Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we can truly appreciate a moment, or a word, shared with another human being. For me, this human being was David Maxwell, a man I had the wonderful opportunity to interview a few years ago. When I heard of his passing I wanted to revisit the conversation we had and in doing so I realized some wonderful things. In essence, David told me that music was ultimately a healing experience for him and that, above all, he has lived a rich life and he has been “basically, pretty happy…”
Maureen Elizabeth: David what is your perception of “the state of the Blues” today?
David Maxwell: That’s a tricky question. Things have to evolve, art forms go into modification. There was a pretty big watershed when SRV was around. He was an amazing guitarist and I think he set the tone for a lot of guitarists after him. Then there’s the old school kind of stuff. I was influenced by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, all those piano players like Pinetop, and Slim – I knew them personally. And there were so many more that I heard on CDs or with whom I got together, like Charles Brown. I think that there are a lot of really talented Blues artists out there today. The palette has really changed a lot – it has expanded – and I am all for that. I play a lot of jazz, world music, and I think there is a lot of soulful music all over the place. I’m not saying that I’m a died in the wool pure Blues player, but when I do play the Blues my reference point is the kind of stuff that came out of Chicago, primarily, and all its influences from Mississippi and all the deep Blues that came out of there. Some people say “well there’s Deep Blues – capital D, capital B, almost like it’s a museum piece. I try to keep it alive and when I play I stick to the language, but I add my jazz predilections or whatever and I stretch it a bit maybe rhythmically or in its tonality, but I really try to stick to that sound that, to me, really represents the Blues.
ME: You stay true to the sound while still breathing new air into it?
DM: Yeah. I think that the danger is groups sounding too generic – where you have the guitar playing overriding everybody in the rest of the band, where it’s just a rug or a vehicle for the guitar player to shine, or the singer, or whatever. I liked it when everybody was contributing, just as it was back in those days, like with Muddy’s band, Howlin Wolf-all those bands out of Chicago. But not only there, other cities as well, but it was more of a group spirit. I think that there are some really good players out there today. I record with Chris James, Pat Rynn, Rob Stone- they’re on Earwig -and they kind of keep to that tradition. But there are so many other musicians who maybe don’t play in that style because if everybody did it would be kind of boring, but they have their own style and I think they are great. There are some great singers out there and a lot of my old friends. So there’s a combination of the so called old school and some of the recent developments of great players as well.
DM: Well, there’s Chicago blues – I guess they use the war as a demarcation because we‘re dealing with more electrified instruments and clubs where you have electric guitars and microphones. It’s not the acoustic kind of blues that you might associate with some of the clubs of the 30’s and 40’s when the so called “rediscovery period” happened. When I was growing up in the mid 60’s and I was at club 47, I heard people like Skip James, Son House, Booker White and Fred McDowell. Later, Muddy Waters came through with James Cotton on harmonica and Buddy Guy, Jr Wells… but that was something different, that was considered kind of “too electric” in a way by some of the standards of the time. You know, we were sort of gravitating toward the kind of thing where you wanted these deep acoustic blues or folk music. I heard that stuff, but when I heard Otis Spann with Muddy Waters I just thought “wow” – there was something so soulful with his playing that just led me to really want to go after that kind of sound. I fell in love with it – I was really passionate about it
ME: So Otis and Muddy really opened the door for you…
DM: Well, yeah. In high school I really didn’t hear that much blues. I was into jazz and I was playing piano so I learned a little about chords, but it was around the early 60’s where I began. I knew Alan Wilson, he lives in the town next door to me, and he later joined Canned Heat, but in high school he played trombone and we used to have jam sessions. We’d be playing soul, jazz stuff – he’d always been into Dixieland, New Orleans, real rootsy stuff -and then he got into the early Mississippi blues and he kind of turned me on to that. I was getting into it and then we found Muddy Waters and everything kind of changed. I really began to try to learn that style, that Otis Spann style, Sunnyland Slim, and I started to play with people to back people up and it went on from there.
ME: I find it fascinating that when I talk to musicians about their early experiences hearing the Blues there is always a real passion or a real draw…
DM: Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me. In 1963, I was in my junior year abroad in Paris. I had been going to the University of Rochester for two years and I wanted to get away from the college –it wasn’t really happening for me- It was a little bit stultifying for me.
ME: What were you studying?
DM: Classical Music – and I was playing a little bit of jazz. I was doing a music major and a liberal arts major at the same time, so I went to Paris, to a school there, and I got exposed to all kinds of music because many international artists would come over from India, Iran… from everywhere, and I was totally into that stuff. But then the Blues Caravan came over, I think it was probably in ‘64, in the spring. I was probably in the third balcony of this huge theater in Paris, with a friend – and we were diggin’ it- and there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters and then Otis Spann played something solo – he played “Goin’ Down Slow” and what he did was just… I’m not sure if I knew it was Otis at the time or I figured it out later. There were other piano players there – there was Memphis Slim- but this was not Memphis, this was Otis, the style. What it was, was that this guy was just so magnetic and so electrifying, and a little inebriated – I think he almost fell over on the piano bench – but he was singing and he was playing this stuff with all this right hand figures – it sent shivers down my spine. Now that’s the moment that you are looking for. Later on, when I got back to Cambridge and went back to school, Muddy came through with Spann and Cotton and the Band, I heard Spann again, and that began a relationship ship that lasted until Span died in ‘70. I got to know him, and eventually I got to sit in with him at the jazz workshop up in Boston. I kinda’ followed him around a little bit and Muddy was really supportive. One night I even replaced Spann on piano when he was sick – this was the late ‘60’s when Paul Oscher was in the band. Paul and I are fast friends, we’ve been friends forever – but that was the key, when I heard that sound. I had a friend who taught art classes at MIT- those were the days when you could just requisition the student lounges, so we staged these jam sessions – and one time, when Muddy was in town, we had the pianos back to back, you know, Otis Spann and me – it was great – stuff doesn’t happen like that anymore. That’s when Big Momma Thorton came through and I backed her up for a week. I would play with a bunch of local Boston musicians as well; J. Geils and all those people – you know, that was a breeding ground. But for me, when I went out on the road with Freddy King in the 70’s, I would have my Eric Dolphy tapes and my Cecil Taylor tapes at the same time and my Otis Spann and Freddy King tapes too, so I’ve always been interested in more than two facets of it.
ME: When the music speaks to you – you must answer its call…
DM: Exactly. Lots of music speaks to me, but the Blues speaks to me in a way that really comes from the heart – you have to play it with subtly, getting the right inflections, the right kind of feeling to it, otherwise it becomes just another form.
ME: It’s not an intellectual exercise…
DM: No, not at all. I’ll save all my intellect for figuring out Herbie Hancock or somebody like that – it’s all about expression and communication from that point, where you are dealing with a specific language – you don’t want to violate the language, but you want to enhance it.
ME: Looking back, what would you consider a peak moment in your career?
DM: I’ve had many, many, many, and I’ve probably forgotten half of them because it’s always the gigs where you say ah man that was so great, we couldn’t have done it any better than that. But if you want some names, playing with Freddie King undoubtedly was one of my greatest experiences. I played with him for a couple of years- baby grand or grand piano- and it was great to be a part of that. It’s on DVD – they were big on the video cameras back then in ‘72, ‘73 and it’s on You Tube – I have muttonchops and a beard and my hippie beads and my platform shoes. I was the only white guy in the band so I was straddling both worlds, but there was definitely some extremely moving moments like when he sang “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and other slow Blues tunes. I also played with James Cotton in the late 70’s and we had some great, great moments. Playing with Bonnie Raitt was very special. Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin -playing with those guys, there was something very, very special about that. And Louisiana Red – I recorded an album with him. Red is singularly a huge force – there is nobody like him. And then Ronnie Earl – we have this magic together that is pretty inspiring – I’ve know Ronnie since the 70’s and I recently had a CD release party for Conversations in Blue –it’s about Otis Spann and how I reinterpret his work. Ronnie and I played together many times over in the last 30 years. There’s been a lot of great experiences and to mention one particular gig – the short answer to that is “yeah – there probably is one night where everything magically fell together and I wish we would have recorded it” but I can’t remember the night or when it was but the general answer is all the people I mentioned- those people are really special.
ME: Any regrets along the way?
DM: No too many. I’ve just tried to be who I was. Basically I have been pretty happy.
ME: You’ve lived your life doing what you love…
DM: Sometimes I think, well, maybe I should be playing more jazz or maybe I should be composing more, but you generally do what you are good at and you continue to work at the other things that you want to accomplish.
ME: What is your hope for the next generation of musicians?
DM: What I hope is that they really just find what they are interested in and really give voice to that and appreciate whatever turns them on. That may sound simple, but a lot of kids are pressured to do this and do that and some of them are working 35 hours a week and don’t have time to practice. But just to revel in the beauty and the sensuality of the music… music is ultimately a healing experience for me, that’s where it goes, that’s the primary thing. For years I’ve been intrigued by other musical systems like Turkish or Persian where they have particular scales that relate to particular ailments. I’m totally into that and I play a lot of what you might call totally improvised music where I’m just painting or sculpturing or making architecture with just sound…
ME: That’s beautiful…
DM: It is, at its base, kind of mystical and at its best it’s, hopefully, uplifting and cathartic…
ME: Is there any other thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
DM: It’s been a pretty rich life. I’ve been able to play with a lot of cool people, a lot of legends… We make our choices and we do what we want… and I’m always open to new things…
ME: Thank you David for being such a gift to us…Rest in Peace…
All photos in this article were used by kind permission of DavidMaxwell.com
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