When Clare Donohue came to the Chattanooga area a few years ago to help a friend battling some health issues, she had no idea she would end up staying here, or that she would meet an 81-year-old African-American saxophone player who would have a big impact on her life.
Donohue, 52, grew up in Brooklyn and taught school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. mentoring gifted students. She is also a jazz singer specializing in old-school music popularized by singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day.
Ever since seeing how music could impact severely disabled students in a school where she taught in Connecticut years earlier, Donohue said she's always used musc and art in her teaching.
Shortly after settling in here, she needed a sax player for a New Year's Eve gig and heard about R.T. Bolden through a mutual friend. He was facing surgery related to cancer and couldn't make the gig, but he asked her to drop off a CD of her music.
"He told me, 'There is no one around here who sings like you do,'" Donohue said.
"That gave me such confidence. It meant so much to me."
* What: El Mercado Latinamericano de Chattanooga to benefit Art 120
* When: noon-4 p.m. today, Oct. 29
* Where: Chattanooga Choo Choo, 1400 Market St.
* Admission: Free
* Online: art120.org
* What: Cabaret 120 featuring Clare Donahue, James Edward Crumble, Stephen Powers, Dave Schwab, Jay Vernali and R.T. Bolden with special guest Joshua Moore
* When: 7-9 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 16
* Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
* Admission: $20 in advance, $25 at the door
* Phone: 423-624-5347
Almost a year later, the two reconnected and started playing music. They are now part of a quintet along with Stephen Powers, Jay Vernali, Dave Schwab and James Edward Crumble. They will perform Nov. 16 at Barking Legs Theater as a fundraiser for Art 120, a local program that brings art and vocational programming to public schools and in public venues for children.
Art 120's building burned to the ground on Thanksgiving Day last year. After meeting its director, Kate Warren, last year, the two realized they had a mutual mission. Donohue also knew she wanted to help in some way.
"She came up with the fundraising idea and really has put it all together," Warren said of the Barking Legs fundraiser/cabaret.
"Music has a special power for bringing people together," she said. "It saved me."
It's what connects her with Bolden as well.
The relationship between Donohue and Bolden has been mutually beneficial for many reasons. On a recent sunny fall day, the two met in Bolden's basement rehearsal space at his home off Shallowford Road to practice and they spent about an hour telling stories, sharing philosophies and talking about life in general.
It's become part of the routine, though the talking doesn't always last quite so long as it did that day. Donohue said the talks usually center on how to bring people of differing attitudes, backgrounds, philosophies, races and geographic locations together. The conversations almost always end with the same conclusion.
"Music is the only thing I know that brings everybody together," Bolden said.
Donahue revels in listening to Bolden's stories and his thoughts on life and the world.
"I usually start each practice with a question or an observation," Donohue said.
"He is a genius and has seen so much. He grew up with a lot of suffering."
"I didn't suffer," Bolden quickly corrects her.
"Suffering is a bind you put on yourself. I always say, 'Money doesn't make the man. The man makes the money, and it can make you a fool.'
"We had so little growing up and it was tough. I picked my first cotton at age 3."
He said he used to follow his mother in the fields, filling his own bag with cotton.
"Yeah, it hurt your hands and your fingers. it was rough work. I was so glad when my grandmother came to pick me up to live with her."
His face lights up when he recalls being around the day a billy goat head butted the woman who ran the farm where his family worked.
"Wasn't anybody around but me. She was in the garden bent over. Everybody loved that goat, but this day he looked over and saw her and lowered his head and took off," Bolden said throwing his head back and laughing at the memory.
Bolden grew up in Alabama, where he played a little baseball with Willie Mayes in the Negro League before doing three hitches in the military in the '50s and '60s.
"I went in [the military] to get out of Decatur, Ala.," he said.
At one point, Bolden was stationed in Alaska where he was a ski trooper.
"Which was an odd thing for a black boy from Alabama," he said. "I thought about being a downhill racer at one point, but that didn't work out."
While in the service, he was part of both the Army and Air Force bands at varying times, assignments that took him all over the world. He spent about three years in Indianapolis, which at the time had a thriving jazz scene.
There he met and played with guys like Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard.
"It was a jazz mecca. I would go down there and get chopped up. It was a sausage grinder, but I stole enough (musical chops) from them to help me."
Bolden learned to play a variety of instruments while in the military. He had to out of necessity, he said.
"I was sent to Denver as a clarinetist. I told them I don't know how to play clarinet. They were told I did."
So he learned. And the drums, the flute, the guitar and the piano, in addition to his more familiar trumpet and trombone.
The youngest of 13 kids, Bolden began teaching himself to play music at age 5 after his oldest brother, Bobby Lee Pickett, made a recording of himself singing "You Go To My Head."
"I wore that record out," he said. "I used to whistle all the time. My mother would say, 'Stop whistling. You'll make your face long.' I loved all the old movie musicals with Duke Ellington and Nat 'King' Cole. I said, 'That looks like fun.'"
Bolden moved here about 20 years ago because his new wife wanted to live here. He found the local music scene "slow. I about lost my mind it was so slow."
He started drinking to pass the slow times. He played when he could, in particular with Debbie Dee. Eventually he started playing rock 'n' roll with Paul Smith, and did that for about 16 years before realizing he missed the jazz and the challenges it demands.
"With rock, once you learn it, that's it. It doesn't change. Jazz always changes."
He pretty much retired to his basement studio before being drawn back into the music and playing live.
"They've thrown me back into the briar patch."