Jazz gigs started when he was a student in 1978, being part of the Cambridge Modern Jazz Club’s resident trio along with Chucho Merchan and Nic France and backed visiting guest soloists in the city. In 1980 he won the prize for best soloist at the San Sebastian International Jazz Competition. He moved to the U.S. in 1982

John Donaldson at Jazz on a Winter's Weekend 2008

He later studied with Joe Henderson, played with Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Donny McCaslin, Eddie Marshall, Kenny Wolleson, Ben Goldberg,  and played also gigs with notables including Eddie Henderson, Red Holloway, John Handy, Richie Cole, Paul Jackson, David Baker, Steve Turre, Laurindo Almeida.

He has also featured in  groups led by Iain Ballamy, Art Themen, Clark Tracey, Alan Barnes, Don Weller, John Etheridge, Dick Pearce, Norma Winstone and worked with Art Farmer, Conte Condoli, Freddie Hubbard, Buddy de Franco/Terry Gibbs, Scott Hamilton, Eddie Daniels, Steve Grossman, Ingrid Jensen, Jon Gordon.