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."

Although the size of his bands has varied (current aggregation Big Bop Nouveau's roster hovers at around 10 members), Ferguson has always had a keen sense of how to exploit the power of brass, getting a big, roaring sound that hovers just this side (and sometimes the other, according to critics) of a blare, inspired by what he calls Kenton's "brash wall of sound." He plays a number of brass instruments live--trumpet, trombone, baritone, flugelhorn--and has had custom instruments designed for him, among them a combination valve-slide trombone and a trumpet variation of the same design; the combination of the two systems gives Ferguson an amazing ability to change keys while playing. "There's just a sensuous quality to a slide instrument," he explains, "and [his custom instruments] are very well-suited to the quarter-tones in Indian music."

In his bold, controlled-but-almost-over-the-top attack, he reminds the listener of surf guitarist Dick Dale (with whom he's unfamiliar)--not so much in style but in the sheer exhilaration of their approach. It's a similarity bolstered by the fascination the two share with Eastern and Spanish/Moorish influences. Check out Ferguson's "Ganesha," from 1985's Live From San Francisco, or the more recent "Sweet Baba Suite," from The Gospel Truth. "I enjoy my East-West thing," he says. "I think all music's moving toward world music."

Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Ferguson's career is his devotion to teaching and sharing his gifts with younger players. A quick look at any of his itineraries will reveal a schedule heavy on towns like Coal Township, Pennsylvania, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, loaded with high school and junior college venues. For many, such gigs are sure signs of career death, but not for Ferguson.

"That's the part I really enjoy," he says. "Working with bands, critiquing players, and giving clinics. For me, it's fun."

He has also inked a deal with his label, Concord Jazz, that allows him to produce two albums a year from talented newcomers. "It's so rewarding to be in a position where I can help guys with their careers if I find them exceptional, and it's fun to sit in the studio when you don't have to perform." It's also a relief for the musicians he works with. "When you've made over 60 albums," Ferguson says, "you come to know what you do and don't like about producers, and I try to bring that experience into the studio."

"When you have great talent, you can be quite silent," he says, going on to tell a story about an unnamed producer who would be sent out to get sandwiches "so that we could get some work done." The first in this series of Ferguson-produced Concord releases, this year's Christian Jacob, spotlights Jacob, a talented young pianist in a trio format along with Peter Erskine (drums, percussion) and John Patitucci (bass). Like "Bebop Buffet" off of Live From San Francisco, the agile and gently nuanced tunes on Christian Jacob show that--"MacArthur Park" and "Theme from Battlestar Galactica" notwithstanding--Ferguson has a deep understanding of jazz. The fact that many of his trademarks--Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," "Birdland"--are now marching band standards may speak to some of a giant wedge of cheese, but it's more accurate to chalk these ubiquities up to Ferguson's musical populism, similar to that of Doc Severinsen (with whom he played years ago in Raeburn's band) and honed by years of dance-band gigs. He doesn't even begrudge "Gonna Fly Now" its place in his canon.

"It's nothing I dread," he says of the Rocky theme, although he doesn't play it as much any more. "Years ago, someone--I think it was Charlie Barnett--told me, 'Maynard, just remember one thing--never record a song you hate, because sure enough, God will punish you and make it your biggest hit, and forever after--no matter how well you play--someone will come up to you after the show and say, yeah, that was all right, but how come you didn't play so-and-so?'"

Maynard Ferguson will perform at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch on Saturday, January 25.

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