A Tale of Two Maxwells:
Maxwell Chandler interviews Max Perkoff
MC: What is your earliest musical memory?
MP:I can still remember sitting on our apartment floor in
San Francisco, listening to my dad jamming with friends. Of course I dont
remember who, and the whole thing is a foggy memory as I was 3 or 4 years old,
but its there. In the mid-1960s, the musicians could have been the
drummers Smiley Winters, Shep Shepherd, even Elvin Jones. Bassists Paul Smith,
Puzzy Ferth. Thelonious Monk had breakfast at our house, so I undoubtedly heard
him showing my father things at the piano. So many others.
MC: You come from an impressive musical lineage, your
father Si Perkoff studied classical piano, jazz harmony with Hal Overton in the
50s and was the house pianist at Bop-City. Was there pressure to embrace
or shun the life of a musician?
MP:Oh goodness no! My parents were the anti-stage
parents. My mother is a fabulous visual artist and a major jazz fan, and
theyve always been very supportive of my musical path, but never
pressured me at all. In fact, I had to ask for piano lessons for a year or more
before they let me start at age 7. They got me terrific private teachers,
supported the music programs at my schools, and took great pride and joy from
my experiences. But it was always an artistic sharing, not a push towards
MC: A lot of people, both musicians and fans alike seem
to be able to recall that song or record which first seduced, the way one would
a first kiss or crush. Do you recall the instance when jazz first seemed to
call to you?
MP:For me it was hearing it live at home. I was drawn to
music in general right away. My fathers mother took a picture of the
first time I climbed onto our piano bench and began playing without any
help, so quite a climb. The picture shows my elated face, little body still in
diapers, and my entire right hand fitting into a whole step on the piano. I was
2 years old and already hooked on music. By the time I was old enough to buy my
own records I was already a jazzer, in love with Billie Holiday, worshiping
Bird, Bud, Diz, Basie, Louis, Duke, et al.
MC: When reading the biographies of a lot of the greats,
one often encounters in their personal mythos, early days of horrible jobs both
musical and otherwise. These times in the trenches seemed to strengthen their
resolve, serving as a catalyst to move them onward and upward. At the start of
your career had you found yourself part of this tradition?
MP:Oh boy! I dont know if I should say fortunately
or unfortunately! I suppose my earlier experiences did strengthen my resolve,
but they also took me away from the path, so its a mixed bag. I had
day-jobs in my 20s in record stores & restaurants, even a night
janitor job one summer, but always gigging as much as possible at the same
time. The big detour was teaching classroom music for 8 years in a row, 12
years cumulatively in my 20s and 30s. That was a marvelous growing
experience for me as a human being. Ultimately it became clear that performing
and composing was where my focus belonged.
MC: Do you recall the first instance when you felt like a
musician, what served to convey that initial feeling of legitimacy?
MP:Yes, at the age 10 in 5th grade I was
sitting with my parents at what was probably my first school concert. I was
playing trombone in band. I turned to my mom and said something like
Im so happy to be a part of all this. After my last
8th grade school concert my parents, band director and orchestra
director were all there when I announced to them that I was going to be a
professional musician. One of them answered Is that a promise or a
MC: I have heard some musicians say that they no longer
seek out new stuff to listen to, while others listen to only what they have
always known and liked. What are your listening habits like and how important a
component are they to both your playing and composing?
MP:This is enormously important. I listen to music nearly
every day. I seek out new sounds and perspectives. This only enhances my
experience and technical absorption of earlier styles like swing and bop. The
Bad Plus is a group I enjoy a lot. I feel a real kinship with their approach to
mixing any styles if it suits them. Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and David
Liebman are increasing influences these days as I listen to them more and more.
Yet I still hear new joys in Louis, Teagarden, JJ, Monk, and certainly Chick
Corea & Keith Jarrett. I listen a lot to trombonist Conrad Hurwig too. So I
see I hear listening as inseparable from the process of playing
and composing. Its all one.
MC: To create your art, are there any necessary rituals
MP:It helps to eat and sleep with some regularity! Of
course, some of my best stuff playing and compositions come out of
anger, frustration, elation, sleep-deprivation, sudden intense feelings of all
kinds. Theres no formula or set of rituals that Im aware of. Ah,
well there is one, and thats regular practice and performance. And now
that youve got me thinking more deeply about this, I have a goal of
training my self to take more time with everything, breathe more fully, develop
my improvisation more completely not just my solos, but all of the music
making my band makes together, collectively. I saw Wayne Shorters quartet
earlier this month, and it was amazing! He and Danillo Perez, John Pattatucci,
and Brian Blade, played 40 minute symphonies that combined jazz, classical, and
pop structures. There was never a moment when a soloist was playing over the
band. The balance between written composition and very free improv was
stunning. I want to go there, personally, and with my band.
MC: Has or does location play into how you approach your
art, whether it is writing, performing or recording?
MP:Actually, it does play a role. It isnt black and
white though. If Im playing at a festival to hundreds of people,
theres the tendency to stay away from quiet tunes, ballads. But if the
audience is listening, they love it, so the energy of the audience is more
important than the space. When I write, its usually in my home studio, a
quiet private space.
MC: Where do you draw your inspiration from? I think the
best artists regardless of medium know their antecedents and build off of that.
What music/musicians do you go to for mental/spiritual nourishment and
MP:Wow, lots of places really. Originally of course, it
was the bebop and boogie-woogie of my father, who is a life-long source of
inspiration. Charlie Parker, JJ Johnson, Art Tatum, James P Johnson, Monk, Bud,
Frank Rosolino & Frank Rehak who I studied with for a few months
Coltrane, and many more well known greats of the first 60 years of jazz.
The music of Stravinsky, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Steve Reich, and others are
also important to me. As I mentioned earlier The Bad Plus, Wayne Shorter, Dave
Liebman, Joe Henderson, Conrad Hurwig, Keith Jarrett, these are some of my
current influences. I also get a lot of spiritual nourishment as you put it,
from the sound of childrens choirs, from heartfelt folk music, especially
of Africa and the Middle East.
MC: Are there artists in other mediums which fuel your
MP:Well, in addition to those already mentioned,
theres Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Leonard Bernstein, Joe Alessi
(principal trombonist with the New York Philharmonic), and certainly the work
of my classical trombone teachers, Mark Lawrence (SF Symphony) during high
school and M. Dee Stewart (Philadelphia Orchestra) at I.U.
MC: Do you have a project you have always wanted to do
which as of yet remains an unrealized ambition?
yes. My new CD is coming out in April and I
want to tour with my band. That sounds like a generic musician wish, but
its an written plan of mine for 2008. I also have a book called The
Undying Flame, ballads and songs of the Holocaust which Id like to
work into a recording and/or concert series. Ideally Id like to arrange
the songs for voice and small ensemble. Something similar to the
instrumentation of Stravinskys LHistoire du Soldat.
MC: What is fascinating about jazz and obvious to anyone,
like myself who has a mania for reading everything they can get their hands on
is that with jazz you can almost draw a family tree through the different eras
with direct artistic lines of descendancy. (i.e a young Miles played with Bird,
then broke away to start his own group which featured the young sax
.) Do you think jazz is losing or has lost its informal mentor
attitude? As even the young lions of the 60s begin to disappear will
torches no longer be passed?
MP:There has been a tradeoff between the Jazz Messengers
model youre describing and formal university training such as I got at
Indiana University School of Music. I think the old school is far better, but
is simply economically impractical, even more so than in the 1960s and
70s. But it continues in Wyntons groups, and with Gary Burton
who got his start with Stan Getz and is now mentoring guitarist Julian Lage who
studied privately for years with Randy Vincent, the guitarist in The Max
Perkoff Band. Both structures are needed for jazz musicians to make it in the
Ive been very fortunate to play with many top-notch
musicians who are 10 30 years my senior since I started sitting in as a
teenager. Its essential to the development of the music and the
musicians. You know, Jamey Aebersolds jazz camps are a great combination
of these two models. I attended one in 1981 at the age of 19. The formal study
was a continuation of what I had already begun at I.U. (Jamey went to I.U. as
well), plus I spent a week in a quintet being coached by David Liebman, with
music theory classes by Hal Galper! Only one week, but the fire it lit is still
MC: Jazz is one of the least static of all the arts, with
plenty of room left for innovation, mixing in components of world music,
classical even turnbulism. Yet Jazz consumers in America make up one of the
smallest percentages of the CD buying public. Part of the problem is lack of
promotion which keeps sales and even awareness low, the whole thing becoming a
sort of cultural/retail catch-22. Can this be fixed? Are things improving?
Regardless of what you thought of the actual documentary, there seemed to have
been a brief break in the clouds when Ken Burns Jazz series came out. How do
you read the current climate in the states, the state of jazz?
MP:The Ken Burns documentary definitely put a spotlight
on the music for a while, all to the good. Unfortunately, his taste kept the
spotlight from most of the living jazz musicians who deserve it Wayne,
Herbie, and so on. All in all, a positive thing though. The marketing of the
music is a big ol elephant! My personal theory is that the word jazz
turns at least as many people off as it turns on, mostly due to the lack of
exposure most people have to creative music. But CD buying is going down
because of the internet. Very soon downloading will be the only way to get
anything. I would have released my new album online only but for the need and
desire to sell them at live performances. But soon, if a fan at a live
performance wants to, theyll just open their i-phone or whatever, go on
line, buy just the tunes they want, all from their seat at the gig! You could
do that now for a lot of bands. Its coming. Will that be good or bad? If
the artist makes enough money to break even or make a profit, or garner new and
better gigs, its positive. I remain cautiously optimistic!
Youre absolutely right about the space jazz has for
innovation. It exists only because of genre-mixing. Blues, Gospel,
field-holler, ragtime, etc all intertwined to make the music of Buddy Bolden,
Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. Its just opened its arms wider
with each passing decade.
MC: Is a live setting an important aspect of your
artistic life? When you play live is there a different mind set to what you are
doing compared to the studio and what you want to achieve? If you had to
concentrate more on one or the other which would be your preference?
MP:Live, live, live! Thats where its at,
where the connection between musicians is really made, and between musicians
and audience. Recording has two primary purposes for me: Making the best
addition to the historical record I can, and generating gigs. Like anyone else
of course, I also want to hone my skills in both arenas, and do the best I can
to leave good music behind me when I move on.
MC: Some of my musical heroes are alive, well and still
recording and touring. What I have noticed though, is for a lot of them, their
new records as opposed to some of their classic Blue Note 60s sides,
sound almost too clean. Its not a matter of physically having lost speed
or anything like that, it just all sounds too perfect as if each
band member recorded their part separately. There is an almost digital flatness
to it. I have noticed that on the CDs of yours which I have heard, there is an
organic cadence to everything, it sounds like a band playing a song, together.
When recording do you make a conscious effort to avoid or emulate any
particular way of doing things to achieve that warm ambient effect?
MP:Hey, thank you very much for that. I have tried
mightily to produce recordings that are live or as close to live sound as
possible. Off The Ground (2000) and Amazing Space
(2005) were recorded live in the studio. Very minimal overdubs were used, a
note here or there, very few. My new recording, Infinite Search, The Max
Perkoff Band used a few more studio tricks, but is mostly recorded live.
You do the best you can with the time and money youve got! The warmth and
intimacy of the sound is also very important to me. The credit goes in equal
amounts to the musicians on each date and to recording engineer Gary Mankin.
Im happy to say that the album I did with Roswell Rudd and Monks
Music Trio (2006) was also recorded live in the studio. Also just a small
handful of overdubs, 99% of it was complete takes. Engineer Chris Siefert
deserves to share credit for that.
MC: From its civil rights aspects to being banned right
up until the late 80s in some communist countries in Eastern Europe, Jazz
has always had as a component of its make-up freedom, artistic and social.
Obviously at times these things were emphasized more than others. With the net
and the ability to reach more people quicker, does jazz, does art have a
responsibility to be socially conscious? Or does choosing to spend ones life
making art which is not disposable in such retail oriented times send its own
MP:Yes and yes. I believe people have a responsibility to
make the world a bit better. There are an infinite number of ways we can do
this of course. An old Jewish proverb goes It is not our job to complete
the work, merely to carry it on. I got that from my dear grandmother
Molly, and it guides my life still. Ive designed a civil rights music
assembly and have performed it at a middle school and an elementary school with
great success. It includes plenty of student participation while honoring and
discussing MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, civil & human rights in general, and of
course music from my band.
But remember, music thats meant to be purely artistic,
abstract, can nonetheless take on specific meaning, political or otherwise, in
a new context. An example would be the way Paul Desmonds Take
Five was effectively used in the movie Pleasantville to
convey revolutionary individualism.
MC: Everybody is online now. Has this helped the arts or
hurt it? Do we have a nation of hobbyist seeking legitimacy with their blogs
while shouting Look at me! I think there are people out there with
potential, but the instant gratification of seeing their works displayed online
proves too powerful. Those willing to woodshed it are now in the minority. The
potential to truly develop chops and a voice, sacrificed for early exposure.
How do you view this digital sirens call?
MP:Yah, very interesting. What a revolution this
continues to be. Its as positive as one makes it to be. Just like the
4-trak tape recorder and then software for home recording, the internet has
allowed more people to make recordings, write blogs, and look professional
without having worked hard. Yet its like a public library. Some of the
books suck, but it sure is fabulous to get the great ones you know you like as
well as browse for new inspiration. Caveat Emptor.
MC: Do you find some states more receptive to jazz than
others? I am biased of course, but I have found only New York seems to be on
par with San Francisco for the amount and variety of jazz concerts and venues.
MP:Yup. I havent played Seattle, Chicago, or
Memphis, or perhaps Ann Arbor or Austin, but its hard to believe
theres a city that can match New York for sheer volume of clubs and
players. There are always jazz fans in every region however. The trick is
finding and then luring them to your gig!
MC: We are around the same age, I know for my medium I
was often told from the get-go that I could spend my life writing but never be
published or discovered in my lifetime. In San Francisco there are a handful of
local heroes who played with and hung out with the greats but never became
big in their own right. We have a mini renaissance going on in that
they all seem to have landed residencies in small clubs. Having gotten to know
some of them, there is, an almost state of grace about them. Despite never
having gotten the big pay day they remain enamored of the music and show how
there is a bigger victory in being about what one does, our actions and
passions. Is this a lesson lost on younger artists coming up?
MP:I dont think so. There are so very many fine
young players coming out of university jazz programs like those at The New
School, North Texas State, I.U., and many others. In general, I think most
young players know theyre not going to get rich playing music for a
living, and the real world will show them the truth as soon as they start to do
gigs. I define success as playing well, getting the respect of my peers &
audience, enjoying myself and spreading that joy, and having a roof over my
MC: What are you currently working on?
MP:My band just finished recording Infinite
Search. Im finishing up the graphics and beginning the marketing
stage. Im also writing and arranging new stuff for the band. Im
really excited about arranging tunes Ive always loved that are not part
of the typical jazz song list, but are great music. This will include
everything from Deodato & Beatles tunes to Jewish melodies and other
indigenous music from the Middle East and elsewhere.
MC: Where can people find your new CD and keep track of
your performances schedule?
MP:Maxperkoff.com is the best place to start. Im on
iTunes, cdbaby, and dozens of other sites. The links are at my web site.
So far we have CD Release Gigs April 12, 2007 at
Jazz At Pearls in San Francisco and Oct 6, 2007 for Concerts by the Sea,
Sanchez Concert Hall, 1220A Linda Mar Boulevard, Pacifica. (650) 355 1882. Come
its gonna groove and soar!!
MC: Thank you for your time, it has been a pleasure, see
you side stage.
MP:Thank you Maxwell, I enjoyed the interview very much.
Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound