Sitting in an outdoor cafe for lunch the other day, Richard McDonnell mentioned he was working on just three hours of sleep.
The former investment banker, who founded and runs the small, independent record label MAXJAZZ, was up nearly the entire night before in St. Louis, reading up on key buyers at record retail chains.
Now he was in Washington for an afternoon meeting at the Kennedy Center, then had plans to go to Chicago the next day to see one of the singers on his roster, Carla Cook, perform at the Chicago Jazz festival.
This whirlwind schedule is not unusual for McDonnell, who you might run into at a jazz conference, or in a club in New York City or in New Orleans checking out a new artist.
In fact, if you travel in jazz circles there’s a good chance you’ve been in the same room with him at one time or another.
While that might seem typical for someone in the record business, what’s unusual is that McDonnell is in “retirement” after a 30-odd year career. Instead of playing golf or indulging in other leisure pursuits, McDonnell has flung himself head-first into the music business.
This career transition didn’t happen suddenly. He started heading down this path in 1996, when he began devoting a growing portion of his time to his passion, jazz.
“I was carrying the equivalent of two briefcases all the time,” he said. “Basically the record label consumed most of my personal time.”
His idea was to record artists who exist just under the radar, and give them a chance that a bigger record company would be loathe to take.
While still working in his job at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, he produced a vocal series that won critical acclaim, and then followed it up with a piano series. (He finally retired from the investment firm in March 2002, taking an early retirement package.)
A number of MAXJAZZ artists have made it onto the jazz record charts. Carla Cook was nominated for a Grammy for her first record “It’s All About Love.” She’s following that with her second disc, “Simply Natural.”
While the label also won accolades from the jazz press, McDonnell seems to be following his gut. His records aim for the straight-ahead niche in the music, one that is accessible and authentic.
He’s won support from musicians who might not have made the cut at major record labels, concerned as the mainstream companies are about posting big sales. He has found many of his artists through the recommendations of other musicians.
The approach caught the attention of the Kennedy Center, which has been steadily building its own jazz performance program under the artistic direction of pianist Billy Taylor.
“One of the reasons we are working with them (MAXJAZZ) is to bring artists who are talented, but not have not yet achieved marquee value, and expose them to Washington audiences,” said Derek Gordon, vice president for education and jazz at the Kennedy Center.
A case in point is pianist Mulgrew Miller, who, though admired by jazz musicians and critics, has never managed to break out as a leader despite a major record label deal several years ago.
Miller is due to release “The Sequel” on MAXJAZZ this month. He will also will open up a new venue at the Kennedy Center this week, the KC Jazz Club, which seats 120 in an intimate setting.
He’s followed by a roster of the label’s artists at the club over the next two weekends – a first of this kind of extensive venue for MAXJAZZ.
While the deal might be read as an endorsement of what McDonnell has accomplished in a short time, it also represents a meeting of like minds.
“It’s unusual that a record label executive would take this kind of interest in developing their young artists,” Gordon, who is eager to support that kind of approach, said.
“I think he’s just doing what he loves doing,” he added, an assessment McDonnell would not argue with.
After all, he could be enjoying a leisurely retirement.