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Maynard Ferguson

(5.4.28 – 8.23.06)

The first two words that come to mind whenever I’ve thought about Maynard-and that has been quite often over the years since leaving his band in 1978 to join Weather Report-are “gracious” and “gentleman.” Of course, most people will conjure the sound and image of Maynard playing one of his trademark soaring trumpet lines that were miles up in the sky. But it was Maynard’s cheerful disposition and generous behavior that made the strongest impression on me. He was the best boss I ever had.

During the two years that I worked for Maynard, he was always kind and welcoming to my parents and friends. Maynard treated every player’s family or girlfriend like honored guests whenever they were brought ’round to meet him. Maynard was also incredibly generous to his sidemen in terms of sharing and shining the spotlight on them. Contrary to most other bandleaders of the time, Maynard always made sure that the guys in his band got their due. Upon hearing the tragic news of Maynard’s passing, I dug out an old videotape of a television appearance the band made in early 1978. After one of the songs we played, Maynard was being interviewed by host Mike Douglas, and he steered one of the questions to provide the opportunity for him to heap praise upon his trumpet section, and used his few seconds of TV-bully pulpit time to promote music education in schools.

One funny story took place during the making of his studio album Conquistador. Maynard’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds, due not only to all of the hard work and time he and the band put in on the road, but by the success of these increasingly “studio” studio albums. In other words, experienced studio musicians were primarily making these records. Naturally this caused some disgruntlement in the band; being on the record was the “cookie” or reward for all of those hours spent on the bus! And some guys were grumbling louder than others. Now, this was all occurring just as I had joined the band in mid-1976. But it didn’t help matters when I had coffee one morning in New York City with my old boss Stan Kenton. When he asked me what I was doing in New York, I answered that I had some time off because Maynard was busy in the studio making an album. Stan realized that Maynard’s guys were not making the album, and so he called Maynard up and gave him a bit of a hard time about it. So Maynard is starting to get sick and tired of hearing from his band, and from his old boss, about the fact that studio musicians are making the album.

A week or two later outside of New York, we finish playing this concert at a small university, and while I’m packing up my drums some fan walks up to me and asks me about the new album: “Hey, is the new record going to be you guys or some studio musicians?” I answered him honestly (but without rancor), “Oh, it’s mostly studio musicians…” and carried on packing away my drums. Apparently, this guy then found Maynard outside the bus and gave him a hard time about it. Maynard had finally had it with all the studio-musician grumbling, but he did not suspect it was me (the new guy) who had caused this latest ruckus; he thought it was one of the brass players. As the bus pulled away from the concert hall and headed toward a music fraternity reception, he got on the bus PA and asked, “Hey, who told someone that the new album is being made by studio musicians?” Innocently, I immediately raised my hand and said, “Oh, that was me, Maynar….”

Before I could finish pronouncing his name he lit into me, the language and emotional tenor almost rivaling that heard on some of the infamous Buddy Rich cassette tapes. Wow! It was intense! He eventually started backing off, probably realizing that it was me he was yelling at and not someone else. The tirade wound down meekly, and he signed off on the intercom. This was followed by total silence on the bus for the remainder of the ride to the reception. Needless to say, the party was not much fun, and I began to question whether I was in the right place; maybe I should go back to college!

A sleepless night followed, and I wondered what I should do. The next morning was going to be a day off and Maynard would sleep in until noon or so. Imagine my surprise to hear a knocking at my door at 7:30 a.m. and to see a well-dressed Maynard standing there. He began by mocking himself in a jazz-musician-caricature way, alluding to his confused state of mind, when all of a sudden he got deadly earnest and looked me right in the eye.

“Did I yell at you last night?” he asked.

I answered, “Uh, yeah,” and he stuck out his hand, saying, “I deeply apologize, and I hope that you will forgive me.” Maynard Ferguson got up at 7 o’clock in the morning on a sleep-in day so he could begin my day with an apology. I knew then that this was a good man, a great man to work for and learn from. And I enjoyed the remainder of my two-year stay with him, always revering his talent, wit, gentlemanliness and graciousness.

The album Conquistador went on to become a number #1 hit for Maynard, thanks to the success of the cover arrangement of the theme from the movie Rocky-“Gonna Fly Now.” Studio drummer Allan Schwartzberg supplied the disco beat for that song, and the band got to play on a few cuts. More importantly, the band enjoyed the ripple effect of the recording’s popularity, playing to packed concert houses and school auditoriums for many years to come. I’m gonna miss Maynard for many more years to come.

Originally Published