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Remembering Richard McDonnell, MAXJAZZ Founder Dies At 68

Richard McDonnell

Word spread quickly on social media this past weekend: Richard McDonnell, founder and president of the St. Louis-based MAXJAZZ recording label, had died.

One of the first tributes posted -- by Dean Minderman, editor of the respected music blog “St. Louis Jazz Notes” -- was put up to replace rumor with facts. Yes, McDonnell had suffered a stoke while attending a concert Feb. 7 at Jazz at the Bistro. He died the next day.

“I began seeing short Facebook posts saying things like RIP Richard McDonnell,” Minderman wrote in an email explaining his decision to compile the information and publish it on the blog. “It seemed better to try to write something, however incomplete, than to just let the rumor mill grind away for a whole day or more.”

Like many jazz fans, Minderman had seen the downside of Facebook accuracy recently when reports of the death of famed pianist Horace Silver turned out to be (to paraphrase Mark Twain) “greatly exaggerated.”

But McDonnell’s death was confirmed, and a Feb. 10 Facebook post by his son Clayton McDonnell announced a memorial gathering Feb. 13.

As others have noted, McDonnell had a three-decade career as an investment banker at A.G. Edwards, “…But for the last 15 years, lived his true passion, as founder of the MAXJAZZ record label. To his core, Richard was a lover and champion of jazz and its artists.”

McDonnell’s love of jazz came through from the first moment I met him in 1999, when I interviewed him for a Riverfront Times article about his then-fledgling record label, MAXJAZZ.

Giving musicians their due

McDonnell talked about hearing great jazz musicians here in St. Louis and around the country who deserved to be recorded.

A memorial gathering will be from 3-6 p.m. Feb. 13 at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Rd., Kirkwood.

"I do a lot of traveling in my job as an investment banker,” he said then. “And I get the opportunity to hear jazz musicians in clubs around the country. It's really amazing how many great jazz musicians are out there who either have never had the chance to record or were not really recorded in a way that really showcased their talents.”

McDonnell decided to make the first recording for MAXJAZZ at his home in Webster Groves in 1997, when he recorded St. Louis pianist Dave Venn and his trio – featuring guitarist Steve Schenkel and bassist Jay Hungerford.

four album covers

That first MAXJAZZ recording, “One, Two Three,” was issued in conjunction with Bill Becker’s St. Louis label, Victoria Records – as was the next release on the label, “I’ll Remember April” by Ray and Tom Kennedy.

With the release late in 1997 of “Two Roads” by Brilliant Corners -- St. Louis musicians Dave Black, Paul DeMarinis, Dan Eubanks and Kevin Gianino, -- MAXJAZZ was in business by itself. And after a 1998 recording featuring the husband-and-wife team of Marda and Reggie Thomas, McDonnell took the fledging MAXJAZZ label to the next level and recorded nationally and internationally known musicians such as LaVerne Butler, Carla Cook and many others.

McDonnell retired from A.G. Edwards in 2002 to work fulltime at MAXJAZZ, and was soon joined by his son Clayton. Over the next dozen years, MAXJAZZ released more than 70 recordings, featuring such renowned musicians as Russell Malone, Mulgrew Miller, Rene Marie, Terrell Stafford and Romero Lubambo – plus St. Louis-based musicians such as Peter Martin and Erin Bode.

Running a jazz label the right way

In the process, McDonnell created a distinctive look and feel for MAXJAZZ recordings. Using consistent design elements and the distinctive style of photographer Jimmy Katz, McDonnell underscored the quality of the music on MAXJAZZ with attractive, distinctive packaging.

“I look at MAXJAZZ as the standard for how a Jazz label should be run,” said Joe Schawb, owner of Euclid Records in Webster Groves. “Packaging should be similar, but unique, classy and of the highest standards. Alfred Lyons did that with the Blue Note LPs back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Rich took that concept and did it with MAXJAZZ CD releases. The quality of the artists he hand picked, the fine production, fantastic photography and packaging; well, it was simply the finest. I really believe that MAXJAZZ CDs will be desirable and very collectable in the future because they were done right.”

“Rich had a vision that remained focused and true,” said Dan Warner, former owner of Webster records, located next to MAXJAZZ headquarters in Webster Groves. “It was a music label that had originality and class – and wasn’t based on the number of units a release would sell, but rather based on the integrity of the artist, the instrument and the art. His passion for music was in his veins. He never sought the limelight for himself but only for producing and preserving a neglected art form so others could discover and enjoy the music and the artists.”

McDonnell’s passion for jazz came through most clearly in his attendance at musical performances throughout St. Louis – from sets at Jazz at the Bistro and concerts at the Sheldon Concert Hall and the Touhill at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to small clubs such as Robbie’s and many others throughout the area.

Promoting the art form

And as noted on McDonnell’s Facebook page over the past few days by musicians whom he recorded and befriended: McDonnell always made it a point to encourage musicians and promote the art form of jazz in every way possible.

three album covers

“Rich was a tireless warrior for jazz, here in our community and beyond” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis. “He believed in its greatness, worked every day to promote it, and never missed an opportunity to appreciate it. He reflected the beauty that he found in the music in his gracious and caring personality. A conversation with him was always substantial, not small talk, and he always talked more about you than about himself. Through MAXJAZZ and his work with us as one of our original board members, he has left a great legacy. We will all miss him.”

According to Clayton McDonnell, his father made it known he didn’t want a funeral service.

“My dad really didn’t want to have a funeral, so we thought for now, a memorial service would be the right thing,” he explains in a phone conversation Monday afternoon. “He celebrated the music, and that’s what we’ll plan to do at a certain point. I’ve talked to Gene at the Bistro, and that will be the location for whatever we do. My dad always joked that if he was going to go, he wanted to go out listening to music. And that’s the way he would want everyone to remember him.”

As far as the MAXJAZZ label itself, Clayton McDonnell plans on keeping it going for the present.

“MAXJAZZ was something my dad put everything into, and I really enjoyed spending 11 years working with him,” he says. “Financially, keeping an independent jazz label going is hard. But the emotional payback was enough for him. So I’ll keep the label going, but I’m not sure what the situation will be a year or so from now.”

“I don’t think Rich ever made any money from MAXJAZZ,” Schwab said. “He never told me that, I just assumed it because it's hard enough to make money running a label, especially a jazz label. One thing he did tell me is that he loved doing what he was doing. He left his 9 to 5 and did what his heart told him to do -- befriend, record and document great jazz musicians.

“As a person, Rich was very open, giving, encouraging, optimistic and always had a big grin on his face. Hey, why wouldn't he be smiling? He lived the dream!”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Rich McDonnell’s name to Jazz St. Louis.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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