Barbara Donald, photo by Peggy Watt
©Peggy Watt
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Barbara Donald was born September 2, 1942 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from amateur musicians. At 9 she was playing the cornet, listening to dixieland, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. As she showed physical abilities unusual for a woman, she quickly switched to the trumpet and then received a good musical education on various reeds (and, what is less known, vocals).

In 1955 her parents moved to California. She was denied access to the high school big band and had to form her own groups at a very early stage in her career. She faced the same problem again later, when trying to turn professionnal: jazz big bands refused to audition women. Therefore she payed her dues to rhythm & blues, rock and roll and dance bands... A brief stay in NYC strenghtened her determination. Back in LA she starts hanging out with great jazz musicians: she studies the art of playing bebop with "Little" Benny Harris (let us pay this man a not-so-small tribute : he co-wrote "Ornithology" with Charlie Parker !) and at 19, she shares the bandstand with Dexter Gordon, Stanley Cowell and Bert Wilson, a daringly unusual position for a white woman.

She gets married to norwegian pianist Ole Calmeyer, albeit briefly: in 1964 she meets Sonny Simmons through "Little" Benny Harris and settles in San Diego with her new mentor. Another kind of education begins under his guidance. Simmons is an innovator with strongly original ideas (though firmly rooted in the tradition) and methods : « Sonny worked me to death. His tunes were very hard. Each one had its own structures, in hard keys, with very hard chords. If you really listen to our old records, you can hear we are playing on changes - we just weren’t playing patterns or licks on them. That was what he stressed - play your own melodies, stay on top of the beat, go through your intervals. He wouldn’t show me any music, just shout ‘Play it!’ - these ridiculously hard tunes. And I was so scared, I played it! All of a sudden, it just came out. » (Barbara Donald in a Paul DeBarros’ article for Down Beat) Though she acknowledges Booker Little as a late influence, she drew most of her inspiration from sax players (Coltrane and Dolphy mostly).

From 1964 to 1972, Barbara Donald and Sonny Simmons lived, performed and struggled together. Their career, if too often chaotic (impossibility to make it in New York, irregular engagements and recordings) and not much rewarding (despite landmark records for at least one major, Contemporary, and appearances as lengendary as the Berkeley Jazz Symposium, they remained "underground"), proved to be as brilliant, and produced music as singular, as other remarkable "love affairs" in jazz (Alice and John Coltrane, Carla Bley and Paul Mantler...). It has been asserted that the presence of Barbara Donald contributed to balancing her husband’s revolutionnary moods, at a time when he was committed more than at any other stage of his musical development to radical positions and constant comings and goings between tradition and modernity: and certainly her voluble and powerful, somehow unadorned playing, indicating a perfect control of the bop idiom, which she could nonetheless lead towards paroxysms characteristic of the immediate post-Trane free expression, was the perfect supporting structure of Simmons’ angular themes and improvisations. Not to say that her role was merely supportive: her brilliance matched Sonny’s in all occasions. Burning Spirits exemplifies this incandescent, awe-inspiring telepathic communication, and the inside/outside game which remained a trademark of Simmons’ music and owes a lot to her works.

Legend however doesn’t make up for a stable family life. In the course of their semi-nomadic existence, the Simmons had managed to give birth to two children (Zarak in 1965 and Raïsha in 1972), and from 1972 on their career grew to a sudden halt. Upon the insistence of Barbara’s parents, they settled in San Jose and Sonny resumed day jobs. What was meant as semi-retirement (hints with Bert Wilson, James Zitro and various Bay Area musicians can be traced until 1975) and an opportunity to raise their children affected their relationship. And even though Sonny must have acknowledged the incompatibility of the musician’s life and a father’s role - a choice he nevertheless always claimed proudly -, turning his back to the music led him to deep frustrations and attempts to escape these through drugs. Circa 1978-1979, a first attempt at relocating in LA, although it provided some session work, met with no response: the Simmons had vanished from public sight. Back in San Jose, they garner a local reputation again by running a famous jam-session at De Anza Hotel. The final move was instigated by Barbara Donald, when she decided to follow her friend Bert Wilson in Olympia, Washington. Soon thereafter (early in 1980) she parted from Sonny.

Barbara Donald had long aspired to expose and refine her own concept. She formed the group Unity around a core of Washington State musicians including saxophonists Gary Hammon and Carter Jefferson (ex-Woody Shaw sideman), pianist Peggy Stern, drummer Irvin Lovilette (1940-1983, who became her new companion), and at a later stage bassist Michael Bisio. Based upon a more mainstream material (though pieces like "Raisha’s Dream" are deeply indebted to Simmons’ achievements), her work (preserved by two Cadence records) still sounds fresh and energetic, and has won her a loyal cult following. Unfortunately, as Unity began to consolidate its position, Irvin Lovilette’s sudden death signaled a change in her fate. She went to New York to find a new inspiration, and there reportedly worked with Gunter Hampel’s Galaxy Band in 1984. She even succeeded in presenting Unity at the Kool Jazz Festival (Irving Plaza, June 24, 1984, with Carter Jefferson, Gary Hammon, Ron Burton on piano, rising star Charnett Moffett on bass and her son Zarak on drums). She was then back in the Seattle area.

On special occasions (from 1982 on, see discography) she revived her association with Sonny Simmons. "Feeling" and "magic" are the words she used in the same Down Beat interview to describe one such event. And though bad health took her away from music permanently after '92, those very same words forever apply to her. She passed away in Olympia, Washington, on March 23, 2013.

The following sources were used in the making of this biographical note : Paul DeBARROS, article in Down Beat, May 1983; Bob RUSCH, interview for Cadence Magazine, June 1983; Pierre CARLES, article for Dictionnaire du Jazz, "Bouquins", Robert Laffont publisher, 1988, France. Thanks to MC.


Discography :

Sonny Simmons : Staying On The Watch (ESP-DISK') (featuring Barbara Donald)

Sonny Simmons : Staying On The Watch
(ESP-DISK' 1030)

rec. 66.08.30
p. 1966

Metamorphosis - A Distant Voice - City Of David - Interplanetary Traveller.

Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. John Hicks : piano. Teddy Smith : bass. Marvin Patillo : drums.
Rec. in NYC, USA. Producer : Bernard Stollman.


Sonny Simmons : Music From The Spheres (ESP-DISK')  (featuring Barbara Donald)

Sonny Simmons : Music From The Spheres
(ESP-DISK' 1052)

rec. 66.12.??
p. 1968

Resolutions - Zarak's Symphony - Balladia - Dolphy's Days.

Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Bert Wilson : tenor sax. Mike Cohen : piano. Juney Booth : bass. James Zitro : drums.
Rec. in NYC, USA. Producer : Bernard Stollman.


Sonny Simmons : Manhattan Egos (Arhoolie) (featuring Barbara Donald)

Sonny Simmons : Manhattan Egos
(Arhoolie 8003)

rec. 69.02.10
p. 1969

Coltrane In Paradise - The Prober - Manhattan Egos - Seven Dances Of Salome - Visions.

Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Juma Sultan : bass, congo drums. Paul Smith : drums. Voodoo Bembe : congo drums.
Rec. in Berkeley, USA. Producer : Chris Strachwitz.


Smiley Winters : Smiley Etc. (Arhoolie) (featuring Barbara Donald)

Smiley Winters : Smiley Etc.
(Arhoolie 8004/5)

rec. 69.03.19
p. 1969

Two Trains - Love Is Enlightenment - Smiley Etc. - Frank's Blues - Some Blue Shoes - Just Steppin' - Smiley's Mini Drum Suite.

Barbara Donald : trumpet. Bert Wilson : tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet. Rafael Garrett : thumb piano, flute, voice, bass, horns. Michael White : violin. Frank Jackson : piano. Chris Amberger, Harley White, Jerry Sealund : bass. Smiley Winters, James Zitro, Paul Smith, Eddie Marshall, Mike O'Barra : drums, percussions.
Rec. in Berkeley, USA. Producers : Smiley Winters and Chris Strachwitz.


Sonny Simmons : Rumasuma (Contemporary) (featuring Barbara Donald)

Sonny Simmons : Rumasuma
(Contemporary S-7623)

rec. 69.07.31/08.01
p. 1970

Rumasuma - Back To The Apple - Reincarnation - For Posterity.

Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Mike Cohen : piano. Jerry Sealund, Billy Pickens : bass. Billy Higgins : drums.
Rec. in Los Angeles, USA. Producer : Lester Koenig.


Sonny "Huey" Simmons : Burning Spirits (Contemporary) (featuring Barbara Donald)

Huey Simmons : Burning Spirits
(Contemporary 7625-26)

rec. 70.11.24
p. 1971

DISC ONE: Burning Spirits no.1 - New Newk - Healing Rays.
DISC TWO: Burning Spirits no.2 - Things And Beings - E=mc2

Sonny Simmons : tenor and alto sax, English horn. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Michael White : violin. Lonnie Liston Smith : piano. Richard Davis, Cecil McBee : bass. Clifford Jarvis : drums.
Rec. in Los Angeles, USA. Producer : Lester Koenig.


Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson, Barbara Donald and V/A : Kozmic Communication (Dr. Wheelz' Archives)

Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson and V/A : Kozmic Communication
(FMO Dr. Wheelz' Archives #4)

rec. 71.??.??
p. 2005

RKosmic Boogaloo - Telepathic Suite.

Bert Wilson : tenor sax, bass clarinet. Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Bobby Addison : guitar. Bobby Natanson : percussion.
Rec. in Berkeley, USA.


Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson, Barbara Donald and V/A : Xmas With Uncle Sonny (Dr. Wheelz' Archives)

Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson and V/A : Xmas With Uncle Sonny
(FMO Dr. Wheelz' Archives #1 & 2)

rec. 71.12.24-25
p. 2004

CD1: Good Morning / Merry Xmas Bird - Xmas Dance At The Officer's Club / Johnuary Tranetarium.
CD2: Xmas With Uncle Sonny 1, 2, 3.

Bert Wilson, Sonny Simmons : reeds. Barbara Donald : trumpet. John Neumann : bass. James Zitro, Smiley Winters : drums.
Rec. in Berkeley and San Francisco, USA.


Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson, Barbara Donald and V/A : Palo Colorado Suite (Dr. Wheelz' Archives)

Sonny Simmons, Bert Wilson and V/A : Palo Colorado Suite
(FMO Dr. Wheelz' Archives #7)

rec. 72.??.??
p. 2005

Paraphrase On New Newk - Sonny's Tune - Untitled.

Bert Wilson : tenor sax, baritone sax. Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Barbara Donald : trumpet. Mike Cohen : organ. Dennis Parker : bass. James Zitro : drums.
Rec. in Big Sur, USA.


Les Oubliés Du Jazz Ensemble featuring Smiley Winters, Sonny Simmons and Barbara Donald : Playing "That" Nigger Music (Touché Records, producer James Bronson, Jr.)

Les Oubliés De Jazz Ensemble feat. William "Smiley" Winters : Playing "That" Nigger Music
(Touché Records TRLP 101)

rec. 72.08.01
p. 1976

The Introduction - Nigger-UR-AH-Musician - Nigger-UR-AH-Music - Persona Non Grata - Just For "Smiles" - Quelle Est Votre Raison D'Etre - "Smiley" Winters Gitting Righteously Down !.

Smiley Winters : drums, conductor. Sonny Simmons : alto and tenor sax, English horn. Barbara Donald : trumpet. C.L. Jones : tenor sax. Sonny Lewis : tenor sax, flute. Jules Rowell : trombone. Ed Kelly : electric piano. Ray Drummond, Melvin Simmons : drums. Marie Braure,, Sugar Ree : voice.
Rec. in Oakland, USA. Producer : James Bronson, Jr.


Townsend, Townsend, Townsend and Rogers (Chocolate City) (featuring Sonny Simmons and Barbara Donald)

Townsend, Townsend, Townsend & Rogers
(Chocolate City CCLP 2007)

rec. 78?.??.??
p. 1979

Wondering - Rock Me Sock Me - Bring It Down To The Real - True Love (Is A Terrible Thing To Waste) - It's A Pleasure To Have Loved You - Playground - You Can - It's Too Late To Be Nice To Her Now - It's You.

Ed Townsend : lead vocals, keyboards, conductor, arranger. Michael Townsend : lead vocals, keyboards. David Townsend : guitar, keyboards. David Rogers : guitar, keyboards. Anthony Johnson : special keyboards. Larry Conley : tenor saxophone, lead vocals (#2). Sonny Simmons : alto saxophone. Barbara Simmons : trumpet. Nathaniel G. Johnson : bass. Lester Crawford : drums. Rene Hall : arranger.
Rec. in Los Angeles, USA. Producer : Ed Townsend.


Barbara Donald : Olympia Live

Barbara Donald : Olympia Live
(Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1011)

rec. 81.03.30
p. 1982

Blues For You - Bolivia - Well You Needn't - Prayer For My Children - Raisha's Dreams.

Barbara Donald : trumpet. Carter Jefferson : tenor and soprano sax. Steve Munger : alto sax. Steve Jacobson : guitar. Cookie Marenco : piano. Jay Maibin : bass. Irvin Lovilette : drums.
Rec. in Olympia, USA. Producer : Bob Rusch.


Barbara Donald & Unity : The Past And Tomorrows

Barbara Donald & Unity : The Past And Tomorrows
(Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1017)

rec. 82.04.16-17
p. 1983

The Past And Tomorrows - Love For Eric - Pannonica - Let It Ride - Bop-A-Lot - Children On The Nile - Charles Too.

Barbara Donald : trumpet. Carter Jefferson, Gary Hammon : tenor sax. Peggy Stern : piano. Michael Bisio: bass. Irvin Lovilette : drums.
Rec. in Seattle, USA. Producers : Tom Lord and Bob Rusch.


Barbara Donald & Unity featuring Sonny Simmons : Live at Bellevue Jazz Festival, Seattle 1982


Barbara Donald & Unity feat. Sonny Simmons
(TV broadcast)

rec. 82.07.??
broad. 1982

Barbara Donald : trumpet. Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Gary Hammon : tenor sax. Hal Hood : piano. Michael Bisio: bass. Irvin Lovilette : drums.
Rec. at Bellevue Jazz Festival, Seattle, USA.


Barbara Donald & Unity featuring Sonny Simmons : Live at New Orleans Creole Restaurant, Seattle 1991

Barbara Donald & Unity feat. Sonny Simmons
(TV broadcast)

rec. 91.04.??
broad. 1991

The Shores Of Trinidad - Body And Soul - (unidentified Bobby Hutcherson original) - (unidentified Barbara Donald original) - (unknown title).

Barbara Donald : trumpet. Sonny Simmons : alto sax. Tom Pereira : tenor sax. Will Humphreys : vibes. Craig Hoyer : piano. Michael Bisio : bass. Donnelle Baldwin : drums.
Rec. at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant, Seattle, USA.



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