Several reports from friends on Facebook say that McDonnell had a stroke on Friday night while watching Houston Person and the Bill Charlap trio at Jazz at the Bistro, where he was a subscriber as well as a board member of the parent organization Jazz St. Louis. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died on Saturday.
McDonnell (pictured) grew up in Kirkwood and graduated from Washington University. He started MAXJAZZ in 1998 while still working for AG Edwards, then took early retirement from the investment firm in 2002 to run the label full time.
MAXJAZZ began by recording St. Louis musicians including the Kennedy Brothers, pianist Dave Venn, Mardra and Reggie Thomas, and Brilliant Corners, featuring Paul Demarinis and Dave Black, but McDonnell soon began signing artists from all over the country, starting with singers Laverne Butler and Carla Cook.
In a 1999 interview with the Riverfront Times' Rene Spencer Saller, he talked about why he got into the record business:
It was a combination of the music side of me and the business side of me," McDonnell responds, adding that he studied saxophone for many years. I missed the opportunity to be out playing jazz. Although I've been a listener most of my life, that wasn't totally satisfactory. I wanted to do something that was more active. There was also my feeling, with increasing age, maybe, that we ought to go out of the scene doing something worthwhile. I felt that I could make some contribution to the arts, and that's the way this business is run. It's run efficiently as a business, but in the end, if it's not profitable, it's still my way of contributing to the arts."
In the years since, the label has become known internationally among jazz fans for swinging, mainstream recordings from musicians including Terell Stafford, Mulgrew Miller, Russell Malone and many others. Now with a catalog of more than 75 albums, MAXJAZZ last year inked a distribution agreement with industry giant Naxos.
Even as MAXJAZZ expanded, McDonnell continued to be an enthusiastic presence on the St. Louis scene, regularly attending performances around town and befriending local musicians. (He also was an early supporter of St. Louis Jazz Notes, offering frequent encouragement as well as passing along news of the label's activities and thanks for coverage of their artists.)
Survivors include three sons: Boyd McDonnell, Carter McDonnell, and Clayton McDonnell, who worked with his dad running MAXJAZZ.