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Music was in his soul, sax was at the ready for Rays games

Max Pierre was an ever-present figure at baseball games for close to two decades. He died Jan. 5.
Max Pierre plays the saxophone outside Tropicana Field on June 26, 2018. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
Published January 17, 2019
Updated January 17, 2019

He made his living $1 at a time, and seemed to prefer it that way.

The parking lot was his stage, and the Rays were his opening act.

Max Pierre was part of the landscape at Tropicana Field, not as essential as the basepaths but more reliable than a lot of Tampa Bay’s catchers. He’d set up on First Avenue South with his saxophone before games, then head over to 16th Street and catch the postgame crowd near Gate 5.

For 17 years, he was a fixture at Rays games, not to mention Lightning games, Yankees spring training games and late-night crowds in Ybor City.

He was the sax man. Playing his music in familiar 90-second bursts, and joking with passersby as they dropped their dollar bills in the opened saxophone case at his feet.

Today, the music is no more.

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Mr. Pierre, 60, passed away on Jan. 5 after suffering what his brother said was a brain aneurysm a few days after Christmas. He was found by a friend in his Tampa bedroom and never regained consciousness. His funeral is Saturday at Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati.

“Max was a free spirit,’’ his brother, James Pierre Muhammad, said from Cincinnati. “He didn’t need things that other people wanted. He made a decent income from his street stuff, and never really seemed to worry about anything else. When I would talk to him, he was very happy with the freedom he had. He liked living day by day."

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He could have done it some other way. There was a time, during his days as a young man in Cincinnati, when he was in demand in nightclubs and recording sessions as a musician.

Mr. Pierre had begun playing the sax in fourth grade and never imagined another kind of life. He was a jazz devotee and, because of that, turned down opportunities to play in local R&B bands.

He spent time studying music at both Tennessee State and North Texas State, and eventually landed in New Orleans where he began working as a street musician.

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“He didn’t try to impress people," his mother Elsie Pierre said. “He was just very good-spirited and loved to play his music. And the people loved him."

Mr. Pierre made it home to visit his mother in Cincinnati at Thanksgiving, and played with the church choir before returning to Tampa. She said church members still talk about the time he played the hymn There is a Fountain Filled with Blood during a service.

“Once you met him, you never forgot him," she said.

A busker’s life is not a simple one. Last summer, while standing outside of Tropicana Field, Mr. Pierre joked that he was the hardest working man in show business. He’d play in the sun until the sweat covered his back, and he’d play outside the bars until the last of the stragglers headed home.

He stayed with friends, he caught rides, he did whatever necessary to make sure he was in place by the time a ballgame ended. After that, it was an endless loop of TV theme shows and familiar pop songs.

And, always, several versions of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

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By this point in his life, the music was more of a means to an end. Not just for tips, but a connection to the world. The joking banter with season ticket holders who passed him every homestand. The children he would encourage to dance, or the ones who waited to give him a high-five.

“I think about us being boys and playing with our baseball cards on the floor. He was just always a happy person," his brother said. “That’s what I’ll remember about him. His music, his hearty voice and laugh."

The saxophone, Mr. Pierre once said, was his version of a pension.

And it was his intention to play until his final breath.


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