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On the road

For Ojai’s Maynard Ferguson the most important thing will always be the music

By Matthew Singer

Maynard Ferguson’s love affair with the trumpet began at the early age of 9 with the words, “Hey Dad, get me one of those!”

 

omewhere, either in this life or the next one, there’s a Canadian cornet player completely unaware that about 70 years ago, he helped spark the still-ongoing career of his country’s greatest living jazz musician.

“When I was very young,” recalls Maynard Ferguson, “my mother was teaching me piano and violin. She had terrible arthritic hands, so there was not much demo from her. She would play a little, but piano and violin was like doing what mom told me to do. Then one day in church, they had what they called the ‘church social’ in those days, and a little boy got up and played a cornet solo. This is when I was 9 years of age. My parents were amazed that I was so excited. I said, ‘Hey Dad, get me one of those!’”

He did. And so began Ferguson’s long, undying romance with the trumpet — a love affair that is now stretching into its seventh decade. The relationship has seen its share of peaks, valleys and unexpected left turns. It has survived the death of the Big Band Era, the rise of rock ’n’ roll and, most perilously, disco. Through it all, Ferguson’s passion for the instrument has stayed as strong as when they first met that fateful day in church. At 78, Ferguson remains a fiery live performer, a rotund, white-haired ball of boundless energy. Offstage, he talks about his life and legend with similar enthusiasm. His mind is a steel trap for names and gigs long since forgotten by everybody else; he is a walking reference library on jazz history. But that isn’t to say he’s living in the past. As far as he’s concerned, his glory days are happening as we speak.

Even now, Ferguson lives to tour. He quit drinking a few years ago, started eating health food and practices yogic breathing, all with the expressed purpose of keeping himself in shape for the road. At the moment, he’s planning a fall tour that will take him and his “pocket big band,” Big Bop Nouveau, to high schools and clubs in Minnesota, Florida and Wisconsin, and as Far East Japan. He and his wife moved from Windsor, England, to Ojai 20 years ago, spurred by the town’s association with spiritual scholar J. Krishnamurti, but he admits to not having spent a whole lot of time there — after all, he plays upward of 200 shows a year.

“I have a lot of fun when I’m home. I introduce myself to my children: ‘I’m your father, by the way,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I also enjoy getting out on the road, but the main thing is not the road. It’s the music.”

It has always been about the music for Ferguson, from the moment his father handed him his first trumpet. Right away, he displayed an almost preternatural ability to play the instrument. He immediately received a scholarship to the French Conservatory of Music, where he studied under New York trumpeter Benny Baker, who at the time was also training future Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen. At 13, Ferguson became the self-described “mascot” of the Black Watch Regimental Band; his signature tune was “The British Grenadiers.” “I played that in every park in Montreal,” he says. “If it was ten below zero, that was tough luck. You still had bare knees and wore a kilt, with all the jokes that come along with that.”

Having paid his early dues, by his mid-teens Ferguson had graduated from playing in marching bands to fronting dance combos in Montreal nightclubs. There, he received his secondary education, opening for the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Les Brown. He stunned the veterans with his astonishing range; he could reach higher notes with greater accuracy than practically any other trumpet player of the time. Ferguson says he was inspired to develop his upper registry after seeing how certain trumpeters could light up an audience by stepping out in front of a large ensemble and soaring above everybody else. But there were other influences as well.

“I was listening to a lot of classical music, too,” he explains, “and I had a friend of mine, who I love to say was ‘exceptionally Italian,’ and he had this great collection of [opera singer] Enrico Caruso, who was my hero in that direction until Pavarotti came along. So when playing ballads, I would love to use the upper register, not just as a ‘screech trumpet player,’ but to play romantically.”

Photo by Dan Peloquin

Maynard Ferguson on the road doing what he loves. March 18, 2006 in Woonsocket, RI.

Ferguson’s reputation expanded once he came to the United States in the late 1940s. He spent his first years in America working as a hotshot soloist-for-hire, doing stints with Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnett and, most famously, Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. He also contributed to several film soundtracks, including The Ten Commandments. In that time, he managed to build a wide following amongst jazz fans, winning Trumpeter of the Year in Down Beat magazine’s annual readers’ poll three years in a row. Finally, in 1956, Ferguson formed his own group, the Birdland Dream Band, which over its ten year existence acted as a launchpad for such famed artists as Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione and Wayne Shorter.

As deeply entrenched as he is in the jazz establishment, though, Ferguson has always been a bit subversive. In the 1960s, he hung out with acid-philosopher Timothy Leary and, near the end of the decade, he relocated to India, where he taught old Western standards to groups of young South Indian musicians and jammed with Ravi Shankar. Most controversially, in the late ’70s Ferguson released a string of albums on which he abandoned purist bebop for a glossier, more commercial sound. Many of his records during the period were dominated by covers of popular rock singles as well as versions of recognizable movie and television themes. He was savaged by critics, but the public ate it up: His rendition of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” the immortal theme song from Rocky, landed him on the pop charts and earned him a Grammy nomination. Ferguson’s unabashed courtship of the mainstream tarnished his reputation in hardcore jazz circles, but he does not regret any of his post-Birdland output. “If I enjoy something, I don’t worry about whether [the late critic] Leonard Feather is going to like it or not,” he says. “If it occurs to me, I do it.” Besides, being an iconoclast hasn’t exactly hurt the legacies of other jazz giants; adds Ferguson: “I think Miles liked when he was being a villain, too.”

Eventually, however, Ferguson returned to his roots, creating Big Bop Nouveau in 1990. A sort of development league for aspiring professional musicians, the group, like Ferguson’s previous bands, has produced some of the industry’s most sought-after session players. The people who’ve cycled through the ensemble have usually been about half Ferguson’s age — an ironic reversal of the scenario he often encountered when he was cutting his teeth in Canada, a fresh-faced child prodigy surrounded by experienced adults. He now finds himself in the role of teacher, mentoring a revolving class of students. It may have been destined to happen: both his parents were school principals. But as one of the few remaining torchbearers of jazz’s golden age, Ferguson is uniquely qualified to keep the spirit of the music alive — and to ensure that it keeps evolving.

“One of the things I encourage is, most of all, they learn their instruments and know what they’re listening to, be conscious of what they’re listening to,” he says. “If it’s some rock artist, if that’s what turns them on, you don’t want to be that old schoolmaster who says, ‘How dare you listen to that,’ because that just doesn’t work for them or for you. The jazz thing does not have to stay the same. It never did. Otherwise, we’d still be playing ragtime and all that stuff.”

As Ferguson approaches his 80s, the intensity of his appreciation for music and the way it has shaped his life has not dimmed. It’s unclear if it ever will. For him, an open highway is all he sees in front of him; the word “retirement” has yet to enter his vocabulary.

“As long as I feel good playing and enjoy playing and there’s no health reason that’s keeping me off the road or threatening me — I’ll touch wood on that one — I’ll just keep going until I get that feeling,” Ferguson says. “I guess we all get it, whether the reason is your health or you just want to stop for a while or stop permanently. It doesn’t feel right for me to stop permanently. I’ve been doing this since I was 9 years of age, as far as really doing it. So it’s just what I do. But most important, it’s what I love to do.”

08-01-2006

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