It was early ‘60s, Daytona Beach, when I first saw Paul Desmond play his saxophone composition of “Take Five,” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I’d never heard anything like it in my life; I was in heaven (that was also the night Brubeck refused to go to a segregated party where his bass man was not welcome).
So when I went to Ted’s Fun on the River, I was skeptical about Max Levy and the Hawaiian Shirts—three young jazz musicians, ages 19 to 21, diving into “Take Five.” It only took about one minute before my apprehension turned to pure glee. Levy blew his sax and turned red in the face, to give the music all of his soul. Dwain Gunnels on keyboard held it together with matching enthusiasm, and Travis Slaughter made his drums sound like the grand finale fireworks at the Fourth of July. Ted’s crowd rose to their feet, roaring through a standing ovation (which they did repeatedly throughout the concert).
This Sunday, September 6, Ted’s Fun on the River will host the trio again for their first CD release, “Groovin’.” A percentage of the CD sales will go to the food pantry, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, in accord with the band’s wish to help others, as well as themselves. Afterward, they will join Levy’s former saxophone teacher Benny Hill at the Rusty Nail for an eclectic jazz jam. “This young trio is really talented,” Hill said. “I’ve known Max since he was in 8th grade, and I’m glad he’s following his dreams.”
Levy’s musical dreams began when he was child. “My first jazz memory was listening to Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ when I was 9-years-old,” he said. Those dreams are being fulfilled with the help of Gunnels and Slaughter. Their six-song EP highlights a mesh of sound from post-bop to soulful jazz. It includes Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” “Dat Dere” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and even Adele’s famed pop ballad “Someone Like You.”
“Our one original tune, ‘Fed Up,’ is similar to the music of the James Carter Organ Trio and the post-bop compositions of Eddie Harris,” according to Levy. “‘Fed Up’ highlights the blues influence on jazz music. I really love the music, and feeling the energy from Travis and Dwain’s playing makes my emotion and drive even stronger.”
Music was a part of Levy’s upbringing tenfold. In high school, he started performing in the marching band, where he met Gunnels and Slaughter.
“Like me, they listened to jazz and were very much into music,” Levy said. “When we jammed together my senior year, we meshed really well, and that’s how our band came to be. We chose the name Max Levy and the Hawaiian Shirts simply because we like to wear colorful shirts. Each of us has a different plan for college, but we hope to continue playing together for a long time.”
Levy is majoring in musical performance at East Carolina University; Gunnels, in criminology and Spanish at UNCW; and Slaughter, in fermentation sciences (think micro-brewery). “Once I graduate college and get my brewery off the ground,” Slaughter jested, “we’ll always have a venue in which to play!”
So far, they’ve performed gigs at several places, including Rucker John’s Restaurant, Jazz at the CAM (Cameron Art Museum), and Fermental Beer and Wine. The trio models their sound after many great musicians. Still, all agree Duke Ellington set the bar.
“There is no jazz without Duke Ellington,” Gunnels noted. “He’s timeless!”
“The definition of swing can be found in Duke Ellington’s music,” Levy agreed. “His melodies and chord progressions are standard jazz repertoire.”
As for now the group plans on continuing their studies and playing local gigs as much as possible. Plus, they have an album of originals brewing.
“But in order to be taken seriously in the jazz world, you must exhibit knowledge of jazz language, which is found in the performances of many jazz standards,” Levy concluded. “We also incorporate other tunes, such as ‘Something’ by The Beatles, to add variety to our repertoire. Our original work is influenced by the language of jazz, and more of it will continue to reveal itself in the future.”
Follow Max Levy and the Hawaiian Shirts on Facebook for more upcoming gigs.