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Artist Spotlight  
David Maxwell
By “Downtown" Bob Stannard, correspondent to BarrelhouseBlues.com
bob@bobstannard.com
© 2008 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved
Photograph by Peter Waiser
 

David Maxwell is a tall, lanky man with narrow, piercing eyes. His mind moves at warp speed and when he speaks, he does so with an intensity that few others exhibit. He has spent a lifetime sitting on a bench; mastering 88 ivory keys. He has learned from the best.

He is a rare breed of musician who has a foot in two camps; Blues & Jazz. He is recognized as a master of Blues piano; a title well deserved and acknowledged by his numerous WC Handy (Blues Awards) nominations. (James Cotton's Deep Blues won a Grammy in 97' to which David contributed, and there have been numerous WC Handy and Grammy album nominations in which he has participated). He is as comfortable talking about and playing recordings of eclectic Asian music as he is with Muddy Waters material.

This Boston based player has had a most remarkable life….and at 64 years of age it’s closer to just getting going than being over. For those of you who do not know of this man and his work, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Mr. David Maxwell.

DTB: I had the occasion to buy, from you, “Maximum Blues Piano,” 10 years ago when I first saw you play with James Cotton. In preparation for this interview I have played that CD approximately 30 times in the last five days. It’s an incredible album…

DM: Oh man. Well, that was 10 years ago; things have gotten a lot better since then. "Max Attack" is out and a solo one.

A lot of people did like that album.

DTB: What’s not to like? It’s a great “driving” album. Keeps you rockin’ down the road. Regarding this interview, we can go anywhere you’d like to go here. Let’s start from the beginning; where did it start for David Maxwell?

DM: I was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, March 10, 1943. We were living in Belmont at the time and the hospital was in Waltham. We moved to Washington, D.C. when I was young, and then back to the Boston area (Lexington, Massachusetts) when I was in the 5th grade. That’s where I grew up; went to school and went on from there….

DTB: Was somebody in your family musical? Where’d your music genes come from?

DM: My mother was tone deaf, as was my older sister. I have near perfect pitch, for whatever that's worth. My younger sister and father had a feel for music. We all took piano lessons. My father, later in life, started playing the violin. He really loved music, but it was my mother who got me into playing. She used to play classical 78’s; symphonic stuff and she knew that I was paying attention to it. She got me into taking lessons with a neighborhood piano instructor.

DTB: So, you have two sisters…

DM: Yeah, one older; one young. Both of my parents are now gone.

DTB: It was your mother who pushed you…

DM: Yeah, she loved music. Had a real passion for the Russian composers; Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff; She really loved the passion; the feeling of romanticism and that kind of thing. Maybe that’s where I inherited the passion and feeling for playing the Blues.

DTB: How old were you when you started playing?

DM: I was eight years old. Eventually I hooked up with a good teacher in high school who introduced me to more difficult classical pieces.

DTB: You went to public school?

DM: Yeah, Lexington High. I started jamming with some high school musicians and was really into jazz. When I heard boogie woogie recordings I got into that, too. I didn’t know much about Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf back then. I was at a drummer’s house jamming when I met Alan Wilson (who attended neighboring Arlington High and would later become a founding member of Canned Heat). He was playing trombone at this time. This was like ’60-’61. We were in high school, jamming…having fun. We were doing stuff like soul jazz and working our way through tunes, Bobby Timmons, Cannonball Adderly. I dug the bluesy sound, but it was Alan who was instrumental in turning me on to Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Ali Akbar Khan that kind of stuff. Alan was already a longtime devotee to traditional New Orleans music--- “Moldy Fig” kinda stuff… George Lewis; a traditional clarinet player, Kid Ory, trombonist and others. I was sort of into that, but not a lot.

DTB: Crazy..

DM: Then he got interested in the pre-war (WW II), Blues stuff and we began to listen to Skip James, Son House, Charlie Patton…all that. One year while we were in high school, I think 1960, Alan and I hitchhiked to Newport for the jazz festival. We saw Monk, Carla Bley, among others I can't remember now. Alan was thrown in jail for drinking a can of beer as we were walking along the street---amazing!

DTB: So he branched off and you stayed there?

DM: Well, what happened was after I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Rochester and Eastman School of Music. Alan enrolled at Boston University.

DTB: You were sold by the time you graduated from high school that you were going to be a piano player.

DM: Oh absolutely. I think my mother wanted me to become an engineer or something…

DTB: All mothers want their sons to become engineers, doctors…anything except a blues player.

DM: Yeah. The usual stuff. Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington. That would have worked. (laughing) something on that level…. However, I was a confirmed jazz player; or at least trying to be one. I also liked a lot of symphonic music and weird sounds as well. My ears were always open.

DTB: Your training has always been through public education…

DM: Yeah (emphatically) No private schools. In high school I hooked up with a teacher who gave me some classical training and another one who could play like Art Tatum. His name was Sol Skersy. He was a real character. He died a number of years ago, but he had traveled with different bands in his day. He was at the New England Conservatory and then started his own school. He got me into pop chords and modern classical stuff and theory. This was while I was in high school. He said don’t waste your time going to college. Just stick with me and I’ll show you what you need to know. I could’ve gone to the New England conservatory. I never applied to Julliard. I wasn’t that rigorously trained, classically. I decided on the University of Rochester and majored in music and pursued a liberal arts degree. It was really a stodgy atmosphere there. I lasted two years and decided to self engineer a junior year abroad in Paris.

I remember coming home after my freshman year in college; I went to Provincetown with some fellow musicians to play at the Atlantic House. We had been promised the gig when somebody by the name of Sam Rivers (the great saxophone player) stepped in and took over. We were a little miffed by that. I was still playing jazz at that point when I reconnected with Alan and we began listening to Muddy and Wolf.

I went back to U. of Rochester for my sophomore year in the Fall of '62 and was blasting the “Best of Muddy Waters,” you know, the Chess Records LP…

DTB: Yeah, yeah…

DM: Really getting behind that and digging the sounds of Otis Spann and getting more into that. That was in ’62. I still wasn’t playing any Blues, but while I was at Rochester, ’62-’63, I was trying to make the best of it….. Son House was in Rochester (possibly playing on his front porch occasionally) waiting to be rediscovered. It was kinda ironic; nobody knew it at the time. I went to see Coltrane when he came to town at a black club called the Pythod, but I didn’t know about Son House.

DTB: Did you meet him (Son House)?

DM: Not at that time. It was just strange that he was there in Rochester while I was in this stodgy college (laughs). I had listened to him on records, thanks to Alan. Anyway, I had to get out of school so I went to Paris. I was taking piano and theory and exposed to some great Iranian and Indian classical musicians. I saw Thelonious Monk when he was over there on tour. I also heard, in ’64, in the spring, the American Folk Blues Festival Tour, which is now available on DVD. Muddy was there. Memphis Slim. Sister Rosetta Tharpe…and I remember sitting up in the third balcony of this huge theater in Paris with a buddy of mine listening, and there was this piano player who came out.. To this day I’m not sure if it was Spann or someone else (I have to get the DVD), or it might have been Champion Jack Dupree. It could’ve been. This guy was pretty well lubricated, almost falling off the bench, but he was playing brilliantly. I was just knocked out. It was one of those moments people call an epiphany. I just had to get in to what was happening here.

DTB: By this time you’re a pretty good piano player?

DM: Yeah, I was OK. I could move around. I was all right. I was never much for practicing (laughs). I was pretty quick. I enjoyed improvising and picking out the parts.

DTB: You’re good enough to be playing out..

DM: Yeah, there were some young musicians trying to get me to stick around with the hope of playing at Blue Note across the river.

DTB: You playing out for money at this point?

DM: Yeah, in high school I did. I’d play with a sax player doing stuff like “Splish Splash, I was taking a Bath” (laughs). (Gets up from his seat) Let me take care of this cat (David's cat, Stella).

DTB: Cats rule the world, don’t they?

DM: Yeah. In Paris I wasn’t exactly gigging then, but I was jamming with some local musicians. One time I played at a local club---Le Chat Qui Peche--- subbing for a piano player who was sick.

DTB: Are you still hooked up with Alan at this point?

DM: Alan had co-founded Canned Heat after the mid-sixties. He had left BU and had moved West. He was a very special human being. He was musically so acute. He wrote articles for a local magazine, Broadsides, in Cambridge---Skip James piano transcriptions, articles about Son House and Robert Pete Williams---that kind of thing. When I came back from college, before I went to Paris, he was playing harmonica. He had grown frustrated playing the trombone. He had lip problems, he said. The harp seemed to work much better for him. I credit him with exposing me to the Blues.

It was seeing this piano player in Paris that was the real moving experience. I returned to Rochester only to be bedeviled by all these credits I now had to make up; piano juries and the like. I said "no ,I don't want to do this". I came back to Boston and started accompanying modern dance classes; some ballet, but mostly modern dance. I was free to improvise. I had come to love making up sounds on the piano.

DTB: Do you sight read?

DM: Oh yeah, of course. Then I began to hear music, because of my exposure to some of the Blues stuff, around ’64-’65, I began to go out and hear these guys, at this time when people like Son House, Skip James, Fred McDowell, Bukka White, James Cotton with Muddy Waters--- they were all coming to the Club 47 in Cambridge. My previous experience at Club 47 was when all the folk musicians played there and the club was actually located at 47 Mount Auburn Street  in Cambridge. Joan Baez played there regularly as did many other folk, bluegrass and country groups. I wasn’t too much into that stuff, although I had gone there while I was in high school and had seen a 12 year old Tony Williams play with Sam Rivers… the same Sam Rivers who beat us out of that gig in P-Town…

DTB: All is forgiven with Rivers? (laughs)

DM: Oh yeah, sure…Jumping back to P-Town at that time I was running around in bare feet, the summer of ’61, picking up little gigs here and there. You remember the Lobster Pot in P-Town? There were two guys who ran it back then. They used to let me play there. Throw me a few bucks; maybe a meal. I played at the Crown & Anchor. They had a little jazz thing in the afternoon on Sundays. We had a trio---nothing that heavy, but it served as a vehicle for improvising on tunes.

Anyway, when I went back to the Club 47 to check out Skip James---the club had moved to where it is presently, now called Club Passim.

DTB: Are you going there to just watch players or are you playing?

DM: At this time I’m just going there to watch these great players. I’m not sitting in or anything. Well, Muddy used to come there….and Wolf and other Chicago Blues musicians were there, but I wasn’t that secure yet. I was just beginning to figure out some of the Otis Spann stuff. That‘s what really got to me; like it’s affected so many players of my generation when they were first exposed to that stuff. I thought, WOW, this stuff is so deep. I’m not sure if it was the guy I was hearing in Paris, Champion Jack, or whoever it was, but it was that “right hand” stuff that completely knocked me out. I really wanted to get that sound. Those licks really called out to me---all that soul. I could pick out the notes and the sense of the phrase without copying it note for note. But there were certain key things you had to do---a few little moves here and there. Learning to really play the blues takes a lot of time….

DTB: But it’s only three chords, right? That’s what some people say…

DM: That’s what a lot of people say, but it’s all about the nuance. At this time Peter Wolf was making the scene at Club 47. Later in the mid-‘60’s in Boston I began to hear Muddy at the Jazz Workshop. That’s when I got to sit in and play with him. He used to be around for a week at a time, staying at the Hotel Diplomat in the South End and we would hang out. These guys were up for a good time during the day. We’d go out and drink and whatnot. There were a lot of young musicians who were hungry for "real blues" contact with the musicians. You’re dealing with middle class white kids who were soaking up the Blues.

DTB: They must’ve seen something in you…

DM: Muddy was very supportive and would call up musicians to sit in with him. Especially towards the end.

DTB: Yeah, I’ve heard that from others. Do you know Jerry Portnoy?

DM: Oh yeah, of course…very well.

DTB: Jerry explained that same trait; that Muddy would be very open to having others join him.

DM: When Jerry was with him from the mid seventies. They would do Caledonia when Pine Top Perkins was with him, that’s when he would call people up. Spann would also call me up after the mid sixties. It was great. I was scared as hell, but confident enough to know I could do this. One night, I think it was in ’67 or ’68, Spann was sick and Muddy asked me if I would take his place for the night. This was pre Paul Oscher. I think George Smith was on harp. It was after James Cotton. Sammy and Pee Wee Madison, maybe. This was before Lucious "Snake" Johnson…anyway, I did the gig.

DTB: How’d you feel?

DM: I felt great! I asked Muddy, “How’d it go?” He said, “You’re OK. You jump around a little too much, but it’s all right. Stay in one place.” I kinda knew what he was talking about. I was trying to do it all.

DTB: Jerry (Portnoy) told me that when he first played with Muddy, Muddy would say to him, “Don’t move around so much. Just stay on the Big End."

DM: RIGHT! (laughs) Exactly. A lot of it is support, phrasing and nuance. When I first met Paul Oscher, he had just joined Muddy. He’d been with Muddy for barely a week. He told me, “David, the hardest thing to learn in this game is phrasing. You really have to learn to phrase.” It’s not just the notes or how fast your fingers can move. It’s one thing trying to emulate the Otis Spann licks, but it was a long way from being Otis Spann.

During this time I was playing locally with Bill Caldwell and the Caldwell/Winfield Band. He was a great guitar player, but he tried to kill himself after he broke up with his girlfriend. He shot himself and ended up in a wheelchair for another dozen years or so. I also hooked up with J. Geils, Magic Dick and Danny Klein, at the time. This was pre the J. Geils Band. They had all played together in a group in the Worcester area. We played together for a while around Boston (The Boston Tea Party) and did some radio stuff (WBUR---a live show with Jeremy Steig and the Saytrs) among some other gigs.

DTB: Do you sing?

DM: Yeah, I don’t make a big deal of it. I’d much rather play, but I enjoy singing, particularly songs I've written.

DTB: You have a great speaking voice.

DM: For me playing Blues piano is akin to being an instrumentalist in jazz. I think the music should speak for itself. Blues is primarily a vocal thing; it started with the shout and a cry and a story. The instruments all came later. To me, trying to get the vocal feeling in the music through nuances as I’m playing, is enough for me. So I played with J., Danny and Dick for awhile and left that scene. I stayed in Boston through the late ‘60’s.

DTB: Did the Beatles have any influence on you?

DM: I remember I was in Paris when “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” came out. I wasn’t really gripped by that as many people were as well as the whole San Francisco Hippy thing; I was more into jazz and Blues. The Beatles are great, of course, for a lot reasons. At that time I was more taken by the British groups who were doing blues covers or bringing those licks to our attention in the States----some stuff by the Animals, Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Stones, Kinks. I was listening to the real thing over here with the Chicago guys and that's what interested me more.

Anyway, I stuck around Boston. I met Luther "Snake" Johnson. Muddy used to introduce him as "Georgy Boy". His first name was actually Lucious. He had left Muddy. Boston/Providence was second to Chicago as the best Blues scene in the country. A bunch of us played with Luther locally. We were playing these black clubs in Roxbury and Dorchester. Luther was kind of a hard scrabbled guy---a real trip. You never knew if he was going to show up. You never knew what the makeup of the band was going to be. Whether or not you were going to get paid or how much. It was the blues....

DTB: How often did you play?

DM: Two or three times a week

DTB: Are you supporting yourself by playing music at this point?

DM: Oh Yeah. I was playing all kinds of different venues.

DTB: Any day jobs along the way?

DM: Naw, I couldn’t handle that. I drove a cab for awhile. Tried the Manpower day labor thing, but no, I just tried to do what I could do to keep playing piano. By this time Mojo Buford came around. He had left Muddy and he came here and wanted to start a band. At this time Mark Kazinoff was living in Cambridge. We had a group together called the Home Juice Company. He was a harp player mostly at that time. Now he plays great tenor sax and produces. Then Mojo came in and wanted to hook up with us so we had two harp players for awhile.

DTB: By this time you are becoming pretty well known around the Boston area?

DM: I was getting pretty good name recognition by then. I was getting friendly with a lot of the Chicago Blues players. I brought some school kids (a Summer Creative Arts Program) to the Newport Folk Festival in ’69. Fred McDowell and Spann were in Boston after that. I was able to, God knows how, to get them up at 9:00 in the morning and come to this school in Boston, in the South End; I was doing a little teaching. I managed to get these guys to come in and play for this class. I remember it was hard enough for me to get up, say nothin’ about getting them out of bed.

DTB: We’re talkin’ Mississippi Fred McDowell and Otis Spann here..?

DM: Oh yeah. We had to swing by the liquor store at 9:30 a.m. to get Fred his pint of gin on our way to this school. So these guys were playing. I wish I had recorded it.. Fred would be in town and hang around for a while. We would go to some other guy’s house and just jam. You know, "get me something to drink," and we’d play in the afternoons. These guys enjoyed hanging out and jamming. I was trying to get as close to Spann as I could to soak up his sound. It was a pretty great time.

DTB: Did Otis teach you how to play his stuff?

DM: Well, he’d hear me play a little lick from, for example, “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” and I would ask, "is this how it goes?" And Otis would say, “Well, yeah, but I’d do it this way." It wasn’t like I was doing it wrong; just that he’d do it his way (laughs).

DTB: Did you take lessons from him?

DM: Some people have the impression that I took lessons from Otis. Not true. I didn’t. I just tried to absorb as much as I could from him by being around him. There was a man, Dick Stroud, who was an art instructor and a painter at MIT. He would reserve a lounge at the student center and a bunch of us would get together and play all night long. When Alan Wilson was in town he was there. That was pretty cool. Spann was in town one time. He came over and we had back to back pianos and played together. That was a lot of fun.

DTB: How old were you then?

DM: I was about 25. I was consumed by the Blues.

DTB: You had the world pretty much by the ass at this point. You understood what you had going on then, right?

DM: I was just consumed by the passion of it all; the music and the people playing it. To be able to play with some of the greats….well, it was pretty amazing and I knew it at the time. I would listen to all kinds of music, but I was really taken by the Blues.

Also during this time a buddy of mine from Philadelphia who had been at the American Folk Festival with me in Paris knew Skip James. Turned out that Skip was looking for a piano. So a bunch of us found this upright piano; it was a pretty nice one, and we loaded into a pickup truck and drove it over to where he was staying. His wife, Lorenzo, was there and we got the piano in. Skip was really delighted. I sat down, started to play… I was showing off… and Skip said in his soft voice “Why do you have to hit the keys so hard?” He sat down and played; Skip was very gentle in his own rhythm; his own pace. Of course I was trying to be….

DTB: You were showing off!

DM: (Laughs) Yeah. It was pretty funny. Although I was immersed in the Blues, I was into playing jazz as well. But it was the Blues that took the forefront.

DTB: You had a foot in each world

DM: I had my ears open. Spann died, Alan Wilson died. Pine Top joined Muddy and I was able to develop a lifelong relationship with him. That’s another whole story. He’s been so supportive and key to my continued interest in developing my Blues style. Sunnyland Slim as well. We hung out a lot.

DTB: When did you first meet Pine Top?

DM: It think it was ’69 at Newport when he was backing Big Mama Thorton.

DTB: Did you see him or meet him then?

DM: I think I just saw him there. It wasn’t until he started playing with Muddy that we developed a friendship. Like I said before, Muddy was real good about calling up other players and so was Otis. Otis would let me sit in whenever I was around.

There was one time at the Jazz Workshop in Boston when Muddy didn’t see me in the crowd. Pine Top got up from the piano after a number ended and called me over. I slid onto the bench without Muddy knowing it. Muddy started playing this slow tune in “C” and I started doing some Spann licks. Bob Margolin was in the band then at that time and he said Muddy heard that piano and his face turned white as a sheet. He knew it wasn’t Pine Top. He thought it was the ghost of Otis. It was a humorous moment.

Bob Margolin and I hooked up in the 60’s as well. We played with Luther Johnson and Buford. Then we decided to do our own band; the Boston Blues Band. We had different players in it. Probably around ’70.

DTB: Did you ever branch out from Boston or have you hung around here the whole time? I heard about the Boston Blues Band.

DM: We didn’t do a lot of gigs outside of the area---a regular night in Worcester, that was about it. Babe Pino played harp with us for awhile. Bob & I were pretty tight. We used to hear Blues together and one time went down to the Jazz Workshop. I had played down there a couple of times. I did a gig there one time playing opposite Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Another gig was with Big Mama Thornton. That was a pretty big deal. Bob & I went down to the club and he asked me if I ever heard of this guitar player, Freddie King. I said I’d heard of him, but didn’t know all of his stuff that well. We went to see him. He had a organ player who doubled on trumpet, bass and drums. Freddy started playing… the sound was so immense. His amp was on 10+ and made us sit right up in our seats. I was used to the idea that I could sit in with anybody…we went down a couple days later and I asked if I could sit in on piano and they said yeah, sure. So we had that piano/organ sound happening. Freddie said that he was thinking of hiring a piano player. “I was thinking of hiring this guy we heard in New York, but I’ll offer you the gig. You wanna do it?” I said, “SURE."

DTB: well, hell, that’s what you quit college for, right? (Laughs)

DM: Yeah, right…..(laughing). This was in January or February of ’72 and by April I was with Freddie. I had been teaching at this time at a private school in Boston---The Commonwealth School. I was doing my own thing, Blues, theory, music appreciation--- that kind of stuff. It was going over pretty well. I was getting along with the so called problem kids---the ones that weren’t doing well in school. Meeting up with Freddie was really good timing. I joined up with him and went on the road. It was a pretty hot band. Personnel shifted but Benny Turner, his half brother was always on bass. I was with Freddie for about two years. I got a lot of mileage out of that gig out of all the video footage that was shot at that time and later released.

DTB: Were you playing with him at the Ann Harbor Michigan festival where he recorded “Goin’ Down?”

DM: YEAH! That was me playing.

DTB: That is an amazing rendition of that tune. Nice work. So, this was your first sojourn out on the road?

DM: Yeah, it was something. I had my blues tapes; my Eric Dolphy tapes. It was a split existence. I would play my ass off on stage and then go back to my room and listen to Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor and all this other shit.

DTB: You’re still keeping a foot in two worlds?

DM: Oh Yeah. Exactly. It was funny. The boys in the band would come in and say, “What’s that shit? You rooming with Maxwell again? He’s got that weird shit going on." (Laughs) Playing with Freddie was an enormous experience. I didn’t realize how enormous until I left him.

DTB: How come you left him?

DM: Playing with Freddie was like 110 mph all the time. We were just going at it. Musically, it was great. I played acoustic grand pianos everywhere. I was like hell bent on drinking and having a good time, a full-time party. I was getting saturated with the experience. I had to take some time off after a couple of years, ‘cause I had other things I wanted to do.

DTB: That’s probably why you’re still around to do this interview today. (Laughs).

DM: (Laughing) Yeah. That’s right! People thought I was crazy to leave Freddie King, but there were other things on my mind that I wanted to do, musically. We left on good terms. A few months after that, Dick Waterman, who managed Bonnie Raitt, said Bonnie was looking for a piano player and was I interested. I said, “SURE,” and I went to work for her. I had met Dick when he was bringing the "rediscovered" artists to the Club 47 in Cambridge in the mid-sixties. One day back then I was going through the blues section in a Harvard Square record store. Dick showed up and I asked him about one album or another---that was when Vanguard came out with "Chicago, The Blues Today," series. Also, Otis Spann's "The Blues Never Die," on Prestige.

Back further than that when we were in high school, Alan Wilson and I used to hang in Harvard Square while we were in high school. There were cool post beatnik coffee houses, interesting book stores, all night cafeterias and record stores with listening booths. That's right---we could grab a bunch of records and actually audition them in these phone booth type rooms (only bigger---two people could fit in). We would give each other "blindfold tests," inspired by the feature in Downbeat, a jazz magazine, and we would peruse the jazz and blues sections for interesting stuff. Another time Alan took me to Skippy White's in the South End---a record store specializing in R&B, gospel and blues. Skippy had a John Lee Hooker side on King, I believe, which featured some of his stuff from '49 or '50----"Nightmare Blues" and "The Numbers," and some really wacked out distorted instrumental sounds----we wigged over that stuff!

DTB: From Bonnie Raitt you went…

DM: On and on. I came back into town (Boston) and played with Guitar Johnny Nicholas. Frannie Christina (later Fabulous Thunderbirds) on drums. A real great band. Sister Sarah Brown was on bass, then Johnny Ace, who provided a great feel and a hilarious sense of humor that would crack up everybody. There were a lot of different players. It was a great time and great fun. I had to make some money so I went on the road with Tavares for a few months. They were a soft rock R&B group. That was around ’77. Then finally James Cotton and I hooked up and played together for about three years. He had Matt “Guitar” Murphy with him. Charles Calmese on bass--- another one who died young; car accident. Double Shuffle King; Kenny Johnson. An amazing drummer. That was a great band.

DTB: I saw you guys in Vermont! That’s pretty weird. How long were you together?

DM: Til' the spring of 1980. Then I went to India a couple of times. Another important part of the scene in the seventies was the Speak Easy; a club in Cambridge. I played there a lot with different people. Big Walter Horton. Johnny Shines. Robert Jr. Lockwood.

Jumping ahead, I played with my younger "brother" Ronnie Earl's band in '90 and '91, and on many records and gigs to the present (we share the same birthday---March 10th--- we had met in 1976). A few years later I hooked back up with Cotton and Luther Tucker for some trio work. It wasn’t Cotton’s first trio deal, but he wanted to change up from the band thing. We went on the road. Tucker only lasted a couple of weeks; had some issues with James. We got John Primer on guitar. James was still singing at this point. We were together quite a while. Mojo Burford came on afterwards to sing after Cotton's throat surgery. I was doing some solo stuff before James would come out. I did some albums with Primer. He’s a great guy, great player. Then we made the album that won the Grammy. James on harp. Joe Lewis Walker on guitar. Charlie Hayden on bass. “Deep in the Blues."

DTB: Let’s jump way ahead. The day before Christmas Oscar Peterson died. Did you ever have any relationship with him?

DM: No. I enjoyed his playing, but I didn't know him.

DTB: Are you still touring today?

DM: Oh yeah, sure. All the time. I’m doing festivals, it all depends. What I haven’t done on a regular basis is do the rat race across the country in two-bit little clubs. It’s more and more difficult to keep a band together and break even. Joe Louis Walker called the other day to do a gig. I’ve been doing the festivals.

DTB: That’s a common theme I’ve been hearing. Rod & Honey Piazza spoke to the issue of the drying up of the smaller clubs. You know Rod & Honey?

DM: Oh sure. I’ve played with them before. They’re wonderful players. I’ll go out and be a special guest of someone if I’m called. I played a club called Cecil's in Jersey the other day. Some solo stuff.

DTB: You still teaching?

DM: Yeah, I still teach. I have some students.

DTB: You’re working as much as you want?

DM: Not really. I'll play at a few places around town and in New England and some festivals and art centers and occasional corporate and private gigs, but it's not easy.

DTB: You do your own booking?

DM: I have an agency here in Cambridge, Golden Bough, I work with. I need a good national agent. I could really use a good agent. I’d do a lot more solo stuff. I’m known enough. I can walk into about any club and get a gig. Most agents are looking for people who are working full time. I’m more interested in doing shows where people are there to hear me play the piano. I’ve done some gigs with Troy Gonyea, Monster Mike Welch, Kevin Barry and Nicole Nelson. Marty Ballou and Marty Richards or Per Hanson and Mudcat Ward. Around town here I have a lot of contacts and I’m well known. I can pull it together pretty easily. I'll also do my Outtakes Unlimited Gallery Jazz stuff---a whole different roster of musicians.

Oh, I should mention that I did tour with Otis Rush. Went to Japan with him a couple of times in the 90's. Amazing experience. Playing with Jimmy Rogers in the mid-‘90’s. Really enjoyed that.

DTB: I’ve asked other artists about their thoughts on the where the Blues is headed. If you go into Borders Books you have to ask for help to find the Blues section. What’s your read?

DM: There are several issues there. The whole marketing of music has changed. No stores, hardly. Now you download tunes from the web. The Blues section has shrunk more and more with each passing year. The Blues that I grew up with has been receding out of favor in recent years. Not that people should treat it as a museum piece, although it’s becoming that way…so much so that one sometimes hears of a new category, like "Deep Blues" meaning "old school," basically. What is called blues music has spread out in many different directions. It's guarding against the generic commercial stuff which I think dilutes the whole genre, but, what else is new? I am for innovation…. I’m working on an album, “Blues in other Colors” which involves Indian and Near-Eastern influences. Harry Manx, the great guitarist from British Columbia, plays Blues on an instrument called the Mohan Vina; a slide guitar with sympathetic strings.

DTB: When’s the album coming out?

DM: Probably next year (’08). I haven’t finished it up. I have a new solo, live album coming out and one with Louisiana Red. We got together when he was in town. I met him years ago. Anyway, the Blues business is such that it’s geared towards guitar players who are being supported by the rest of the band. It’s not so much about the intermingling the way it was done before with the various parts. I’m not trying to say that it has to be Chicago Blues or nothing, but it’s the basic idea of musicians working off of each other. What I hear today, it’s hard to generalize, the Blues is out there. It’s the people’s music. There comes along every once in a while some guitar hero to help move it along. It’s always going to be here. What I’m saying is that it’s all out there and it’s not going away. However, the vitality that we saw from the original…how can I say this…it was the intensity that came from the original players, the ones who set the styles; that’s what we’re not seeing much of these days. You don’t get the same experience when you hear a lot of modern blues. You hear good players playing the notes…..but they might be missing the nuance. For me…it’s all about the nuance.

DTB: I sense that what I’m getting from this interview is that you have always been your own man and you seem to know right where you want to go. You have a foot in both worlds of music; Jazz & Blues and you do seem to know what’s best for David Maxwell.

DM: I guess you could say that……I may have an idea of what I'd like to do next, but, like many of us, I don't always get there.


© 2008 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved

You may contact David Maxwell at:

Website: http://www.davidmaxwell.com/
Email: davidmaxwell88@comcast.net

"Downtown" Bob Stannard is a Vermonter, Harmonica player and Blues Singer. He is the creator of the “Tubular Blues Tube,” and is recognized as a “Preferred Player” of Lee Oskar Harmonicas. You can learn more about him by visiting:
website: http://www.bobstannard.com
Email: bob@bobstannard.com

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