[JPL] Donald Walden 'kept jazz alive'

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Thu Apr 10 06:54:29 EDT 2008


http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080409/ENT04/804090418

1938-2008

Donald Walden 'kept jazz alive'

Detroit saxophonist, entrepreneur and mentor leaves impressive legacy

BY MARK STRYKER € FREE PRESS MUSIC WRITER € April 9, 2008

Few musicians have embodied the soul of the Detroit jazz scene as powerfully
in recent decades as Donald Walden, a tenor saxophonist and teacher who
played with a searingly lyrical sound and rippled muscularity.


Walden, who died Sunday at his Detroit home at age 69 from complications due
to cancer, was a child of bebop. He matured during the golden age of modern
jazz in Detroit in the 1950s and carved his own style from saxophonists
Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, whose steely tone imprinted
itself on Walden's DNA.

So did lessons from Detroit pianist and bebop guru Barry Harris. Even when
Walden ventured into more exploratory settings, his music retained a
chiseled discipline and melodic clarity.

At medium and fast tempos his solos boiled intensely; his ballads were shorn
of sentimentality. He also made a living accompanying Aretha Franklin and
Motown stars in the late '60s and early '70s.

But such details only capture part of Walden's legacy. With his long-tall
frame and distinguished carriage, he was a standard bearer for jazz in
Detroit, a mentor to generations of students and a beacon of ambition and
integrity for his peers.

"He was one of the people who kept jazz alive in Detroit," said bassist
Rodney Whitaker, director of jazz studies at Michigan State University.
"He's really a cultural icon."

When the bottom fell out of the scene during the 1980s, Walden, inspired by
a legendary Detroit spot for jazz in his youth, created the New World Stage
in Harmonie Park, an alcohol-free, all-ages performance space that provided
an anchor for jazz and a training ground for young players. He was an
entrepreneur who was always leading several bands, plotting a new recording
and dreaming big.

His biggest coup came in 1990, when he produced "Yardbird Suite," a tribute
to Charlie Parker at the Detroit International Jazz Festival that brought
together a big band, 18 strings, a 30-voice choir, conductor
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and soloists Dizzy Gillespie, Charles McPherson,
Harris and Walden. Many regard the concert as one of the Detroit festival's
greatest moments.

"That's still the most exciting night of my life musically," Walden told the
Free Press in 2006.

Walden nurtured an impressive list of students who became stars, including
Whitaker, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Bob Hurst and violinist Regina Carter.
"For a whole generation of folks my age and a little older, Donald showed us
how to be organizers," Whitaker said.

In the early '90s, Walden began teaching at universities, migrating from MSU
to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and finally to the University of
Michigan, where he became a tenured professor.

Walden's blunt honesty was famous among his students, friends and
colleagues, whether he was applying tough love to a player who hadn't done
his homework, negotiating a business deal or cutting through the
bureaucratic fog of a faculty meeting with a burst of candor others would
never dare. Whitaker remembers that when Walden caught him reading music for
a standard tune at a gig, he cursed him and made him learn the song by ear.

"Jazz is not academic music," Walden told Midwest Jazz magazine in 1996. "I
try to run my improvisation classes like we're in the street or at a
rehearsal or a jam session."

A storied start

Born in St. Louis in July 1938, Walden lived in Clarksville, Tenn., before
moving to Detroit with his mother in 1946. He started playing the saxophone
around age 15, studying at the Larry Teal School of Music and Detroit
Community Music School. He studied improvisation with Harris and saxophonist
Yusef Lateef. Walden's peers were young turks like drummer Roy Brooks, alto
saxophonist Charles McPherson and trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer.

Walden followed his friends to New York in 1960, where he played with Grant
Green, Joe Chambers, Booker Ervin and Sun Ra, but he returned home in 1966
for more opportunities to work. He played in Aretha Franklin's band for five
years and toured widely with Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Four Tops.
He played jazz, too, of course, and eventually found security as a teacher.

Walden's self-produced recordings included "A Monk and a Mingus Among Us,"
"Focus: The Music of Tadd Dameron" and "A Portrait of You." He also appeared
on Geri Allen's 2006 CD "Timeless Portraits and Dreams." He received the
Governor's Arts Award in 1985 for the contributions of his Detroit Jazz
Orchestra, and in 1996 he was named a Jazz Master by Arts Midwest.

Walden is survived by his wife Marsha of Detroit and two daughters, Deirdre
Jones and Aisha Walden, who both live in New Jersey. The family is holding
private services on Saturday but acquaintances and fans are invited to a jam
session in his honor at 5 p.m. Saturday at Bert's Marketplace, 2727 Russell,
Detroit.

Walden's last public performance was at a celebration of his career at
Arturo's in Southfield in February. To the amazement of family and friends,
Walden gathered the strength to play magnificently, witnesses said. It was a
reminder that fame and worth are two separate issues in jazz.

"I don't know that fame is necessarily for everybody," Walden told the Free
Press in 1996. "I don't know that we even do this with that in mind. You're
really just trying to play the best you can play no matter what. If you get
recognized for it or make some money for it, that's fine, but your objective
is really to play just as good as you can possibly play."

Contact MARK STRYKER at 313-222-6459 or mstryker at freepress.com.


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