Still flying

High note king Maynard Ferguson rules the road

He was an avatar of fusions to come, a trumpet man whose high-C-over-C wailings presaged the mix of rock heroics and jazz technique that would later give birth to such acts as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, and then a thousand more. When he plays, Maynard Ferguson is a study in oppositional dynamics, his facial features scrunching together while his cheeks expand from the force of producing his unbelievably high trademark tones, a combination of sound and vision that led one critic in 1950 to observe that Ferguson was bound to "blow his brains out by the time he was 30."

He hasn't yet, but that study in contrasts has defined his whole career. A jazz veteran who gained fame playing with the great Stan Kenton, Ferguson has made many moves in his life that seem almost contrarian. At the height of an easy-money gig with Paramount after his Kenton years (Ferguson played the trumpet that accompanied Charlton Heston down the mountain in The Ten Commandments, perhaps the ultimate backing gig), Ferguson quit Hollywood to start a big band in the twilight of the big-band era. A skilled player, empathetic band leader, and able improviser, he is nonetheless known best for standards like "Maria," from West Side Story, and schlock like "Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)"--a song he is so intimately associated with that foreign tourists who cannot speak English often introduce themselves to him by singing the song's opening bars.

That the man has talent has never been questioned. Born on May 4, 1928, in Verdun, Quebec, Ferguson started studying piano at age four, enrolled in the French Conservatory of Music at nine, and began his own band at age 15; fellow players included his brother and piano giant Oscar Peterson. Joining Boyd Raeburn's big band in 1948, he went with Kenton two years later; in 1956--after the Paramount gig--he formed his own band. By the end of the '50s his reputation for popularizing jazz was based on his band's habit of playing several dance sets followed by a final "sit-down" set of improv ripping.

He continued through the '60s until--growing tired of the public's diminishing appreciation of jazz and the "cookie stamp" nature of their expectations as well as the perils of raising five children in the increasingly turbulent United States--he left America for England and India. When he returned, even his most fervent booster has to admit, he linked himself with some of the then-nascent fusion movement's worst crimes: an early-'70s self-titled album packed with middling covers of songs like "Stoney End," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "My Sweet Lord," TV and movie themes, and an instrumental version of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park." Critics have long dogged him for his populist tendencies and what they viewed as an excessively theatrical style.

Ferguson regrets none of it, however. Speaking over the phone from his company office in Ojai, California, his voice still retains strong hints of his native Canada and is surprisingly youthful, a function both of its high pitch and burbling, rapid-fire word delivery; phrases are often punctuated with "uh, uh, um, uh," as if the voice were momentarily overwhelmed by the input the brain was sending it.

"I'm fighting an eleven-and-a-half hour jet lag," confesses Ferguson, having just returned from yet another visit to the ashram of Sai Baba, his spiritual teacher. "I'm feeling fine, but I don't understand why."

Through his residence--and many subsequent visits--Ferguson is revered by Indians; when he visits the ashram, he says, it's as "a visiting professor of Western music," information he relays with a peal of sharp, joyous laughter. He speaks of his achievements--in addition to a certain popular cachet, he has held his own with artists such as Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, and McCoy Tyner, and employed talents such as Bob James, Chick Corea, and Chuck Mangione--with an aw-shucks humility. Of his trademark stratospheric wail, he says merely "It was just natural...I didn't work at doing it on purpose. I think it's programmed into your DNA, what you're supposed to do."

His avowal of his own everyday nature is not surprising from a bandleader who has built a reputation on sharing the limelight with talented juniors. "You don't have to be a talented double-high-C player at all," he maintains. "Some of my all-time superhero trumpet players never played that high in their lives, and I'm not sure they ever wanted to," he says, laughing again, as he does often. "To say that if you can't play like that, you haven't 'made it'--that's silly.

"There's a Buddhist saying--I can't really remember it, but it basically says that you're just supposed to go up there and enjoy yourself first, and enjoy playing the music, and then--if you make sure the band is enjoying playing, too, everything else will follow. The main reason [for playing] is to bring joy to people. It's what we're born for, and it's kind of our duty."

He continues, sometimes pausing to catch his breath like a marathon runner. "I mean, Miles [Davis] is one of those superheroes I referred to earlier, even though he doesn't sound anything like me. When I'd listen to him and he'd crack a note, a lot of legit trumpet players would go 'ouch, ooh, that was awful,' but it just made me grin, because I was more into his message than his perfection as a trumpet player. You don't want to get caught up in categories."

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