Wherever real jazz was happening in St. Louis, there was a strong chance Richard McDonnell was there.
McDonnell, one of St. Louis' most omnipresent jazz figures and founder of the Webster Groves-based, MAXJAZZ Records, died Saturday (Feb. 8, 2014) at St. Louis University Hospital. He was 68.
McDonnell had been attending a concert by Houston Person and the Bill Charlap Trio Friday night at Jazz at the Bistro, his third night in a row in attendance during Person’s multinight stand, when he suffered a stroke and was taken to St. Louis University Hospital.
His son Clayton McDonnell, who ran MAXJAZZ with his father, said the family took him off life support Saturday night knowing he would not want to live in that condition.
Clayton McDonnell said his father was an organ donor; he learned Monday morning his father's liver and kidneys were given to three individuals, and that his bone marrow and tissues were saved.
Richard McDonnell's body will be cremated.
McDonnell, a Kirkwood native, started the Grammy-nominated MAXJAZZ Records in his living room while he was working as an investment banker for AG Edwards, which he eventually left behind to focus on the label full time.
The nationally distributed label specializes in jazz music and breaks the genre down to several series including its Vocal Series, Piano Series, Horn Series, String Series and St. Louis Series.
The first MAXJAZZ record was “Two Roads" by area quartet Brilliant Corners in 1997.
Initially, the label focused on St. Louis artists but it wasn’t long before the vision broadened. “Our original intention was to concentrate on Greater St. Louis in terms of talent, and that's still an objective. But it's not my only objective,” Richard McDonnell told the Post-Dispatch in 1999.
Among the musicians who have recorded for MAXJAZZ are Russell Malone, Mulgrew Miller, John Proulx, Carla Cook, Terell Stafford, Ben Wolfe, LaVerne Butler, Rene Marie, Dena DeRose, Christine Hitt, Claudia Acuna, Jeremy Pelt and Phillip Manuel. St. Louis artists include Peter Martin, Erin Bode, the Kennedy Brothers and Mardra and Reggie Thomas.
Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director for Jazz St. Louis, called McDonnell a friend.
“Rich was always an ardent supporter of the St. Louis jazz scene,” Bradford said. McDonnell was an original member of Jazz St. Louis’ board of directors.
“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, the Kranzberg.”
McDonnell and Bradford traveled to New York annually in January to attend the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, where they eyed potential acts for the upcoming Jazz St. Louis season.
“He always encouraged us to reach out and explore things,” Bradford said.
Bradford says McDonnell played a part in the development of young jazz artists. “When they were young, Rich was listening to them and encouraging them. They all remember how supportive he was back in the day.”
One of those artists is pianist Peter Martin, who recorded two CDs for MAXJAZZ. Martin used to go to Community School in Ladue with one of McDonnell’s sons, and Martin said McDonnell remembered him playing piano at school assemblies as a boy.
Martin called MAXJAZZ “the Blue Note Records of our time, our generation. It has great singers, great production and a classy design. He really set a high standard. He was one of those guys everyone wanted to meet and record for.”
Martin and McDonnell were in talks to do a third album.
Jazz bassist Jahmal Nichols says McDonnell always supported his craft beginning when played in high school 15 years ago.
“He was always there, morally supporting you at your gigs. I would even see him at the hole in the walls. There wasn’t a spot he didn’t go to to support musicians in town,” Nichols says.
Clayton McDonnell will continue to run MAXJAZZ Records. “He left a great legacy, and I’ve been lucky to have been with him on that journey,” he said.
A memorial service will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday at Bopp Chapel in Kirkwood, 10610 Manchester Road.
Bradford said a musical tribute to McDonnell will take place at Jazz at the Bistro with details to be announced.
Among McDonnell’s survivors are Arthur McDonnell (brother), St. Louis; Kenneth McDonnell (brother), St. Louis; Diana Hadley (sister), St. Louis; Mary Carole McDonnell (sister), Los Angeles; Boyd McDonnell (son), Los Angeles; Carter McDonnell (son), Los Angeles; Clayton McDonnell (son), St. Louis; and three grandchildren.
McDonnell was formerly married to Cynthia McDonnell of St. Louis.
In lieu of flowers, donations should go to Jazz St. Louis, 3547 Olive Street, Suite 260, St. Louis, Mo. 63103.