The Swing Means Everything - A jazz legend comes to Thailand and takes more than he bargained for back with him
Originally printed in the Bangkok Post, September 2000.
By Sita Holroyd
'I would have made a terrible accountant, or insurance salesman nothing traditional, even although my parents were both school principals. All I had was music and I was lucky enough to be allowed to run with it."If ever there was an understatement, this would have to be it. It's spoken by Maynard Ferguson, who at the age of 72, has lived a life of musical expression with orchestral proportions and continues to share the swing with all who are lucky enough to get near. "I was born to do this," he says, with the conviction of a man who has lived true to his dreams.
Maynard was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1928 and his musical aptitude was evident from an early age. Encouraged by his mother and father, Maynard was playing the piano and violin by the time he was four years old. At nine he picked up his first trumpet and went on to win a scholarship at the French Conservatory of Music, where he received formal training. By the age of 13, Maynard was hailed a child prodigy and soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra.
At 16, while he might not yet have been kissed, he did come to the attention of the great band leaders of the big band era (think '40s movies, Brylcream, sharp suits and teeth as shiny as polished brass horns). "I led the warm-up band in Canada for all the great orchestras when they passed through Montreal, including Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and both Dorsey brothers," he recalls.
It is now 50 years later and Maynard's fourth decade as a band leader. He has played the great stages of the world, jammed with his heroes and travelled to distant shores. He has won armfuls of awards, and is perhaps one of the only musicians of his kind to have cracked the pop charts-most notably in 1979 with the composition of the theme from the film Rocky, starring Sylvester Stalone. So what, you might ask, would be left? Where do you go after you have reached your goals? What Maynard didn't bargain for was an evening at the Royal Palace, as a guest of His Majesty the King, who is a confessed jazz fan and accomplished musician, mastering the alto and tenor saxophone, the trumpet, the clarinet and the piano. "We started playing around 11 pm and His Majesty truly is a great player. What I thought may be a couple of hours of sharing our music, went on until 5 am! I got tired, but His Majesty could have kept on and on!" Maynard laughs and shakes his shock of white hair.
Playing his omnipresent trumpet on Monday evening at the Thailand Cultural Centre to an expectant audience, you would never have supposed the recent royal audience and the marathon session. The build-up to his appearance on stage was justified with a wavering note from his instrument-so powerful you might have wondered if a gale force storm was brewing. His Big Bop Nouveau band created the perfect backdrop to his piercing solos, all taking a turn at the mike and demonstrating some extraordinary skills, both with instruments ranging from alto to baritone saxophone, trombone, piano, drums and flute, and the be-bop rhythms of scat vocals.
The two-hour set featured contemporary takes on favourites such as It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing and Girl from Ipanema and a full range of His Majesty the King's compositions, such as A Love Story, No Moon and Love at Sundown. But as serious as Maynard and his band are about music, the performance was punctuated with humour, ushering the crowd to its feet in appreciation and at one point, Maynard into the throng to meet and greet like the consummate entertainer.
After the last hair-raising number, incorporating the supporting Bangkok Big Band, of Gonna Fly Now (the Rocky theme), the man in the white suit headed for his dressing room and a well deserved rest. But not without a final comment.
When asked for any advice for the aspiring big-band performer, Maynard shoots it straight. "I have a story to tell you, the words of another man but words that say it all. Leonard Bernstein listened to a student play his trumpet. When he had finished, the student asked if he should become a jazz musician. 'No, no!' replied Leonard. The student was shocked and asked why. And his answer was this; if you have to ask, it is not in your heart. You have to love it enough to do it anyway. You have to love it enough to know it's what you want. Keep it as a hobby if you have to ask me." Fortunately for jazz enthusiasts, Maynard never had to question.