Jazz trumpet maestro
Saturday 26 August 2006
Walter Maynard Ferguson, trumpeter, valve trombonist and bandleader: born Verdun, Quebec 4 May 1928; twice married (three daughters, one stepdaughter, and one son deceased); died Ventura, California 23 August 2006.
Someone should write a book about Maynard Ferguson. For more than 50 years he stretched the range of the trumpet upwards beyond our wildest dreams, relished every note that he played, brought on a multitude of young musicians within his bands and wrapped every audience before whom he appeared in the wild elixir of his music.
In front of the musical juggernaut that he was it mattered little that his relentlessly bravura playing wasn't consistently tasteful. The audience swallowed him whole and their demands for the West Side Story theme "Maria", using notes up where only a dog could hear it, haunted him every night for almost 40 years. As Louis had to lay "What a Wonderful World" on them, so it was with Maynard and "Maria". He was truly a jazz phenomenon.
Ferguson was born in 1928 in Verdun, Quebec, now a suburb of Montreal, and enrolled at the French Conservatory of Music in the city, studying all the reed and brass instruments before settling on the trumpet. Later he also took up the valve trombone with some success. He first led his own band in Canada in 1945 when he was 17.
In 1948 he moved to the United States and played briefly with Boyd Raeburn's Orchestra. The same year he had a solo act at New York's Café Society playing various saxophones and brass instruments. He played also in the bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet before, most importantly, joining Stan Kenton for three years from 1950. Kenton's music was brash and powerful. Ferguson was ideal for it and to Kenton the young Canadian was a godsend. Ferguson joined the Kenton band at the same time as another trumpeter, Shorty Rogers. Rogers was a fine arranger and recorded with his own big band, Shorty Rogers and the Giants:
When I first put my scores in front of Maynard he looked at his trumpet part and said to me shyly,
"Is it all right if I play it an octave higher?" An octave higher! Wonderful! From then on I wrote his parts an octave higher and it gave the ensemble a huge power that wouldn't have been there without him.
Ferguson's spot-on playing in the trumpet section, almost inevitably an octave higher than anyone else, was a more indelible trademark than his solo work. He seemed like a fish out of water if he wasn't operating in the area of double high C.
Leaving Kenton in 1953, he worked in the Paramount studios for three years, at the same time recording under his own leadership a series of powerful jazz sessions, the epitome of West Coast jazz, for the Mercury record label.
Briefly married to the singer Kay Brown in the early Fifties, he divorced and shared a flat in Los Angeles with the trombonist Milt Bernhart, whose marriage had also broken up. "Like most musicians I'd spend an hour or so practising every morning when we got up," said Bernhart. "Maynard never did. I asked him, 'Why don't you practise?' 'Why should I?' he asked."
All his life he never did. No wonder other musicians knew him as "The Lip".
In 1956 he moved to New York, where he formed a band filled with burgeoning young stars and arrangers called the Birdland Dream Band. Its life was brief, but it was the first of a series of 12- to 14-piece bands based on the methods of Count Basie and Kenton that he was to lead for the rest of his life. But by 1965 he was touring with a sextet.
From 1967, when he travelled to India to study at the Rishi Valley School, his work drew in powerful influences from Indian music as well as from rock.
"In 1967 I'd booked Maynard to play as a solo at my Club 43 in Manchester, had the tickets printed and everything, but he didn't show up," recalled the trumpeter Ernie Garside:
Through no fault of Maynard's he wasn't told of the booking. When he came to Manchester later to publicise a new mouthpiece I told him about the booking and he was distraught. He imme-
diately offered to play at the club for the next week to make up for it. He was travelling in an old Dormobile and I helped him to unload it. There were a lot of fibre cases, which, it turned out, contained the music library for his big bands. I had a 12-piece rehearsal band that met on Sunday afternoons and I asked him if I could borrow some of the charts for that Sunday. He came along to the rehearsal and was so pleased that we brought the band into the club to play behind him. It went so well we were hugging ourselves and he decided to stay in Manchester and lead the band as his own. Because he was Canadian he wasn't subject to the Ministry of Works restrictions on American musicians.
Drawing more on rock than most conventional big bands, the band was a huge success. Garside became its manager and the Manchester musicians flowered under Ferguson's tutelage. Soon it was touring Europe and, at a gig in Holland in 1970, was heard by the impresario Tito Burns, who arranged a six-month contract for the band to play on London Weekend's Simon Dee Show. Dee's career took a downturn, but the band's went up, and the television company presented a Sunday-evening programme called The World of Maynard Ferguson.
The band recorded albums (Ferguson recorded more than 60 during his career) and had a particular success with "MacArthur Park", done in London in 1970. He captured a new young audience by using disco rhythms and having the band wear disco-era clothes. Work was so plentiful that Ferguson and the band moved to the US in 1974. He and his wife Floralou, whom he had married in 1954 and who died in 2005, settled in Ojai, California. Gradually the English musicians were replaced by Americans.
In 1977 Ferguson's album Conquistador entered the Top Forty chart. It included the jazz-crossover track "Gonna Fly Now" - the theme from the 1976 film Rocky - and won the first of three Grammy nominations for the trumpeter.
As the years passed the band was gradually cut down in size and by 1987, known as High Voltage, it had become a septet. Next came Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band, a wonderful group that continually took in new young talent and lasted until his death. The band recorded one quite outstanding broadcast, typically blues-drenched and exciting, for the BBC in Glasgow in 1990.
For many years Ferguson and his wife made annual trips to India to study with the guru Sai Baba and in 1992 the band toured India, playing to an audience of 20,000 at Sai Baba's temple in Bangalore.
In September 2004 a four-day tribute to Ferguson was mounted in Los Angeles and former members of his bands came from all over the world to be there.
Ferguson involved everyone in his music and loved to teach. "A professional is simply an amateur with a job," he said. "Outside influences are fine, but the greatest delight for any musician is when you begin to sound like yourself."
Nobody will ever sound like Maynard Ferguson.
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