This week’s Artist You Should Know is saxophonist Shawn Maxwell who will be performing with his group at the Jazz Showcase, July 21-24 and celebrating the release of his new recording Expectation and an Experience which was recorded during the pandemic. We talked with Shawn about his background, jazz music and the upcoming performance. Plus, we asked him 5 Random Questions Not About Music, just to keep it interesting!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where did you grow up?
Shawn Maxwell: I was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois. So I wasn’t far from Chicago ever. One of the great things about Joliet was the fantastic band program and history behind it.
CJM: Your main instrument is saxophone, what drew you to it?
Maxwell: I started playing clarinet in fourth grade and did that all the way through high school and didn’t really start saxophone until my first year at Joliet Junior College. The head of the music department at that time, Jerry Lewis, needed an alto player for the jazz band, so he asked me if I could figure it out. I knew nothing about saxophone or jazz at that point. I’m very grateful that Jerry made the suggestion because it opened up a whole world that I never knew existed. CJM: Was there a specific artist or experience that motivated you to learn more about jazz music?
Maxwell: What really hooked me into jazz was the individual voice that each person could have. I could listen to 10 professional jazz saxophonists in a row and they were all great but they all sounded completely different. Each had their own individual tone, style and approach. I just thought it was very cool that you could do that. Again, prior to attending Joliet Junior College I wasn’t aware that any of this was a thing. I also found it very interesting that most of the artist that I was drawn to were composers as well. How cool is it that you can perform and do these great things but also say that you wrote all the songs? I think the more I learned about Duke Ellington is originally what made me want to be not only a jazz musician but also a composer. During a jazz history class I remember Jerry Lewis sharing with us that Duke had over 100 notable compositions. I remember thinking at that point man it would be cool to try to do something like that.
CJM: Did you attend college for music? If so where and why that specific school?
Maxwell: I did attend school for music. As I’ve mentioned I was at Joliet Junior College for two years, which really set me up for my path. I then transferred to Millikin University in Decatur Illinois. Millikin was great because of the instructors there. Also at that time I was really still a clarinetist figuring out saxophone. So I had a lot of catching up to do. The saxophone instructor, Perry Rask, was both a mixture of gentle and really hard on me, which I very much needed. I continued studying clarinet as well with the professor there at the time, Dr. Bill, King. So I wasn’t abandoning the clarinet or classical music I was just adding saxophone and jazz. I’ve always wanted to be a well-rounded musician so I’m happy that I could do that. I know at certain schools they force you to pick one or the other. Millikin is also where I started arranging and composing music under the tutelage of Dr. Dave Burdick. He was really instrumental in showing me how tunes and songs actually work.
CJM: What experience or performance helped you decide you could turn music into a career?
Maxwell: Well, the start of my career was rocky at first. I had no idea how the business or scene worked. I just assumed that people would hear that I graduated from college and start calling me for gigs. To my amazement, that didn’t happen. Ha. It took me a while to figure out not only do you need to be able to be proficient on your instrument/style but there is an entire business and hang that you need to be in. Once I started putting that together things started working out. I cannot pinpoint one gig or experience that made me think that I could do this. I do know a couple years after graduating I was working and traveling with a lot of different bands so much that I had to start saying no to gig offers coming in. Something I thought I would never be in a position to do. So yeah, maybe I can do this.
CJM: July 21-24, 2022 you will have your group at the legendary Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Tell us about the performance. Who is performing with you, what repertoire people can expect to hear and is there a special reason behind the performance?
Maxwell: This Thursday through Sunday we will be at the Showcase. It’s always cool to perform there. Like many others we were sidetracked a bit by Covid. This will be our first return to the showcase since the pandemic. Last year we put out an album dedicated to 2020 and all the craziness that happened throughout the year. So we will be celebrating that release this weekend. That album is called Expectation and an Experience. It was recorded in the heart of the pandemic and features myself and 29 other musicians. At the time it was recorded there were no vaccines, and things were very uncertain. So, none of us were ever actually in the room together when we did this. I would record my part and send it to the next person, who would then do their part at their home and send it to the next person after that. It was a very different and cool process that we went about. In the end we have a 17 track suite that covers many different subjects with many different sounds. I am very proud of that album and excited to be able to do it live in front of people this weekend. The band will feature all musicians from the album. Each night we will spotlight one special guest.
On Thursday will be joined by guitarist Zvonimir Tot. Friday percussionist Kalyan Pathak joins us. Saturday my friend and trumpeter Chad Mccullough will be there. Sunday will be featuring Craig Elliot. Will Kurk joins us on Thursday and Friday to cover the piano and keyboard roll. And then Collin Clauson takes over for him on Saturday and Sunday. Michael Barton will be holding down the bass chair all four nights. Lucas Gillan will be the drummer on Saturday night and Greg Essig will be covering all the other nights. Oh yeah, everything that will be playing will be available on CD and vinyl so make sure to join us!
5 Random Questions Not About Music
Do you have a favorite restaurant you would like everyone to know about? I don’t know if I have a favorite restaurant. On the rare times that I do go out to eat I like to get greasy/unhealthy stuff. Ha. One of my favorite places is in Joliet called Joe’s hot dogs. It’s a brown bag of french fries that you can see through because of the grease, along with a sign above the front door that says, “we salt everything.” Equivalent in Chicago would probably be Maxwell Street or maybe Freddy’s, right down the road from White Sox Park. I promise I don’t eat that unhealthy all the time though.
If someone sees you at a gig what’s your favorite drink so they can buy you one? My favorite drink would definitely be bad beer. I mean I think it’s good but most other people would think it’s bad. I don’t want to name any specific brand here because I don’t want anyone to be mad at me but if you’ve ever ordered a beer style ironically, I probably like it.
Music is a lot like sports but different. Do you have a favorite sports team? I’ve never been a big football guy. I enjoy basketball and follow the bulls somewhat. I love baseball and am, unfortunately, a long time Chicago White Sox fan. Going back to an earlier question about how I knew I was going to make it in music… Being a White Sox fan for 30+ years will toughen you up and be able to do anything. Ha. Here’s to hoping that the White Sox bats can stay alive in the second half of the season and turn things around from what his first half his been. Go Sox.
What is one activity outside of music that you really enjoy? The one activity that I do a lot, or at least the one that takes the most time, would be running. Years ago I had run a few marathons and a bunch of half marathons. In about 2017 I just got away from it. When the pandemic hit I got back to running pretty much every day and racking up the miles. It’s good for me to run and just think through things I want to work on, what I need to get done and what I want to accomplish. It’s also has helped me shave off about 20 pounds in the last two years. I just beat my previous record of fastest time for a half marathon a few weeks ago. Currently I’m training for the Chicago marathon coming up in October. Shooting for somewhere around four hours for a finish time.
When you are taking the day off what’s the favorite way to spend it? Day off? I’m not sure what that is but on the rare occasion tat happens… Baseball, beer, live music and television. Not necessarily in that order but mixed around somewhere would be pretty cool.
Visit www.shawnmaxwell.com for more information on shows and the new recording.