Maynard Ferguson, Trumpet Player, bandleader
Originally printed in "Contemporary Musicians, Volume 7"
Jazz legend Maynard Ferguson far surpasses the title "trumpet player"; he is an internationally famous big-band leader, one of the world's great brass players, and instrument designer, record producer, composer, arranger, producer of film soundtracks, and dedicated teacher. He is also a three-time Grammy Award nominee and Down Beat magazine award winner. The prolific bandleader has recorded over 60 albums in his lifetime. The alumni list of his band members over four decades reads like a Who's Who of the jazz world: Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione, Bill Chase, Bob James, Slide Hampton, Wayne Shorter, Greg Bissonette, Peter Erskine, Joe Zawinul, Willie Maiden, and Don Ellis are just some of the greats Ferguson's bands have bred. Ferguson emerged from big-band swing and worked his way through jazz, bebop, rock, funk, disco, and fusion. When he wasn't actually playing his horn, he conducted, cueing his men, or just snapped his fingers and enjoyed the music. He has been a hustler, a tireless worker, and remarkably generous with his musical abilities. Few careers have spanned so many different forms of music, tribute indeed to Ferguson's flexibility and staying power.
Ferguson was a child prodigy who first soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra at the age of 11. He was born in the Montreal suburb of Verdun on May 4, 1928. His mother was a violinist with the Ottowa Symphony Orchestra and later, a teacher who helped introduce music into the curriculum of the Montreal public school system. His father was a high school principal. By the time Ferguson was four, he too was playing the violin as well as the piano. At the age of nine he was enrolled in the French Conservatory of Music to receive formal training. He has cited his main influences as his mother and Louis Armstrong.
American Debut in 1948
Ferguson attended Montreal High School, but quit at age 15 to pursue music as a vocation. Around that time he played in a dance band, let by his brother Percy, with another budding musician, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. By the age of sixteen Ferguson was leading his own jazz and dance band. All of the musicians in his band were twice his age, except Percy, with whom he had effectively reversed roles. In 1948 the 20-year-old Ferguson moved to the U.S. and made his debut with Boyd Raeburn's progressive band. He also played with Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet, and performed on woodwind and brass as a one-man act in New York's cafe society.
From 1950 to 1953 Ferguson's lashing, high-register trumpet was the cornerstone of Stan Kenton's enormous brass section. During his years with Kenton, Ferguson built a reputation that relied more on his dazzling technique - screech trumpeting in the dizzying upper register of his instrument - than his creativity as a soloist. The fire-breathing trumpeter took first place in Down Beat magazine's best trumpeter poll for three successive years beginning in 1950. After his stint with Kenton, Ferguson spent three years as first-call studio trumpeter for Paramount Pictures and recorded film soundtracks for Paramount, including that of the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. In 1955 Ferguson joined Leonard Bernstein for a performance of the "Titans," by William Russo, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
The following year, after a period of free-lancing, Ferguson formed the first of several thirteen-piece orchestras, which were noted for the biting precision of their brass sections. On the striking "Frame for the Blues," off the Message From Newport album, Ferguson's dramatic solo style sears, and Don Sebesky, Don Menza, and Slide Hampton offer some of their best arrangements. Other noteworthy soloists featured on that applauded recording were Jaki Byard, Don Ellis, Joe Farrell, and Chuck Mangione. In 1959 an International Critic's Poll, conducted by Down Beat, voted the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra first place in the "new star" big-band division. But, as the popularity of big bands waned in the mid-1960s, Ferguson was forced to economize; he toured less frequently with the big band, favoring a smaller sextet instead. Finally, in 1967, he disbanded and his group began to follow a new path.
Spiritual Renewal in India
In 1968 and 1969 Ferguson taught at the Krishnamurtl-based Rhishi Valley School near Madras, India, which widened both his spiritual and musical horizons. He took his family with him to India, and they eventually moved to England. There Ferguson toured as the leader of a band called Top Brass. He also manufactured personally designed trumpets and mouthpieces from his home in Manchester. Being situated in England made touring Europe easier for Ferguson, and he took advantage of the proximity by embarking on forays across the continent with a variety of ensembles.
In 1969 Ferguson signed with CBS Records in England and created a repertoire for his new British band in which pop and rock songs were rearranged into a big band format, with electronic amplification. This was Ferguson's response to the psychedelic sixties. He produced contemporary arrangements of late 1960s and early 1970s hits like "MacArthur Park" and the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Ferguson's recording of "Gonna Fly Now," - the theme from the hit film Rocky - catapulted Maynard into mainstream popularity with a Top-10 single, a gold album, and a Grammy nomination in 1978. His album Conquistador, from which "Gonna Fly Now" sprang, earned Ferguson an unusual place in the history of music; with Conquistador, he alone was able to crack the pop charts in 1977. Ferguson's efforts helped rekindle the public's interest in big bands; his fanfare solos, along with his expertise on several brass instruments - often demonstrated in a single performance - set a dazzling example of sheer technical virtuosity.
Big Bop Nouveau
In addition to the trumpet, Ferguson plays the trombone, saxophone, clarinet, violin and piano. He stands five feet, nine inches tall, and attributes his horn-power to yogic concentration, which he claims enables him to control his central nervous system and make his lungs generators of energy. He is a family man, married since 1952 to his wife, Flo, and quick to speak proudly of his son and four daughters. One of his daughters, Kim, manages his current outfit, the Big Bop Nouveau Band. Started in the late 1980s, the band leans heavily toward more traditional jazz, reflecting both Ferguson's roots and major strengths. In the spring of 1990 Ferguson released the Big Bop Nouveau album, a combination of studio recordings and live takes from his 60th Birthday Band Tour. With the Big Bop Nouveau Band there is a new stress on instrumentation, marking Ferguson's return to where critics have so often preferred him; in front of a jazz-flavored big band. The Nouveau Band avoids overly-synthesized sounds, and focuses on hard-edged, straight-ahead be-bop jazz music - the sound that established Ferguson in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As a young man in the 1950s Ferguson set the jazz world aflame with his innovative Birdland Dreamband. Four decades later - he has come full-circle back to his role as legendary, premier big-band leader. Over his lifetime career in music, Ferguson has displayed many peaks and valleys, often straying far from his roots; as a result, his sound is much richer, as are his devoted followers. Although it's never clear where Ferguson may roam next, it's certain that it will be a lively journey.