Josh Maxey is a Denver Jazz Guitar player who shares with us his musical background; how hearing John Coltrane changed everything; his relationship with Jazz greats Chico Hamilton and Rodney Jones; and how – in three years – he’s released ten CD’s resulting in over 50 original tunes with twenty musicians! An inspiring and entertaining read.
“I believe that when we hear music that resonates deeply we are hearing ourselves. That recognition is what I’m interested in. I find that there is a place where the line between my perception and what I am hearing becomes less and less distinguishable. For me this is the mirror of music.”
JGL: Hi Josh and thanks for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life. First off, If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
JM: I am 39.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
JM: My wife, our little daughter and I live in Denver, Colorado.
JGL: Before we begin, please give Jazz Guitar Life readers a quick “elevator pitch” of who Josh Maxey is.
JM: I’m a bandleader, composer and improviser. I have a series of 10 albums recorded in three years documenting 50 original composition recordings with 20 musicians. The 10th, Celebration of Soul, was the first on a label and to have a lot of national radio play. We just recorded number 11 back in NYC. I am a D’Angelico guitars artist. I’m also a guitar teacher and have done thousands of private guitar lessons with hundreds of students of all ability levels.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
JM: I’ve been playing about 25 years. I had my first lesson when I was 12. I actually seriously injured my first finger on my left hand a few days later and couldn’t play again for a while. It’s funny because when it happened, by far the worst thing was that I couldn’t play the guitar. Something about the guitar already felt inevitable. I remember consciously thinking that I had to choose to focus on the guitar and let go of some other interests I had that I was doing as a kid.
JGL: Were you interested in Jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before Jazz?
JM: The first thing I learned were basics of guitar, open chords and how to play songs or riffs. I learned the first 15 seconds of a lot of songs! Before jazz, I listened to music from the 60’s and 70’s. Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. My first guitar teacher played Stevie Ray Vaughan for me and the blues became my favorite thing. Those led to Coltrane.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about Jazz Guitar or Jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
JM: Oh yeah. It was about 8 minutes into my first listening of A Love Supreme. I was in the car and had just bought a tape of ALS. I was about 16. I heard everything I had ever loved in music in Coltrane’s “Resolution”. It has the deepest blues and a height of creative expression that touches the most fundamental part of ourselves, and out as far as music can reach. It was, and still is, beyond words! It was a moment of initiation. I had no idea what it would entail, but I knew that is what I wanted my life in music to be about.
JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
JM: Not exactly. School wasn’t super easy for me. Music, on the other hand, was natural. Not that I was a natural at guitar, I wasn’t. There were a few kids I knew that were further along than me but I worked really hard at it. Honestly, as far back as I can remember music felt like it would always be at the center of my life. So moving to NYC, going to The New School and then making a life in music were all just the next steps.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
JM: First guitar was a rental. I think it was a Strat shaped Ibanez and was lime green. It had what looked like paint slung on it. Thankfully that was only around for about a week because of that injury. The next was an acoustic Washburn that I learned the first few chords on maybe a year later.
My number 1 right now is a D’Angelico SS Deluxe prototype that I picked up from the NYC showroom as part of the artist deal. I also have two other D’Angelico guitars that I really love: a NYL-5 (used on all the series recordings) that is the size of an L5 but thinner, more like a 335 and a NYS-2 that is similar size as the Benson GB10 Ibanez.
JGL: What other gear are you using?
JM: I have had the same amp for 20 years. It’s a 90’s Fender Blues Deluxe. That’s the sound on all the recordings. For pedals, my favorite has been the Ditto looper. I also love my TS9, Univibe and Q-Tron+. I often broadcast on Periscope (live streaming app) using all of them to play new music I’m working out.
JGL: Who were your influences on Jazz Guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
JM: They are pretty similar. I got an album or two of everyone that my first jazz guitar teacher in Virginia recommended and still listen to my favorites of those: Wes, Grant, George and Rodney. Coltrane is still the overarching figure for composition and vibe. Later on, Rodney played Nathen Page for me and it was another revelation.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
JM: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is on repeat, like To Pimp A Butterfly was a few years ago. The new Thundercat and John Mayer records are favorite recent releases, as well as Miles Okazaki’s Trickster. I still often listen to Rodney, Grant, George, Nathan Page, McCoy, Coltrane, Phish and the Dead.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
JM: That’s easy. Rodney Jones. Couldn’t ask for a better friend or more important influence.
JGL: As a guitar student back in the day, what were some of the more important resources (method books, teachers, academia, etc.) that helped you get to where you are today and do you have any recommendations for up and coming Jazz Guitar students?
JM: Listening and guitar lessons have been my main resources. I think the thing that got me to where I am today was taking on a project that seemed equal parts exciting and unreasonable. The energy it took to make the series of 10 albums has carried my playing and work the furthest of anything I’ve done.
JGL: Do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
JM: I do, in person and on Skype. I have made a living teaching since 2003. I love teaching and some of my best friends are guitar teachers. We’re a particular breed. I teach people the same basics I learned as a kid up to the newest concepts I am now working on in technique, writing and improvising. I have a website for my teaching and anyone is welcome to contact me.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning this art form?
JM: Connect to a lineage. I believe that when we hear music that resonates deeply we are hearing ourselves. That recognition is what I’m interested in. I find that there is a place where the line between my perception and what I am hearing becomes less and less distinguishable. For me this is the mirror of music. It’s a unique gift of music to experience our-self as well as something beyond ourselves. Connect to that and do everything you can to express it on the instrument.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Are you working on anything specific?
JM: Always working on technique. That gets the all too human element in gear. I am generally playing lines and songs. The broadcasts I do on Periscope are pretty indicative of my practice (with chatting and answering questions added). I find the more time I can spend, the better and that practicing smart helps a lot.
JGL: You studied with the great Chico Hamilton at The Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at The New School. What was this experience like and what were the important take-aways from studying with such a Jazz legend?
JM: Chico taught my Introduction to Rhythm class at The New School. I did one semester of private lessons with him as well. I literally learned how to count and write down rhythms from Chico. What a gift! He’s a legend. He was very gracious. I remember he gave me his home number to call if I needed to. I only called him once but he helped me with whatever I called about. It was really an honor to learn such a central part of my musicianship from Chico. I teach my students rhythm the same way I learned from him.
JGL: On a side note, did Chico share any Jim Hall stories with you that you could share with us?
JM: We didn’t talk about Jim Hall. We talked about Rodney, since I had started to study with him around the same time. Chico was Rodney’s first gig before Dizzy. This was another connection to lineage for me. I was so happy to be connecting to the history.
JGL: Along with Chico Hamilton, you also studied at the same institution with another legendary player, Jazz Guitarist Rodney Jones! What was that experience like?
JM: It was an apprenticeship. Rodney has trained many of the best guitar players around NY. At the time Scott Hesse (who lives and plays extensively in Chicago) and Miles Okazaki (plays with Steve Coleman) were two of Rodney’s other good friends and students. There were so many guitar jam sessions where I left inspired and completely overwhelmed!
Rodney had me work on his recordings and many of his performances during that time. I got to be around everyone he worked with and even have a production assistant credit on a Blue Note record.
There is a strength that I learned playing with Rodney. I learned to walk a good bass line and we spent many hours playing and talking about music. I remember how in lessons he would give an overview of a concept and I would maybe understand 30%. He would say that the concept might be like a seed that would make more and more sense later. He was right!
JGL: And speaking of Rodney, he played on your most recent CD “Celebration of Soul”. What was it like working with such an artist and while you can definitely hold your own in such high-profile company, did you feel any pressure?
JM: I always feel pressure! Ha. That’s the human element. Rodney is on Celebration of Soul and plays on the first of the series, Incarnate. Those bookend the series. He also produced the third album, The Language of Sound and Spirit.
JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you need to bring to the table?
JM: I enjoy playing with other people’s bands. I always hope they are as happy with my contribution as I am with the musicians in my bands. I am pretty well built, concept wise, to write and lead my own groups. I love it. I don’t give very much direction to people I play with. I really just want them to play like themselves.
JGL: Is there a particular musical grouping you enjoy playing with – organ trio, quartet, etc – and if so, why?
JM: The organ trio is very practical! I have recorded organ trio, organ quartet, adding acoustic guitars, sing bowls and Native American flute played by my wife Jessica Martinez Maxey. I have also recorded piano duo and quartet as well as blues guitar duo.
The instrumentation is determined by the person playing way more so than the sonic vibe of a record or gig. In the series I just wanted to play with Brian Charette as often as possible in any setting!
For Colorado gigs I’ve played trio often, mostly with Jeff Jenkins on organ and Dameion Hines on drums. I also have recorded with Jeff on piano and Ken Walker on bass. I’ve been fortunate to play with some really great CO musicians.
JGL: With all the performers you have played with or met socially, are there any experiences or stories – positive and/or negative – that you would like to share with the readers?
JM: Being around George Benson a few times were key experiences. He was very gracious. I attended a Long Island Guitar Show with George, Rodney and Ronny Jordan. Rodney also took me over to George’s house a few times, in NJ at the time. George sat on his couch and played solo guitar for maybe half hour. We left saying it was the most amazing thing we’d ever seen. He was friendly, told stories and answered questions. As he played he looked at me like “are you getting all this?” It was another one of those experiences where the gravity of it unfolds more and more over time.
JGL: In three years you have released ten albums in, as you state on your website “…a project that has now encompassed 50 original compositions and 20 different musicians!” In short, WTF were you thinking!! 🙂
JM: Oh man. It was one of those moments. I was tired of waiting for an easier time, more money, a better opportunity, etc. I knew I had to just dive in deeply. I knew that no one was going to do it for me and I needed to go far beyond what I was comfortable with. How else could I make a case to the music’s history when so many classic recordings are at a height of human expression?
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
JM: I make a living teaching. I’ve seen as many as 25 private students a week (not counting classes) over the years. It’s not easy and you need to have a love for the students, marketing your work and a great cancellation policy. I have made a life with my family, friends, teaching, playing and recording music.
JGL: Consequently, as an independent artist/performer/educator, how do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective and would like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?
JM: I became a social media expert to connect with listeners. I was an early adopter of Twitter in the jazz world. Before Celebration of Soul the series already had 40k+ downloads, many of which were a direct result of Twitter. I have a circle of folks that share the music online and help spread the word. Before all the radio play for Celebration, I would always say my promotional organization was just me and my iPhone.
The most effective tool is communicating with listeners. I think we live in the best time to be an artist because you can find an audience online. I can’t count how many great conversations I’ve had with people that discovered the series online. Those connections end up being the most meaningful part of releasing the music. For me, it went pretty quickly from promoting music to having all these great exchanges with people. Periscope live streams epitomizes all the best qualities of connecting with new people online.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
JM: That’s a heavy one. How about this. I would love to record Thundercat with my trio. I just recorded with Brian Charette (organ) and McClenty Hunter (drums). Ideally, I’d have that trio plus Thundercat on bass for album number 12.
JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
JM: I think so. The musicians I knew back in VA were working musicians. My teacher then taught lessons and played music. That set expectations realistically. Working with Rodney for years gave a perspective of what a career could grow into.
JGL: In 2013 you and your wife moved to Denver, Colorado after a 15 year stay in the Jazz capital, New York City. No judging, but the “norm” is usually the reverse, where musicians gravitate to NYC to seek their musical future/fortune. If it’s not too personal a question, why the move and what has Denver offered you musically/professionally? Is there a decent Jazz scene in that area of the country?
JM: My wife and I had talked about moving over the years. Colorado seemed a natural choice because I had family here and we visited a few times. My mother had been sick and that was in the back of my mind. It turns out it was quicker than any of us expected and she passed away in October of 14′. I’m glad we were here.
I fell in quickly with some great people. I went to shows and called the best musicians I could to record (Completing the Cycle) a few months after moving. I’m really happy with the music here. I was grateful to find people to play with. The music is growing with them. I appreciate that.
JGL: Speaking of personal turn of events, you and your wife have recently had a baby!! First off, congrats 🙂 Secondly, and it may be too early to tell, but…what does this new addition to the Maxey household mean to you and your career in the coming weeks, months and years?
JM: Mayu just turned a year old! Her name is an Incan word that Jessica found that means the Milky Way Galaxy that’s seen in the sky. “A river of light to travel through the cosmos.” Being around her is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s like all the love I’ve ever felt with Jessica, in music and in contemplation all in one place. It’s very hard to put into words all the beautiful moments and insights with her. Life itself is more and more meaningful everyday and music is an extension of that meaning.
JGL: Similarly, how would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
JM: I want to begin touring. I would love to play a few nights in LA, MN, Chicago, VA, back in NY and surrounding states. My intent is to begin with just a night or two and grow that into a consistent part of my work over the next 5 years. If any readers have suggestions of where to play, let me know!
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
JM: Do over….It’s hard to separate the path from what I learned taking it. I would probably have a good talk with my younger selves. Let them know it’ll be ok, keep going and love as much as possible.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
JM: I’ve never had a second interest that came close to music.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
JM: In the last few years Jessica and I got really into Cesar Millan’s approach to dogs and how your way of being is communication. I walk the dogs just about every day and practice many of the energy and state of being techniques he teaches. I really enjoy that. Cesar’s approach added so much to my daily life. That’s by far my favorite hobby or study.
JGL: As we wrap this up Josh, do you have any parting advice for the younger guy or gal out there who might be considering a career as a jazz guitar player?
JM: You can do this. If you have a sound you’re hearing or searching for, you can work and make it your own. Connect to your lineage in the history and language. Get the best teacher you can. A teacher can open doors in your concept and help with technique. Many great musicians offer live video lessons. I’d say, get in touch with them and learn all you can. You can connect with anyone in the world!
JGL: Thank you so much Josh for taking the time to be on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
JM: Thank you Lyle. I am happy to do the interview and appreciate the help spreading the word about the music.
For more info on Josh, check out his website at https://joshmaxey.com/