Jimmy Maxwell

Jazz musician who was every trumpet player's ideal
23 July 2002

James Kendrick Maxwell, trumpet player: born Stockton, California 9 January 1917; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 20 July 2002.

Jimmy Maxwell was one of the greatest lead trumpeters in jazz. He was consequently concerned with the trumpet section, and so recorded few solos. His most notable appearance was undoubtedly the haunting growl obbligato that he provided to Peggy Lee's vocal on Benny Goodman's hit record "Why Don't You Do Right?" in 1942.

Maxwell's career was often linked with Goodman, right up until Goodman's nightmare six-week tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. During the tour, Goodman proved to be even more abrasive and intransigent than the Russian officials, and his musicians felt imprisoned in what they regarded as Goodman's travelling gulag.

Desperately stuck in the system, Maxwell decided to do anything he could to get away from Russia and Goodman. He phoned his wife in New York and told her to send him a telegram saying that there was an emergency at home and that he was needed there instantly. She obliged and her cable read, "Come home at once. The cat died. The dog died. Everybody died."

Everybody in Maxwell's family was a musician. His grandfather had been a cornettist in an army band during the Spanish-American War and his uncle played cornet with Paul Whiteman in 1919. Maxwell began teaching himself music when he was four and during his childhood avidly absorbed the records of Louis Armstrong. He taught himself harmony from recordings by Duke Ellington and from works by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel.

He grew up in Stockton, California, alongside Gil Evans, who put together his first jazz band in 1933, and Maxwell worked in Evans's bands of the Thirties. His first name band was that led by Jimmy Dorsey (1936-37) and he worked with Maxine Sullivan and Skinny Ennis before joining Goodman for the first time in 1939.

He stayed until 1943, sitting next to fellow giants Billy Butterfield and Cootie Williams in the Goodman trumpet section. Williams was one of the first black musicians to be employed by a white band leader. Goodman had earlier employed Teddy Wilson, one of the most influential black pianists. "Benny is a very mercenary man," said Maxwell,

He's very interested in money. But he didn't want to travel in the South with Teddy in the band, so he cut off a large part of his income.

Some years later, when we played at the New Yorker, we had five or six black guys in the band. I remember the manager saying "I don't want these black guys coming in through the lobby and through the restaurant," and Benny said "Well, I'm sorry. This is my band. If you don't want them in the band then screw yourself."

He didn't give any particular race or guy a bad time. If he was giving anybody a bad time it was just because he felt that way.

When Maxwell left Goodman's band, he later recalled,

Benny had me so buffaloed I didn't think anybody would hire me. Within a week of quitting the band it seemed like everyone in the country offered. Count Basie offered me a job. "Why didn't you ever ask me before, for God's sake?" He said "I couldn't afford to pay you." And

I said "You've offered me $100 a week more than Benny was paying me!" Woody Herman, everybody offered me jobs, but I was determined to stay in town.

Based in New York, Maxwell joined the CBS staff orchestra in 1943 and stayed there for two years. Then he moved to the Perry Como Show in 1945 and played in the band there for 20 years. He also worked in the NBC Symphony Orchestra and made innumerable recordings. Amongst the big bands he worked in were those led by Quincy Jones, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Oliver Nelson.

He deputised for one of Duke Ellington's trumpeters during the famous 1956 Newport Festival performance and in 1961 replaced Cat Anderson in the Ellington band for three weeks. When Ellington died, Maxwell played regularly in the "ghost" band led by Ellington's son Mercer. He was also one of the distinguished trumpeters who toured with the New York Jazz Repertory Company and its Louis Armstrong Tribute Band in 1975.

Amidst all this Maxwell became a mainstay at the NBC studios for 14 years from 1960. When he left the studios he taught privately and produced a tutorial manual for lead trumpet players, The First Trumpeter.

While he was working at NBC he heard a bagpipe band in Madison Square Gardens one day and was moved to tears. His wife bought him some pipes and he took lessons. His teacher insisted that he should wear a kilt. "You don't have to march in the parade, but you can't do it without a kilt." Maxwell protested that he had no intention of being a part of any parade. But the pressure was too much. He bought a kilt. "As I marched down 5th Avenue past NBC I thought 'Oh, God. I hope nobody comes out and sees me.'" He was in each St Patrick's Day parade for the next six years.

It was while he was at NBC that Goodman approached Maxwell to be one of the star musicians in the band for the Russian tour. Maxwell didn't want to go to Russia, but Goodman kept raising his offer. He also applied pressure and Maxwell had a call from one of the NBC bosses to tell him that it would be all right to take the six weeks off. Someone called from the State Department and suggested that it was Maxwell's duty as a patriot to make the trip. "I take care of my patriotic duty," Maxwell replied, "by paying my income tax." The man from the State Department said "Yes, and we can look into that, too."

Goodman suggested that Maxwell's son David could travel as the band boy and showed him the duties involved in setting up music stands and so on. Maxwell relented and agreed to travel. In Leningrad, five weeks into the tour, Goodman's secretary gave Maxwell a bill for David's living costs at $32 a day. Maxwell confronted Goodman with the bill and reminded him of the agreement they had made. Goodman denied that he had ever agreed to David being the band boy. Defeated, Maxwell told Goodman "Have the Russians give me a bill. I'll pay them, not you." The Soviet travel agency charged Maxwell $10 a day, not $32.

Maxwell played solo trumpet on the soundtrack of the 1972 film The Godfather and made many film appearances with the various bands in which he worked.

He was every trumpet player's ideal and probably summed himself up in an incident when he was leading the trumpet section at a recording date. One of the other trumpeters had a question about phrasing a certain passage. "How are you going to play this?" Maxwell smiled comfortably at the man. "Beautifully," he said.

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