By Drew Ailes
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"This is my golf game," Richard McDonnell says with a self-deprecating chuckle when asked how he finds the time to run a nationally recognized jazz label while working full-time as an investment banker. McDonnell, a 53-year-old Webster Groves resident, founded MAXJAZZ in 1997 as a way of promoting local jazz artists who had few other recording opportunities. "It sort of evolved from the question of what to do with the first floor of our house into, "Wouldn't it be neat not only to give live music at our parties but to get somebody to record this music?'" Beginning in June, MAXJAZZ became more ambitious, releasing Louisiana-born, New York-based singer LaVerne Butler's Blues in the City, which hit No. 1 on the Gavin jazz chart on Aug. 27 and was recently featured on NPR's All Things Considered. Closely following Butler's CD were Carla Cook's It's All About Love, Christine Hitt's You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To and Asa Harris' All in Good Time -- all of which have been well-received in publications ranging from the Washington Post to Billboard to Ebony to Playboy. "I don't ever want to get away from doing local musicians, but when we decided to do the vocal series, we decided we'd try to become more of a label of consequence."
Why the sudden interest in bringing MAXJAZZ to national prominence? "It was a combination of the music side of me and the business side of me," McDonnell responds, adding that he studied saxophone for many years. "I missed the opportunity to be out playing jazz. Although I've been a listener most of my life, that wasn't totally satisfactory. I wanted to do something that was more active. There was also my feeling, with increasing age, maybe, that we ought to go out of the scene doing something worthwhile. I felt that I could make some contribution to the arts, and that's the way this business is run. It's run efficiently as a business, but in the end, if it's not profitable, it's still my way of contributing to the arts." McDonnell's admiration for Butler was the impetus for the vocal series, which McDonnell devised as a way to build market recognition for the label and intends to strengthen with a handful of additional releases (including one from amazing newcomer René Croan and a still-to-be-determined male singer) before launching a piano series in late 2000. About 5 years ago, McDonnell first heard Butler at Fat Tuesday's in New York. "I was so impressed with her singing that we stayed in touch -- I had no idea at the time that I'd ever be able to put out national artists, get into the recording business in a major way. I was still talking with LaVerne when she was rolling out of a contract with another label that went out of business. She called to ask me what I advised, and that was really the moment, in early '98, when I said, "I love your singing. I'm willing to step up and do this.'" That Butler's voice could induce a responsible businessman to undertake such a risky financial endeavor comes as no surprise to anyone who's heard Blues in the City. Whether she's singing the saucy R&B classic "Hit the Road, Jack," a Percy Mayfield song popularized by Ray Charles; Sinatra's trademark tearjerker "I'm a Fool to Want You"; or the gospel-flavored original "All That I Know," Butler is a natural, combining a buttery alto with impeccable, relaxed phrasing. She has a dramatic vocal presence, not unlike that of her idol Sarah Vaughan, tempered by an understated, bluesy style, which is especially effective on the jazz standard "One for My Baby" and Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues." According to Butler, whose father, Scott Butler, is a jazz saxophonist, music was an essential part of her upbringing. "In the house, you could always hear some Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Lou Rawls, Sonny Stitt, David "Fathead" Newman -- my father was even on a big Chicago kick when they released their first album. My mother was more of a pure-blues fan than my father. She was the one who listened to B.B. King during the years when you could only hear him on the black radio stations in the South. Believe it or not, though, there weren't many female vocalists played at home. When I went to college and started singing with the U.N.O. jazz band in New Orleans, that's when I began opening my ears to singers like Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae. But I personally feel that if you want to know the definition of what "jazz singer' means, you should go to the dictionary and look under Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan."
Butler, who recorded for the Chesky label in 1993 and '94, has nothing but praise for McDonnell and MAXJAZZ. "They allowed me so much freedom with this project from day one. By the time I went into the studio to do the recording, I felt completely in charge, so to speak, of my own project. I did not have that freedom with Chesky." She took advantage of this creative control to explore a concept she describes as "jazz gumbo." Butler explains, "I wanted songs that demonstrated blues as an emotion, so lyrics were important to me for making my selection. But I didn't want an album of depressing love songs, either. And that's where I used the idea of incorporating some old rhythm & blues standards as well to give the album a bit of an uplift without diminishing that bluesy sound."
Butler, who's currently playing to packed audiences in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong, describes a recent phone call from McDonnell to illustrate their professional relationship: "He left a message that said, "Think about what you want to do for your next project.' Mind you, he did not say, "This is what I want you to do....' It means a great deal to me to know that I have that kind of freedom to make my own decisions regarding my recording projects and to know "the boss' respects me enough to allow it. It's almost as if he's writing this blank check and putting it in the palm of my hands! With that kind of allegiance, how can I go wrong?"
Cook, whose debut album, It's All About Love, is a similar fusion of soul, gospel and straight-ahead jazz, echoes these sentiments: "In times past, record companies' concerns with me had been, "Well, is it a jazz record, or is it...?' They wanted me to decide one way or another. Rich took a chance -- well, for me he didn't take a chance, but I guess from an industry standpoint he took a chance -- by allowing me to do all these different kinds of music on one CD. I'm so grateful for that. I think it proves that you can do more than one kind of music and still be "jazz' or considered legitimate." Cook's CD covers a wide stretch of musical terrain, seamlessly incorporating songs as disparate as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," Milton Nascimento's bossa nova standard "Canção do Sal" and Kurt Weill's "September Song" -- the last tune embellished by violinist Regina Carter's mournful, sumptuous violin. It's a brave move for a relative unknown, and the fact that Cook makes all these styles work in a traditional-jazz format is a testament to her assured phrasing and understanding of the idiom. According to Cook, whose main influences were Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis, her goal is to "sound exactly like Carla" while interpreting any song that strikes her fancy. "Any song I do, I try to find a way to make it mine. "Heart of Gold' can go on the same CD as "Until I Met You,' and the jazz police are not gonna come banging down your door and drag you out and beat you to death. On a radio station or in a music store, there might be a label -- jazz or R&B or whatever -- but in my head that's not what it is. It's all just music to me, and that's what I wanted to put on the CD."
A Detroit native who now lives in Brooklyn, Cook is looking forward to her next St. Louis appearance, when she'll share billing with Butler at a special Jazz at the Bistro concert in April. The two hope to work out a duet or two in addition to their separate 30-minute sets. Cook, who visited St. Louis frequently as a child and still has family here, calls St. Louis one of her favorite cities to play. "When I last played at the Bistro, I had 15-20 family members every night. I felt so much love there. It wasn't just that my family was there -- I'm a Midwesterner. There's a warmth and a friendliness and a sense of normalcy that the Midwest has. I met some really nice people hanging out on the jazz scene -- we had a ball! St. Louis has a special place in my heart."