Maynard Ferguson:

Genial Giant Of The Stratospheric Trumpet

By Mike Hennessey

It was in 1941 that a 13-year-old, Montreal-born trumpet prodigy named Maynard Ferguson was given the opportunity to solo with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra. This inordinately precocious youngster had been playing piano and violin since the age of four and, at nine, had switched to the trumpet, on which he demonstrated an exceptional aptitude.

Today, 61 years after that début concert, Maynard Ferguson - or "Strain'ard" Ferguson as a drummer friend of mine has been known to call him - is still going immensely strong after celebrating his 76th birthday on May 4 this year 2004.

Ferguson, a most amiable man whose passion for his craft has not diminished one iota in a professional career spanning more than half-a- century, is a genuine Jazz legend whose music evokes responses from critics and the public which range from mild disdain to delirious acclaim.

Reviewing Maynard's Big Bop Nouveau Band concert at the Glasgow International Jazz festival in July 1997, Sunday Times critic, Brian Morton observed that Ferguson's taste could sometimes be called into question and described the effect of listening to the band as being "a little like standing out in a high wind, exhilarating for a while, but then irritating."

However, Morton went on to say, "God knows, his chops can't be faulted. His Big Bop Nouveau Band is probably the closest anyone younger than 40 will ever hear to a Stan Kenton sound. However pretentiously histrionic, it has a power and impact that rock acts would envy."

Glasgow Herald critic, Rob Adams, reviewing the same concert, likened the sound of the Ferguson trumpets to the "squealing of mice on helium."

Ian Carr, on the other hand, has observed of Maynard that "in sympathetic company, he is capable of fine and sensitive solo work."

But however much disagreement there may be as to the artistic qualities of Maynard Ferguson's music, there is a complete consensus that he has immense technical command. Marc C. Gridley has commented: "Although he is not a notable improviser, he has inspired many young trumpet players with his dazzling instrumental proficiency." And Ian Carr recalls that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Ferguson was, successively, a member of the trumpet section in the bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton, "his prowess in the upper register was unequalled."

From the age of 15, Maynard Ferguson led his own Jazz group in Montreal and, at 16, he was leading the "warm-up" ensemble for the great big bands of the period when they played Montreal - including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.

This experience presented a great opportunity for Maynard to display his trumpet skills and, as he recalls, "I received a lot of different offers."

He moved to the United States in 1949 and, after his spells with Raeburn, Dorsey and Barnet, joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra. It was his three-year stint with Kenton which brought him international acclaim for his trumpet virtuosity and his phenomenal upper-register command.

Ferguson's has been a remarkably multi-faceted career. As well as playing trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, French horn and euphonium, and arranging and composing, he has designed musical instruments and worked extensively as an educator and clinician. He has recorded more than 60 albums and received three Grammy nominations.

After his spell with Stan Kenton, Ferguson worked as a studio musician for three years, recording many soundtracks for Paramount Pictures. In 1955 he was featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, performing Bill Russo's composition, "The Titans".

The following year, he assembled an all-star big band for an engagement at the celebrated New York Jazz venue, Birdland - the Birdland Dream Band - which featured such notables as Ernie Royal, Nick Travis, Jimmy Cleveland, Herb Geller, Al Cohn, Ernie Wilkins, Hank Jones and Milt Hinton. The band recorded two albums for the RCA Bluebird label.

Over the next decade Ferguson toured and recorded extensively with his own orchestra and then, in the late 1960s, he left the United States to settle in Europe. In Britain, he recorded an album for CBS in 1968 with the Keith Mansfield Orchestra - "The Ballad Style Of Maynard Ferguson" - which included his celebrated version of "Maria" from the "West Side Story" musical.

Later, Ferguson met up with Ernie Garside, trumpet-playing owner of Manchester's Club 43, who helped him put together a new band. In March 1969, the band, which included Garside and Hank Shaw on trumpets, Danny Moss and Gary Cox on saxophones and Kenny Napper on bass, played the Bergamo Jazz Festival in Italy and won great public and critical acclaim. Writing in "Musica Jazz", Arrigo Polillo hailed the concert as a superb performance and described Ferguson as "an extraordinary instrumental virtuoso and an inimitable leader of the trumpet section."

In February 1970, a larger Ferguson ensemble recorded another CBS album, "M. F. Horn", which included a hit version of Jim Webb's "MacArthur Park."

The following year, Maynard took his British band to the United States, where he won many new fans, particularly among the student population.

In 1974, Maynard Ferguson decided to move back to America and, in April of that year, he recorded an album of Latin American numbers, "Chameleon", with a 15-piece orchestra.

It was in 1978 that Maynard Ferguson received his first Grammy nomination - for the album "Conquistador", which achieved gold record status. A single from the album, "Gonna Fly Now," the Bill Conti theme from the Sylvester Stallone film, "Rocky," reached No. 28 in the "Billboard" singles chart. As Leonard Feather wrote at the time: " "Conquistador" earned Ferguson a unique place in the big band world: he alone was able to crack the pop charts."

Another hit followed with Joe Zawinul's "Birdland" from the 1978 "Carnival" and the number has since become an enduring part of the Ferguson repertoire.

It was in the 1980s, after he had left Columbia Records, that Maynard started recording with his own band of young musicians instead of working with seasoned session men - a policy which continues today.

In 1987, Maynard formed a funk band called High Voltage, which made two albums for the Intima label. This band was the forerunner of the Big Bop Nouveau outfit, which made its recording début for Intima in 1988.

The BBNB plays a vigorous, high-energy brand of Jazz and enables Maynard to fulfil his most cherished objective - to give opportunity and encouragement to young musicians. The band has helped many aspiring musicians over the past 15 years to gain experience and develop their styles. Says Maynard: "Everyone who plays in my band gets a chance to shine. You have got to have a sense of humour to make the music sound good. Look at Dizzy Gillespie - one of the greatest players of all time; serious on the musical side but with a great sense of fun. That's what a musician should be."

And that is what Maynard Ferguson has always been. He has never lost his sense of fun. And when Maynard has fun playing his music, so does the band and so does the audience.

The latest edition of the Big Bop Nouveau Band made a short European tour from May 22 to June 5 this year which included dates in Biel, (Switzerland), Wigan (where Maynard met up once again with his old pal, Ernie Garside), Weinheim (Germany), Luxembourg, Stockholm and a week at Ronnie Scott's Club, which was a sell-out.

I caught the band at the Studiob¸hne in Weinheim and I was not alone in rating it as one of most dynamic combos Maynard has ever put together. However, there is one thing that all editions of the Big Bop Nouveau Band have in common and that is the euphoric atmosphere and spirit of exuberant camaraderie which prevails when Maynard and his eager young protégés take the stand. At the end of the two-set concert, the band received a standing ovation.

Maynard, sporting his trade mark braces and in unfailingly cheerful mood, was in exuberant form and clearly and justifiably proud of his young crew. And he demonstrated that he could still show the youngsters a thing of two - though he was generous in his allocation of solo space to his sidemen.

The ten-piece ensemble swung mightily and played the sophisticated arrangements with great precision. All the young players were impressive soloists, most notably the classically trained, 18-year-old pianist from Winnipeg, William Bonness, who was well supported by bassist Craig Butterfield and drummer Stockton Helbing. Outstanding among the horns was trumpeter Keith Fiala, who is very much in the Ferguson mould.

However, Maynard discourages young trumpet players whose main aim in life is to replicate his style. He says that when he was young, he listened to as many different trumpet players as possible and tried to learn something from each of them. "I tell my students to go out an buy records by Dizzy, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Louis Armstrong because one of the greatest rewards of playing music is when you start to sound like yourself.

"I love presenting all these great young players. And I tell them, 'If you leave my band, I'll only be mad at you if you are not a big success with what you're going to do next.' "

Maynard Ferguson Big Bop Nouveau Band: Maynard Ferguson (trumpet, flugelhorn, leader); Patrick Hession, Carl Fischer, Keith Fiala (trumpet, flugelhorn); Reggie Watkins (trombone, musical director); Julio Monterrey (alto saxophone); Juan Turros (tenor saxophone); William Bonness (piano); Craig Butterfield (bass); Stockton Helbing (drums).

by Mike Hennessey

Jazz Now Interactive September 2004 Vol 14 No. 5 - Table of Contents

Copy right: Jazz Now, September 2004 Vol 14 No. 5

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