Maynard Ferguson Elected to Hall of Fame
By Zan Stewart, from Downbeat Magazine
It's hard for a jazz fan to hear the name Maynard Ferguson and not have some kind of immediate response.
Many will think of the trumpeter's uncanny ability to play clear-ringing notes of such aural altitude they seem to be calling to us from the stratosphere. Others will remember the Canadian native's showy, structuring, pop-flavored treatments of "Gonna Fly Now"-the theme from the original Rocky film (which, as a single, hit #28 on the Billboard pop charts in 1977) - "Macarthur Park," or Joe Zawinul's "Birdland."
Still others will associate Ferguson with his various bands, from the swinging Kentonian-Basie-ish groups of the mid-to-late 50's to current Big Bop Nouveau, ensembles which have served as spawning grounds for many of jazz's finest proponents. Among these are pianist Jaki Byard and Joe Zawinul; saxophonists Lew Tabackin, Wayne Shorter (an MF member for two months in 1959, just prior to his joining Art Blakey), Pepper Adams, and Frank Vicari; bassist Eddie Gomez; drummers Peter Erskine and Greg Bissonette; and trombonists Slide Hampton and Jimmy Cleveland.
Then, of course, there's the 64-year-old's devotion to jazz education. One of the staunchest advocates of curriculums that emphasize the various facets of improvisational music, Ferguson has also been a tireless performer on high school and college campuses, where he conducts clinics as well as concerts about five months a year. He cites education as holding the key to jazz's future, both in terms of musical talent, and a prospective audience, and says that it is substantially responsible for his considerable appeal.
"There are so many young people involved now who are upleveling the music," he says. "My current band is made up of players in their 20s, and many have master's degrees. That wouldn't have happened in the past."
By any standards, Ferguson, the 78th member of Down Beat's Hall of Fame, has had a musically rich career. Born in Montreal, he came to the U.S. in the late 40's and was heard with bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Charlie Barnet, and, from 1950 to '56, Stan Kenton. Then he began fronting units under his name.
The trumpeter, who also plays a number of other brass instruments with more than a passing proficiency, quickly established himself as a high-note specialist. But if you pay more than cursory attention to his solos from his early years, as well as more recent efforts, you'll hear a man who, while certainly not a hard-bopper in the Lee Morgan-Clifford Brown mold, could, and can, deliver a very swinging improvised statement. As critic John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times, describing Ferguson's performance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in 1984: "Even when he rose to some customary squeals, it was done with such rhythmic and melodic grace that he seemed to be dancing on the squealing."
Ferguson as a bandleader has also almost always kept foot-tapping, rhythmically persuasive material in his book, whether it be the hard-charging arrangements by Slide Hampton and Bill Holman for his late 50's and early 60's bands, or his present affection for bebop with Big Bop Nouveau. Even the Rocky era of the late 70's and early 80's was not without its aesthetic strengths. Tabackin, who played with Ferguson during the mid-60's, was a member of another transition band. "He was going into rock, but he did it interestingly. It was a good band," says the saxophonist known for his keen taste in acoustic-based jazz.
For many decades, he's had a spiritual tie with India, first his relationship with the noted teacher and philosopher J. Krishnamurti, and, more recently, with his guru, Sai Baba.
Ferguson, a man who looks forward and not back, is indefatigable, maintaining an arduous road schedule that in 1992 took the band to Brazil and India, both for the first time, and to New Zealand, Australia, and, of course, Europe.
A three-time Grammy winner, Maynard Ferguson has no plans to slow down. "It's all thrilling me, especially the new places. I just hope I don't run out of energy."