Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson dies

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The Independent US

Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, known for his soaring high notes and his hit recording of Gonna Fly Now, which lent the musical muscle to the Rocky movies, has died.

Ferguson, 78, who lived in Ojai, California, died at Community Memorial Hospital of kidney and liver failure due to an abdominal infection, his friend and manager Steve Schankman said. Ferguson's four daughters, Kim, Lisa, Corby and Wilder, and other family members were at his side.

"Someone just said, 'Gabriel, move over to second trumpet'," Schankman said. "He was the last of the greats. That era is closed. There is no Kenton, no Basie, no Ellington, and now, no Ferguson."

Born into a musical family in Montreal, Canada, Ferguson began playing the piano and violin at four, took up the trumpet at nine and soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra at 11, then left school at 15 to pursue a career in music.

The next year he was leading his own dance band, the first of a number of big bands and smaller ensembles he eventually fronted in a career that produced more than 60 albums and three Grammy nominations.

Ferguson, also a much admired teacher, became identified with ear-piercing power and dizzying high notes that he was still able to play with precision. He was named Down Beat magazine's trumpeter of the year three times.

"My instrument is a thing of pleasure, and I play it only because I enjoy it," he once said. "The most important thing is doing what feels right for me."

The trumpeter credited yoga with enabling him to harness the full capacity of his lungs and routinely hit a double-high-C.

"He will be remembered for his soaring high notes, he'll be remembered as Stan Kenton's lead trumpet player and he'll be remembered for movie soundtracks like The Ten Commandments," Schankman said. "But what they should remember him for is his work as an educator.

"He played for students, visiting high schools, to raise money for instruments and music programmes. And he left them with an inspiring remark."

As with many esteemed jazz players, mainstream success largely eluded Ferguson. But he scored a Top-10 hit with his version of Gonna Fly Now, and the single spawned a gold album and a Grammy nomination in 1978.

"I knew it was going to be a hit," he once said of the Bill Conti composition. "Sylvester Stallone was in the studio when we recorded it," punching a speed bag to the rhythm of the song.

Ferguson moved to the US at 20, playing in big bands - including Jimmy Dorsey's - and performing solo in New York City cafes. He then joined Stan Kenton's orchestra, where his shrieking, upper-register trumpet formed the backbone of the group's extensive brass section.

In 1956 he formed the first of several 13-piece orchestras known for the crisp vigour of their horns.

As the popularity of jazz declined in the 1960s, Ferguson was forced to scale down his big band, touring less frequently and favouring a smaller sextet instead.

He moved his family to India, where he absorbed Eastern music and philosophy, then to England. He later moved back to the US, settling in California.

In the late 60s and 70s he created a musical niche by rearranging pop and rock songs such as MacArthur Park and the Beatles' Hey Jude for big bands.

Meanwhile, Conquistador, the album that included Gonna Fly Now, reached No 22 on Billboard's charts and helped rekindle the public's interest in big bands.