Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight


March 12, 2003:

Sanders Maxwell '39

If Princeton has its own Piano Man, it could be Sanders Maxwell '39, known to three generations of music-loving Princetonians as Sandy. Maxwell, now in his eighties, is an active professional musician, playing at Princeton-area gatherings, including weddings, anniversaries, First Communions, birthdays, brunches, dinners, cocktail parties, receptions, and Reunions. In fact, he says, "I have played in my band, or somebody else's band, at Reunions almost every year since I graduated."

Maxwell plays solo, at piano or keyboard, or with his group, which he assembles from his wide acquaintance of musicians. Among his favorite band mates are cornettist Edward J. Polcer'58 and trombonist Thomas Artin'60 *68, both of whom will join him at the Class of 1943's upcoming 60th Reunion in June.

He grew up in New Jersey, where his musical education began at six, with piano lessons he "hated and escaped." At 13, a few guitar lessons "taught me to read music in the treble clef." After signing up for "Ten Easy Piano Lessons for Ten Dollars," he learned the bass clef, and mounted another assault on the family upright. Since then, "I've been pretty much self-taught." Nor has he been far from a piano in all those years.

"Some people like traveling or barbecues or baseball," he says. "I do too, but it's even more fun to sit down with 88 keys, and try to entice good sounds from them. Playing a tune at least a little differently each time is part of the fun.

"And of course, seeing people enjoy your music, and hearing them tell you they do, is another big kick."

At Princeton, Maxwell majored in classics, played piano with the Triangle Club orchestra, and headed Triangle his senior year. Summers were spent playing aboard cruise ships, entertaining vacationers on the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Baltic.

He began to study musicology at Columbia, but left graduate school to enter the advertising business with Young and Rubicam in New York City. Then, however, "The war happened." An intelligence officer in the U.S. Eighth Air Force from 1942 to 1945, he was stationed in Chelveston, England, where "I played wherever I found a piano."

After discharge, Maxwell worked "on the creative side" of Young and Rubicam and several other advertising agencies, creating print ads and radio and TV jingles and spots for various clients including General Foods, Borden's, and Goldman Sachs. Music was limited to weekends, when "I played in Dixieland jazz bands," sometimes in New York City, sometimes in Princeton, where he lived, and its environs.

Then, in 1982, "I retired from advertising and commuting, and gave most of the free hours thus acquired to what was my avocation all along — music."

Maxwell's repertoire offers something for —well, almost — everyone. While lovers of punk rock or heavy metal may not groove to Maxwell's tunes, his songbag is capacious enough to satisfy almost anyone else, regardless of age. He plays Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Sinatra, Diana Krall, Elvis, Jimmy Buffet, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, U2, the Beatles, and you-name-it hits from the '30s through the '90s. He plays Big Band, Swing, Latin, Country, Dixieland, and show tunes.

Current musical activities include a regular weekly gig at Acqua Restaurant near Somerville, N.J. "From my point of view," he says, "it was easier in the old days. I walked in, sat down at the piano, and played till I went home, and that was it. Now I often have to lug keyboards, mics, a mixer, stands, speakers — it's a lot of gear to be loading at midnight when I finish playing."

And yes, music has changed some too. His repertoire, he says, "includes tunes like ëStardust' and ëMoonglow,' which are old tunes, but fundamentally ageless, and communicate to lots of people. Today's music has less melody, and is characterized mainly by rhythm and volume."

A dedicated Princetonian, Maxwell is vice-president of the Great Class of 1939; he has also served as reunion chair, is an emeritus member of the Triangle board, and is on the board of the Princeton Summer Theater.

He is looking forward to his Reunions performance. "Hey," he says, "Reunions are just no way like anything else. Playing Reunions is always special."

By Caroline Moseley

Caroline Moseley is a frequent contributor to PAW.