Maynard Ferguson: 7th Heaven

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Maynard Ferguson
By Jack Vartoogian

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This May 4th, Maynard Ferguson celebrated his 70th Birthday with a weeklong gig at the Blue Note in New York featuring his latest band, Big Bop Noveau (to hear one of the sets, check out the Blue Note broadcast archives, on the web at http://www.audionet.com/concerts/bluenote/).

When he debuted with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in 1950, Canadian Maynard Ferguson quickly developed a reputation for his ability play in the uppermost registers of the horn with remarkable accuracy. Over the past forty years, he’s demonstrated that he was no one-trick pony. For this listener, Ferguson’s jazz chops were certified on the 1954 Mercury recording, Dinah Jams a session based around singer Dinah Washington with the singular trumpet stylings of Ferguson, Clifford Brown and Clark Terry proving to be particularly memorable.

Ferguson recalls the session fondly, remarking that “those guys are two of my superheroes. If we were dealing in the old game called careers, I would say the fame cards came awfully late for Clark Terry. I’ve always thought of him as one of the great trumpeters. And Clifford, well, they were both so lyrical and creative. What I really love about jazz is that I can describe them that way and yet they don’t sound at all alike. They’re both unique individualists.”

Father Time has yet to frown on Ferguson, who still launches into distant galaxies with remarkable else, now ably assisted by an eight-piece ensemble. Their latest Concord CD is entitled One More Trip to Birdland. Back in ’56, Ferguson’s first group was dubbed the Birdland Dream Band and he’s led some important bands that have included such alumni as Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Slide Hampton, Don Ellis, Jaki Byard, Joe Farrell and Peter Erskine.

Ferguson remains an active supporter of young talent, and the youthful vigor of his music continues to electrify audiences. He’s on the road almost nine months a year, with several long trips to India annually between touring that serve to rejuvenate and inspire him.

I caught up with Ferguson one afternoon the week of his Blue Note birthday bash. As his stage presence suggests, he’s a jovial, engaging fellow, very much at home in his seventh decade. Turning 70, he reports that he experienced no revelations. “It just comes gradually to you,” he explained. “I feel good and enjoy the music; in fact, I enjoy my work now more, perhaps because of the great young players in my band. If you remember all those bad movies on big bands, well, it’s a little better than /now. We’ve only pushed the bus once in a the last eight years.”

Like the young musicians in his band, Ferguson paid his dues traveling in a bus, learning his craft through a series of one-nighters. Yet he finds young musicians today come much better equipped, thanks to educational advances fostered by organizations like the International Association of Jazz Educators. “I love the fact that they had to change their name and logo a few years ago from the National Association of Jazz Educators. I really see the global nature of this music when I’m suddenly doing clinics with interpreters.”

Playfully, he adds, “Number one, it’s unfortunate we call them clinics. I know that ‘master class’ sounds pompous, but clinics sounds like there’s something wrong with the kids. You better go to the clinic and get that taken care of, that B flat minor seventh.”

Turning serious, he bemoans the cutbacks that have plagued the arts, and jazz education programs in particular. “A school band can’t get a new piano but there’s lots of football helmets available,” he laments. “I’m a big fan of music education in the schools because there’s so much joy associated with playing music. Get on the bus of a marching band on their way to a football game sometime and check out that vibe. Maybe we should substitute alto saxophones for handguns.”

When Ferguson started, the learning process was quite different, and today he believes that “you almost never find a great improviser who’s young and also not a great sight reader. In the old days, Jimmy Ford, my lead alto player, was a terrorist of a player but Willie Maiden would have to teach Jimmy his lead alto part, note by note. He never had that formal education. Some guys would say, not being able to read, you’d remain more natural. That’s all jive. What it’s really about is that you can have both. Today, the musician who comes on my band is musically mature at a much younger age.”

As far as the traveling itself, “it’s not as bizarre as it was in the old days.” Ferguson doesn’t know “how we did it. On the road, we just sat on a Greyhound type bus upright, so did Count Basie, so did Stan Kenton, so did Duke Ellington, so did Woody Herman, all of them. It was the rock’n’roll kids who taught us a lesson and threw out the seats. We now have glamorous bunks and kitchens and great sound systems in the bus.”

Ferguson’s interest in Indian music and spirituality was sparked by listening to Ravi Shankar, back in the ’60s. Each year, he spends eight to ten weeks in the ashram of Sai Baba in India. “But I do not evangelize,” he insists, “you won’t catch me saying, you really ought to check it out, I don’t like that...it’s not one of those, hand me your credit cards and your check book and I’ll show you God. With Sai Baba, he says, ‘If you come to me, come to me and leave better at what you already are.’”

The trumpeter loves playing with Indian musicians and when he first started, “I didn’t have a smokin’ rhythm section. I was playing with Indian instruments. They were the teachers and I was the student because when get into their unique rhythms, we Western musicians are the amateurs.”

His performance routine includes something he picked up from Sai Baba. “To this day,” he explains, “every time I go on stage, they empty my dressing room for just a minute and I do a very short thing, just reminding myself that I’m making myself happy by doing this and I wish that the musicians who play with me share this happiness. I find it very important, in an honest way, to transfer that happiness to the audience.

“I’m not a fan of, hey man, I play for myself and that’s it. That’s sounds very hip in a script but it doesn’t work for me. I think people are attracted to music because I have a happy band. We have a lot of fun. Buddy Rich certainly ruled his band differently. Toscanni used to rant and rave. On the other side, I once played with Leonard Bernstein, who was just wonderful. When he made a correction, it always sounded like a suggestion. That’s artistic diplomacy. The regimental part of music, the ensemble component and playing together, can be positively influenced by a strong leader. But individual artistry, I feel that’s affected negatively if there’s that element of aggression involved.”

As for the future, Maynard plans to keep on keeping on “as long as I enjoy it, which will be forever.” And, he quickly adds, knocking on the wooden table, “as long as my health is good. This is what I was meant to do. I love presenting all these great young players. I tell them, ‘If you leave my band, I’ll only be mad at you if you’re not a big success with what you’re going to do next.’”

Gearbox

“I play the MF Horn, which is made for me by Holton/LeBlanc. I got into designing trumpets in the late ’60s, so I just don’t put my name on the horn, but actually get involved with the design and production of the horn itself. Along with Larry Ramirez, I designed the Firebird, which is both a slide and valve trumpet, and the Superbone, which is both a slide and valve trombone. All the horns come with a medium and a very large bore. My mouthpiece is by Dave Monet, who makes Wynton’s horns.”

Listening Pleasures

“From my recordings, I think I have a fondness for Message from Newport, with tunes like ‘Frame for fhe Blues,’ by Slide Hampton who did a lot of those charts and I consider him to be a great genius. In fact, he owes me a chart right now! I also listen to a lot of Indian music. Right now Ron Oswanki and I are working on a new suite fusing jazz and classical music. The first one we did was the ‘Sweet Baba Suite.’ This new one will be called ‘Shan Moogo Pria.’ I can’t wait for disc jockeys to say, ‘and now, here’s “Shan Moogo Pria” on rotation.’”

Originally published in October 1998

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