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MAXJAZZ founder Richard McDonnell dies

Ron Scott | 2/20/2014, 4:32 p.m.
Richard McDonnell

Richard McDonnell, who started the small independent record label MAXJAZZ in his living room in St. Louis and went on to gain international attention in the jazz world, died on Feb. 8 at St. Louis University Hospital. He was 68.

McDonnell died from complications he suffered from a stroke the evening before, as confirmed by his son Clayton.

A memorial service was held last week at Bopp Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo. McDonnell was cremated.

McDonnell was a major staple of the St. Louis jazz scene long before he founded MAXJAZZ Records. The day before his death, he had enjoyed seeing Bill Charlap and three consecutive nights of Houston Person performances.

“Rich was always an ardent supporter of the St. Louis jazz scene. He was an original member of Jazz St. Louis’ board of directors,” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis. “He cared about the musicians and he was a discerning listener. His thing was to go out and listen, whether it was at the Bistro, the Sheldon, Robbie’s House of Jazz or the Kranzberg.”

As a record company president, McDonnell periodically travelled to New York City to visit its many jazz clubs. He was a low-key gentleman who had a habit of paying to get into clubs rather than announce his status as president of MAXJAZZ. He was known by musicians and club owners alike. He was someone who you could talk to about jazz all night and the fact that he owned a label may not even come up.

McDonnell was an extremely nice person and always the gentleman with a good sense of humor. He often travelled and hung out in the city with his sons Carter and Clayton McDonnell, who ran the label with him. Clayton McDonnell will continue to run MAXJAZZ.

“He left a great legacy, and I’ve been lucky to have been with him on that journey,” said Clayton McDonnell.

Richard McDonnell’s New York visits gave him an opportunity to see a variety of musicians, including some of his young recording artists like Carla Cook, LaVerne Butler, Dena DeRose, Jeremy Pelt, Claudia Acuna, Ben Wolfe, Rene Marie, Phillip Emanuel, Terrell Stafford, Russell Malone and Mulgrew Miller, who have since gone on to greater heights, but their careers had a lot to do with the insight of McDonnell.

“It was such an honor to be invited by Richard McDonnell to launch his MAXJAZZ label nationwide as his publicist and to work with him and his son Clayton for four years as they developed the label into a class act,” said Jana LaSorte, founder and president of Janlyn PR. “Richard had an infectious joy for jazz and for sharing artists’ stories. How often do people get to make their daydream fantasies come true?”

The nationally distributed label is one of the few that categorizes its genres into its “Vocal Series,” “Piano Series,” “Horn Series,” “String Series” and “St. Louis Series.”

A native of Kirkwood, McDonnell started the company in 1997 while he was still working as an investment banker for AG Edwards. He eventually left the company to give his full attention to the jazz label, which now has a catalog of over 80 vocal and instrumental recordings. Initially, the label focused on St. Louis artists, but it wasn’t long before the vision broadened to the national scene.