By many accounts, Max Pierre died on Wednesday, August 10, 2016. It would be his last night on the sweaty streets of Ybor, where he filled 7th Avenue’s sticky air with the sounds of “Careless Whisper” by Wham!, “The Pink Panther,” and even “Tequila,” a mambo-flavored cheese puff from Los Angeles Chicano rockers The Champs.
Someone said they saw Pierre get suckerpunched to the ground outside the 7-Eleven across from Centro Ybor. An ambulance had taken him away. A forensic unit had even showed up. The woodwind-wielding maestro would not get to compose his own coda. The wail didn’t even get a chance to wane, and one of Ybor’s most beloved buskers was forever gone. By many accounts, it was time for a shot or three in memory of Max the Sax. The tributes, questions and grievances poured in.
WTF. Scumbags. This world is spiraling out of control. I think the skin heads [sic] are coming back.
Problem was, those accounts were on social media, where folks post without thinking, then edit and delete at the press of a button. And voices are exponentially louder online, where algorithms instantaneously calculate the weight of a status update, ranking it higher and higher on newsfeeds every time a user on the terrestrial end of a glowing smartphone taps the screen to react to or comment on it.
Max the Sax was dead — but only if you were logged in and lurking that Wednesday night. Within 24 hours of his Facebook deactivation, Pierre resurfaced, just like always. This time was a bit more ghost-like, and new posts and comments popped up, effectively bringing him back to life and triggering relief, plus more, and more positive, social-media chatter.
Wow. Thank God! Apparently, a memorial service was held at the Hub last night.
“If you find out anything about Max, let us know,” Janelle McGregor, spokesperson for the Tampa Police Department, said over the phone last Friday. “A lot of people have been calling about him.”
McGregor emailed CL a police report filed on August 10. It details an incident at 1535 7th Ave. — 7-Eleven’s address — where a man was involved in a scuffle with another male who punched him in the jaw and knocked him to the ground. The victim of the assault was 60-year-old James Cody Jr., who was wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt at the time of the incident. He has dark skin and short hair. At 5 feet 7 inches, Cody is shorter than Pierre, who stands at least 6 feet tall.
The confusion about it all is, well, confusing.
“People like being first and considered as a source of news,” USF’s Kelli Burns told CL when explaining what might push someone to share rumors online. She’s an associate professor at the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications and has published several works on social media and popular culture. “We’re also bombarded with so much information daily, which means we have less time to process news.” Burns points out that people are more likely to trust their own friends’ social media posts, which leads to more shares.
“I don’t ever take a day off, but a friend convinced me to that night,” Pierre tells CL on a balmy Saturday night. “I was on a couch watching movies when that stuff was all happening.” He still has has a pulse. And a home. He lives on the east side of Ybor, and catches buses or rides with friends who help him get in between Tampa and St. Pete to busk.
Tonight, he’s working outside Tampa’s Amalie Arena, where Drake fans poured into the plaza after the rapper’s sold-out show. It’s 17 days after his “death,” and he looks healthy. Cash lines the silky interior of his saxophone case, and it’s time to close shop and head to The Hub, where Pierre wants to clear the air. He gets a Natural Light, but before Pierre can put it to his lips, he also gets an earful from the bartender, who tried to call him for his birthday. She points to where it’s marked on the bar’s wall calendar — August 20. He says he had trouble with his phone.
“OK,” she replies skeptically, “you can play the sax, but you can’t work a cell phone.”
Pierre is beloved at the dive, and by now all that morbid stuff is way in the rearview. Kenny Pullin, who posted a photo of a rainbow over the Sulphur Springs water tower when he learned Pierre was undead, remembers the first time Max jammed onstage with his band, Poetry ‘N Lotion, at the Hub.
“[He’s] a bad motherfucker. We jumped into ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck, and he completely killed it,” Pullin wrote in a message. The Tampa trumpet player got to shooting the shit with Pierre after the set. Pullin explained how he thought Sinatra didn’t deserve to shine Sammy Davis’s shoes.
“[Max] looked up from his chair and gave me a big hug as if I were the first person to have ever agreed wholeheartedly with him on this.”
Pierre’s appreciation for that sentiment is no accident. As a 13-year-old at Cincinnati’s now-demolished Crest Hills Junior High School, he received his first sax. His childhood included jamming with his friend Vincent Calloway, who would go on to play in ’80s electro-funk band Midnight Star. At 15, Pierre heard Charlie Parker with Strings and really knew he “was determined to play music my whole life.”
He studied music at Tennessee State University, then transferred to North Texas State after visiting Cincinnati on break and hearing NTSU’s big band on WNOP-AM. He spent the beginning of the ’80s back home, playing in his own band before quitting it to start a new one with pianist and mentor Mark Diamond. Pierre jetted to New Orleans in ‘85, and moved in with his uncle. (Ironically, jazz blower Max is the only one in his family not born in the Crescent City.)
Driving cabs helped Pierre pay rent while he gigged around the Big Easy, eventually forming a relationship with Ellis Marsalis drummer Noel Kendrick; that connection turned into meets with late Wynton Marsalis pianist Kenny Kirkland. At one point during a session, the 19-year-old son of longtime New Orleans district attorney (and musician) Harry Connick, Sr. walked into the room they were playing in.
“We had no idea what that kid would end up being,” Pierre says.
Things wouldn’t stay so great for Max much longer. His saxophone was stolen, and while he was eventually gifted another one, he quit playing as the ’80s came to a close. The theft sent Pierre into a depression and eventually back home to Ohio, where he started abusing alcohol to get him through his days. In Cincinnati, he waited tables at the iconic Maketewah Country Club. Eventually getting behind on car payments, Pierre had to wet the reed once again and busk. This time it was in the Mt. Adams neighborhood, just east of downtown. That’s where he met Brady Thomas, another busker who used a fiddle to collect change, and would change the course of Pierre’s own path.
“He was like a clairvoyant or something,” Pierre says. “He is on some psychic shit.” The two hit it off and eventually came down to Florida in 2001. Thomas started getting around Florida under the Tip Top moniker; Pierre stayed put in Tampa Bay. The weather is relatively perfect considering his occupation, and his friends make it a no-brainer.
Crowbar owner Tom DeGeorge explains how sad and angry he got while trying to piece together the timeline of events surrounding Pierre’s death as the rumor played out on social media.
“Anyone can post anything on there — we’re not being responsible with facts,” says DeGeorge. “At a certain point I got sick of seeing people talk about it. I wanted to figure out who his next of kin was or if we needed to do a fundraiser to help pay for a funeral.”
Many have joked that Pierre will now be around to play his own memorial show. The sax man, for his part, is not amused.
“I’m a little outraged,” he says — about the situation, not the individuals who spread the false news. “I feel sad that people who appreciate my music had to go through that.”
His own “death” hasn’t changed Pierre’s streetside setlist. Despite knowing his way around Coltrane and Miles Davis, he still plays the songs that make it possible for him to make a living. Mancini and Michael McDonald are what turn heads and put money in the box. He admits to being open to starting a jazz trio, and has some open invitations to join bands around the area. It’s not easy getting around town without a car, though, and he doesn’t want to be a bad bandmate. He enjoys the relatively uninhibited lifestyle busking gives him. He might be chained to three songs most every time Ybor City regulars pass him on 7th, and he runs into a pushy cop once in a blue moon, but Maximilan Andre Pierre still wakes up and plays his horn every day.
“The best part about being on the street is the freedom,” he emphasizes loudly while a jukebox blasts through the Hub’s smoky air.
The best part for his friends? Still seeing him out there after his untimely demise, and knowing it isn’t just a dream.
Listen to Charlie Parker with Strings, the album that set Max on his way, below.