was Kirk’s eyes, saw that some guy was recording the performance, Kirk and the band stopped playing, and refused to begin again until Texador had confiscated the tape and destroyed it. Kirk insisted on this course of action because that sort of thing was one of the factors that helped in the destruction of Bird.

Question # 4 – I asked Donald about his attempt at retiring from performing.

Donald said that when he first announced to Faye that he was going to retire she told him “that he couldn’t do that because too many people still want you to play.” Then came Jay Otis Powell’s response to the news of the retirement “yeah, I heard about it, but I didn’t think that it meant me.” Finally there was Douglas Ewart’s reaction which was to simply look at him as if he had lost his mind. That was it. Donald gave up the idea of retiring once and for all. It appears that Donald can no more retire from teaching than he can from performing, when a school principal begged him to return to teaching Donald “saw it as the Creator leading him back so he can help these young people attain some self-esteem, and teach them how to do something that is creative. This music is about being creative.”Along with a full schedule of collaborations with other artists such as Ancestral Energy, Carrie Thomas’s group, Jay Otis Powell, and the Capri Big Band, Donald also recently put out a disc of him playing solo saxophone. He says he was never good at peddling his art. Even back when he was in high school when they gave him candy to sell, he would eat the candy and pay for it himself.

[To read about Donald's profound influence on James Carter, one of the most important saxophonists on the scene today (and perhaps one of the all-time greats), click here.

If you like a copy of Donald's solo album, e-mail me at and I will figure out a way to get it to you.]

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