Smooth jazz master Max Groove jams by land, sea, and airwaves
Max Groove, 66, slides into a banquette at First Watch in North Kansas City. His blonde-haired daughter Jazmine, 13, cozies next to him. She orders a stack of chocolate chip pancakes and he orders his usual. This father-and-daughter scene is heartwarming on the surface. Between bites of breakfast, Groove recounts a life that prompts him to break into laughter, express humility, proclaim gratitude, and shed tears.
Most people know Groove, born Brian Hohmann, as a smooth jazz pianist.
“I can write and play different styles of jazz, but I wanted to play something funky and more melodic,” says Groove, who resides in Gladstone. “I’m one of the pioneers of smooth jazz. Smooth jazz is toe-tapping music with attitude.”
He hums a few bars in a honeyed voice with a warmth that won’t be found on a mobile phone ringtone. It’s catchy and easy to connect with the melody and beat.
He’s performed countless shows around Kansas City. He has also toured nationally with The Temptations, Four Tops, Peabo Bryson, Count Basie, Chaka Khan, and Joan Armatrading. Groove has recorded and released 12 CDs, including three that have charted in the Top 20 of Billboard Jazz. “Midnight Rain” and “It’s a Beautiful Day” are two highlights among his many recordings.
Groove will embark on a new adventure in 2018. He will perform two concerts during a “smooth jazz” Caribbean cruise from January 8 to 13 aboard Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas ship.
“It’s a ‘get to know me’ cruise for fans,” says Groove. “The cruise is for fans and people that are excited to go with me and escape the cold in winter.”
Groove spreads strawberry jam on his toast. Jazmine, who plays clarinet, smiles with adoration and quietly listens. They both have cool blue eyes. She leans into Groove as he riffs beyond the standard notes of a veteran musician’s career. Glancing at Jazmine’s patient expression, it is clear that Groove has been fairly open about the rough times and glory days of his career.
“I haven’t had a day job in 44 years,” says Groove. “I’ve been playing music full-time since 1973.”
Groove grew up in the inner city of Kansas City. His weary half-smile, framed by a full, silvery beard, underscores the memory. He says, “It was the ghetto, brother.”
Groove’s mother, an opera singer from New York, married her second husband, an accomplished professional jazz violinist, and the family moved to Prairie Village. He learned to play guitar, viola, keyboard, organ, and piano in succession between the ages of five and seventeen. As a young man, he met jazz luminaries, such as Count Basie, through his parent’s connection to professional musicians.
As a 24-year-old, he started a disco band, Moxie, in the Seventies and worked as a musician, producer, and recording engineer over the next decade. He broke up the band and in 1980 founded a new group, Max Groove. Hohmann wouldn’t take on the Max Groove identity as a solo performer until later in his career.
“The name came from the maximum groove width of a stylus that fit into the grooves of vinyl albums when recording,” he explains.
The new ensemble, Max Groove, began as a studio band that performed as a rhythm section for other recording acts. In time, the band began performing as an opening act for Motown legends The Temptations and Four Tops.
Groove recalls early in his career when he opened for Count Basie. Groove’s smooth jazz style ran counter to the swinging, jumping rhythm-driven jazz that Basie helped to create and popularize as a pioneer. With Groove and his mother at Basie’s side backstage, Basie silenced nearby promoters and naysayers of smooth jazz and requested that Groove play one of his funkier compositions. Groove has never looked back.
When Max Groove disbanded, Hohmann adopted the name for himself as a smooth jazz pianist. He has continued to compose and perform music under the moniker ever since. Inspiration comes naturally.
“I believe in God. I see beauty all around at the lake and in everyday life,” says Groove. “Melodies come into my head.”
He hums the tune to “Pismo Beach,” a two-chord song that slowly builds and resonates with a ringing guitar line. The song, one of his biggest hits, is played regularly around the world including Tokyo, Japan. Another hit “Midnight Rain” has been used as background music in “The Young and the Restless” and at shopping malls and piped into elevators. Groove doesn’t mind the association with smooth jazz as “elevator music.” He continues to earn royalties from his creative work over a lifetime.
“I’m blessed to be alive and fortunate to make a living from my music,” says Groove. “My career has had its ups and downs.”
He briefly recounts memories of his time spent in Los Angeles and high-flying days, where his earnings evaporated during vacations and diversions. He alludes to struggles with drugs earlier in life and, mindful of Jazmine, doesn’t share details.
“I’ve been destitute and slept in doorways when I was younger,” says Groove. “I’ve come a long way. I’ve pulled myself out of the gutter and made something of myself. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it.”
He pauses and stares across the table. The weight of these memories bears down; friends and peers lost to habits that he somehow survived after quitting cold turkey; the loss of a multi-album recording contract after releasing an album months before 9/11 brought the world to a standstill. Love and loss, survival and renewal, thoughts of these elemental forces flicker in his blue eyes. Groove openly weeps next to his daughter over breakfast.
He dries his eyes and apologizes. Jazmine is silent and steady as a rock by his side. Later in the conversation, when asked to share thoughts of her father, Jazmine replies without hesitation, “I’m proud of him and everything he’s done.”
Groove had his first child, Briann, when he was 50 followed by Jazmine four years later. His family and his faith have motivated and inspired him.
“You don’t get to do what I do without faith. I’ve lived through adversity, the seedy underside of life,” says Groove. He nods to his daughter. “Marrying her mother straightened me out. I’m less ego-driven. My career took off and I started to tour again. It’s good to be alive and to have children.”
Humor and joy return to his voice. Max Groove got his groove back. He’s recording a new album. He’s excited about the smooth jazz cruise, where he’ll perform with longtime bandmates drummer Guy Busch, bassist Clay Johnson, and guitarist Max Perry.
“The future is bright. Each day is one more day of blessings,” says Groove.
A fragment of a memory shared earlier comes to mind. A phrase that his mother told her son backstage before he performed. “Play pretty,” she said.
Wherever Max Groove takes the stage, whether it is at the Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City’s Crossroads or a cruise ship gliding across blue Caribbean waters, the notes rippling from his piano are bound to sound pretty.
Details about Max Groove’s smooth jazz cruise are available at MaxGroove.com.