Friday, April 11, 2008

Donald Walden, the Detroit-based Jazz Artist, Kept the Music Alive in the Motor City

Donald Walden 'kept jazz alive'

Detroit saxophonist, entrepreneur and mentor leaves impressive legacy

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

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