Originally printed in the September, 1985 issue of Down Beat
It's been said that change is the only constant in life, and on that premise you'll get no argument from Maynard Ferguson. The 55-year-old trumpeter, who's built a reputation around screeching, "put-'em-through-the-roof" notes from his horn's stratosphere, admitted recently that maybe he's not as knocked out by his forays into musical outer space as he used to be.
"I'm starting to feel that sometimes I hit too many high notes too soon," he revealed in a phone conversation from his hotel room in Philadelphia. "So, I've been changing my approach a little. For instance, on this tour we've been playing Dennis DiBlasio's Expresso, a powerful opening piece. After a couple of months, I knew what was wrong. It was too strong, so I took eight phrases and brought them down an octave and it was perfect. I have to stay in control of this, because it's a lot of fun to write a double high C for somebody and know it's going to come out every time. But on the other hand, if every chart is like that, then the high notes become just high notes, not thrilling high notes.
"People might think that if they write something for me and there are no super high notes, I'll be disappointed," he declared with a chuckle. "That's not true. Dennis and I co-wrote a lovely thing called Beautiful Hearts, and last night, in a concert at a school on Long Island, it was the hit of the evening. I play flugelhorn in the middle register, except for one high lick. There the range is used romantically. You know, there's more than one way to use the upper register."
Not only has the Canadian-born Ferguson adjusted his own playing, he's also altered the structure of his touring ensemble. Going from a four-trumpet, three-reed, two-trombone, and three-rhythm setup, Maynard has opted for fewer horns, with just alto and baritone saxes, two trumpets, and a lone trombone, and has added guitar and percussion.
"The lighter horn section has always appealed to me." Ferguson, with his shock of salt-and-pepper hair, maintained. "When I hear the big bands, I love 'em, but I like something smaller and quicker moving. I always say I have the world's biggest group or the smallest big band. The thing is, a group can't sound like a big band, but the reverse can be true."
Another reason for cutting down on horn players has been to give those still around more opportunities to solo. "I've discovered that with the current setup everybody gets to express themselves," said Ferguson, who's been leading a large ensemble of one kind or another for almost 30 years, "That's kind of a fulfilling thing for me, too, because through the years I've enjoyed watching the guys establish themselves and then leave and become successful on their own."
One more facet of Ferguson's musical meanderings - he spends about two months at a stretch away from his home in California's idyllic Ojai Valley - and one thing that never stays the same is life in transit. "There's no such thing as a general day on the road," he said. "No two days are alike; it's very changeable. Last night we were on Long Island and now we're in Philly. Today I've got the interview, and I'm trying to figure out how to hook up a VCR in the hotel. Hopefully, I'll be able to hook it up on the bus. We don't have all the amenities that rock groups have, but our bus is somewhat customized, with TV and so on. The guys spend a lot of time listening to music, too. It's not like in the old days, when all you did was lease a bus from Trailways and off you went."
Ferguson's long road jaunts take him to such out-of-the-way nooks and crannies as Lorain Community College in Elvira, Ohio and Windsor Locks High School in Enfield, Connecticut. This means working hours are usually from about 8-11 p.m., as opposed to the occasional club date, which runs quite a bit later. "We don't see the Birdlands," he said, referring to the denizen of modern jazz at Broadway and 52nd in Manhattan, "where the sets run until four in the morning. I think that's a thing of the past."
Ferguson, whose first major-league pro gigs in the late '40s included stings with Charlie Barnet, Boyd Raeburn, and Jimmy Dorsey, is glad that school music programs have also grown with the times. "Music education has gotten so hip over the last 15 years," he remarked with characteristic enthusiasm. "Even the marching bands at half-time, which used to crank out one more tired version of Colonel Bogey, are starting to play really nice stuff. I think that's an indication of the general healthy state of educational programs."
The trumpeter pointed to increased awareness of teachers as a key ingredient in the positive turn of events. "Yes, the instructors are concentrating more on the knowledge of the music of yesterday and techniques of today, then ultimately turning the kids loose and letting them be themselves. I see a lot healthier group of musicians. They seem to come out a lot more mature at an earlier age, because of the music system."
"Still, I know you can't replace that street learning, as I call it, going to a club and sitting in, learning to play the blues before you know what a D minor seventh is. That enthusiasm will come out of your horn in the form of feeling."
What about the fact that there simply aren't enough jobs for all the musicians who are coming out of school? "Well, that's always been the case," Maynard stated. "Music's still a marvelous education that can serve you all your life. It's quite desirable to be a happy amateur. It's a great hobby."
Part of the trumpeter's regular routine of playing at high schools, colleges, and universities is to conduct clinics, advising students on anything from maintaining one's musical individuality to the value of participating in a multitude of playing situations. Most questions focus on Ferguson's rare ability to play in the upper reaches of his instrument with amazing power and clarity. Answering these, he emphasizes the basics of breath control.
"I tell everyone, young and old alike," he said, "to go out and get a couple of books on Hatha Yoga, and read the parts about breath, or prana. The Indians call prana 'the life force,' and sometimes we forget that if we weren't breathing, we'd be dead. There's nothing superstrong about my lip, but there is about my range and stamina. That comes from [unintelligible due to bad copy] my breathing." To aid in this coordination, Ferguson offers students various body and lip positions, which combined with the proper air stream aid in producing desired high notes. His own daily practice regime varies from reading exercises to playing along with records, and his pre-concert warm up is surprisingly brief. "I'll hit a few lip trills," the man famed for his version of Gonna Fly Now, from the movie Rocky, indicated, "maybe a few slurs. While I don't practice upper register, I might hit one high note - one super high note that is. But what I want is my air and coordination more than my lip. This coordination allows you to play delicately as well as powerfully. The thing is, we all have this coordination inside us, we just don't know how to teach it."
Ferguson admits that while all this sounds easy, it isn't always that way. Each night brings new challenges, as well as new double high C's to unveil to spine-tingled audiences. The key to pulling it off is recognizing one's own pleasure. "It comes down to really loving what I do," he stated. "I don't mean that I've always had this together. Now I've gone off the track like anybody, but when I'm on the track, I know that I'm enjoying what I do and I work hard at it, because working hard feels good. It's marvelous when it's done with that positive joy - and I meditate just before I go on stage every night. I close the band room door and I meditate on what a joyful thing I have that I do. It's a way of getting over any nervousness.
"I feel that the divine force - Good or whatever you want to call it - is telling me that this is what I was meant to do. My assignment in life is to play and to bring pleasure to myself, to the musicians when they are with me, and to the audience. Loving this path gives me a lot of energy."
The quest for musical excellence began bright and early in Ferguson's life. At four he played a piano, a year later it was violin, then trumpet at 11. At 15, he was leading a band, and soon thereafter he traveled to Hollywood, playing with Charlie Barnet among others, he joined Stan Kenton on January 1, 1950, playing in Kenton's 41-piece Innovation in Modern Music band.
"Then I took a job as a contract player in the studios," Maynard recalled. "I left that a few years later to form my Birdland Dream Band (which featured such names as Al Cohn, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown, and Ray Brown). Everybody thought I was nuts going from this great paying gig to leading a big band when times were tough. But I felt I was quickly learning how to play golf and forgetting how to play music. You see, we were paid for 44 pictures a year and only scoring maybe six or seven. Still, it was a great way of life, and that's where I met my wife, Flo. She was living across the street from me in Laurel Canyon."
Slugging it out in the big band arena, Ferguson lived in the U.S., England, and India during the '60s, returning to this country in the early '70s riding on a minor pop hit he had with MacArthur Park. Then, almost by chance, he recorded the theme from Rocky, which earned him a Grammy nomination in 1974 and put him strongly on the charts for the first time. "Then we got caught up a little in the urgency of having a hit," he said. "Gonna Fly Now was a pure happening, and it worked out great. But when you have a success, there was that 'let's make another one' time. The musical reins were slowly slipping away as the money came in. Being with a major label, you can understand it. They're in the business of selling phonograph records."
Talking about the his brought to Ferguson's mind a conversation he had with pianist Bob James, who had been Maynard's pianist (just before another talented fellow named Chick Corea) in the mid-'60s: "Bob heard the tune over the phone, and after awhile he started laughing. 'I don't think you should do it; I think I should do it."
Ferguson's latest release, Live From San Francisco, on the Palo Alto label, is easily among his most satisfying projects. His warm, persuasive middle range is attractively showcased on Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life, a medley of tunes from the bop era, Bebop Buffet, reaffirms his affection for that style, and there are even a couple of vocals. What's perhaps most striking about the album is what's missing: Ferguson's flights to the realm of Gabriel are delivered sparingly, making them matter rather than simply be matter-of-fact.
The high-blast master feels strongly about the LP. "Yeah, I love the new one, maybe because I produced it [Jeffrey Weber is listed as co-producer]. I remember years ago, when I had the hit with Gonna Fly Now, Woody [Herman] congratulated me and said how much he liked it. 'You put that one together yourself, didn't you?' he asked. 'Well, yeah.' I told him. 'I had Jay Chattaway do the arrangement but I pretty much knew what I wanted.' Then he said, 'Well, with a big band the leader's always the producer anyway.' That cracked me up."
Live From San Francisco, which was taped at the Great American Music Hall will be distributed in Japan by CBS Sony. Maynard played the Orient two years ago as part of a Budweiser-sponsored series of concerts. One program found him playing in a small band with bassist Eddie Gomez and pianist McCoy Turner. "Those guys can make any of my mistakes sound terribly creative," he related.
The gents enjoyed their fleeting moments enough to line up another engagement, this time at Avery Fisher Hall as part of the New York's 1984 Kool Jazz Festival Dubbed the Maynard Ferguson All-Stars, the group - Turner, Gomez, drummer Peter Erskine, trombonist Slide Hampton, and baritone saxman Dennis DiBlasio - shared the bill with guitar whiz Stanley Jordan and Wynton Marsalis' quintet. At one point Marsalis sat in with Maynard. "It was a wonderful happening," Ferguson said.
DiBlasio, for several years a major member of the trumpeter's road warriors, has departed, though he still contributes charts. "He decided he'd rather live with his wife than with me." Maynard said with a roaring laugh. "I can't figure out why."
How does the leader keep his marriage alive and happy with so much time spent away from home? "Well, that's what works for me. Flo's still my best friend and my lover, so I must have done something right. Maybe going away is good for us."