Saxophonist and vocalist Max Wagner, a longtime local jazz fixture, named his latest album Gratitude for good reason.
“The main thing I feel about my life in music and my experiences as a musician is just gratitude — just grateful,” he says. “All along, I have been so blessed that I’ve been the recipient of so much musical training from the musicians themselves. The musicians I work with and the musicians who were kind enough to talk to a kid, a young player who walked up to them in a bar.”
Wagner recalls the first time he saw Billy Tolles (who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Ray Charles), he approached the tenor saxophonist and began asking him questions about the saxophone and playing jazz.
“He sat down in a booth with me and started telling me things,” Wagner says. “It’s gone that way the whole way. I’ve just been so blessed. The people that love this music have been so generous to me, and I feel so grateful.”
Then there was the great tenor saxophonist Red Holloway, whom Wagner performed with at El Chapultepec. While they were on the bandstand, Holloway called Sonny Stitt’s “Eternal Triangle,” and Wagner admitted he didn’t know the tune.
“So Red spent our breaks the rest of that night teaching me that song in the back room of the ’Pec, note by note,” Wagner says. “He learned it directly from Sonny Stitt. He taught me that song phrase by phrase, note by note, and we closed that night playing that song. And he took the time to do that for me.”
Wagner says that part of the jazz musicians’ willingness to pass on knowledge to other players is their tremendous love of the art form. “They want it to be done right,” he adds. “And then the fact that they just superimpose that love to everybody who wants to play well. Man, it’s just part of this tradition. I mean, they got lifted up, and they’re right there to lift you up. It’s astounding the things that have happened, the people that have taken the time.”
In addition to some of the internationally known jazz players who have played El Chapultepec, Wagner says he’s also learned things from local musicians like bassist Ken Walker and pianists Eric Gunnison and Jeff Jenkins, who all appear on Gratitude, Wagner’s third album as a leader and the 74th recording that he’s played on.
While Wagner is in fine form on standards like “Stella by Starlight,” “Bluesette” and “Lullaby of Birdland,” there are also four original cuts, some of which came to him fairly quickly. “Sailing,” for example, was composed within a few minutes after he and his wife Karen were watching sailboats from the shore, while “Karen’s Calypso” is about his wife just being really happy.
“She was getting ready to go out the door and go do a project that she was excited about,” Wagner says, “and there was just all this energy and optimism and joy, and just the thing that is her. She’s just a fantastically up person, a really strong, faithful person who just has a tremendous positive outlook on things. While she was going and talking about what she was going to do, I was standing there with my horn and this song started to happen. And she went through the door, and about three minutes later I had the whole tune. It was just there; the whole song just came because of the experience of being there.”
Wagner essentially goes through the history of jazz on the lyrics “That’s What Jazz Is,” touching on places like New Orleans and Kansas City and legends like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Moten, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and more. The galloping “Chapult-A-Bop” is Wagner’s ode to El Chapultepec, where he led the house band four nights a week from 1996 to 2000.
“It’s about that sensation of being at El Chapultepec on the bandstand on one of those crazy summer Saturday nights where there’s this sensation that people are almost flying through the air,” Wagner says. “I mean, just people are literally being catapulted back and forth across the room. It’s so wild, so that’s why the tempo is up and it’s really complex, and it’s got all these things going on the melody that turn back.”
Listening to Gratitude, it’s clear that Wagner has a firm grasp on the alto saxophone, which is his main horn these days after playing tenor for many years, and that he’s schooled in jazz and beyond, but a lot of what he learned was on the bandstand and not in the classroom. While he grew up playing along with the now-defunct jazz station KADX and albums from his father’s record collection, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Sessions and An Electrifying Evening With the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, Wagner started playing professionally not too long after he graduated from high school and got a chance work with blues, R&B and soul legends like Bo Diddley, Rufus Thomas and Paul Butterfield in the ’70s.
“I have a different route,” Wagner says, “which of course is the same route that Charlie Parker and [John] Coltrane had. They both paid their dues in that end of the music, and then they came back to the modern jazz, because that’s what they were after in the first place. It changes the way you play. It changes the way you communicate.
“Something that is, perhaps, different about cats like me is that I really learned so much about playing, so much about making music on the bandstand in front of an audience. We toured relentlessly for years. Just night after night, town after town, getting up there and making it happen. So it’s really different coming out of the practice room at the community college. It’s coming out of bandstands and sweat and turmoil, fighting for it, living or dying by it, and living and breathing the experience of making that music.”
While Gratitude is about the things he’s learned along the way as a musician, he also tries to pass on his wisdom to other players. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert once told Wagner, “This music belongs to you as much as it belongs to anyone,” and Wagner echoed a similar sentiment to a young musician who approached him at a gig a few years ago. He told Wagner, “I’m thinking of quitting because I hear all the great players and just don’t see.... What is the use of me doing this? What can I contribute?”
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Wagner says, “and I stopped him cold right there and I said, ‘Hey, man, only you can tell your story. Only you can play your heart. This is your thing. It’s your art form, and you’re held up to that standard. The standard is, ‘Are you expressing you? Are you getting it done there?’ That’s what counts. Only you can know your story.”
Max Wagner, 7 & 9 p.m., Thursday, June 9, Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge, 303-839-5100, $8-$12.
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