By Pete Nelson
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when the great trumpeter and band leader Maynard Ferguson went through the transition from the glory days of his youth to the hard times for big bands in the sixties, to his move to England and ultimately his triumphant return to the United States. Maynard was still overseas when I started playing the trumpet and I knew nothing of him. My introduction to him came in 1972. My older brother bought me an album for my twelfth birthday called MF Horn II. He told me that this guy was some trumpet player who was from the United States but had moved away and had not been heard from for a while. But now he had this British band and was getting all this word of mouth from young people saying he was the hottest thing going. I vaguely recall playing a tune or two and not really caring about it. Duh. Fortunately a friend of mine saw it in my record collection two years later, when I was fourteen, and he was curious. So we put it on and this time I was blown away. I clearly recall him saying "You didn't like THIS??" That was that. I was hooked. By the way, with the benefit of hindsight, I still view MF Horn II as the album with Maynard's best playing. His tone, his purity, his absolute control, his soaring lines are, for me, unmatched by anything else. I always noticed that his playing was clearer and his technique cleaner in the fifties but that his sound was fatter and more powerful in the seventies and on into the early eighties, when the clarity and control in his sound really dropped. But in the seventies, he had both, the whole package, and nowhere more than on something like "Give it One", "Spinning Wheel" or the awesome arrangement of "Country Road."
So after digging MF Horn II I immediately went to the record store and looked for Maynard discs. There was a new album out called Chameleon. Imagine being a teenage trumpet player who loves jazz and funk, and then hearing that album for the first time. It was a hell of a time to be discovering Maynard, at the same time America was rediscovering him. Boy, was America rediscovering him. By the time I got to high school, Maynard was the man.
My high school, Cleveland Heights High School, was an excellent school for music and had a very good jazz band (still does). Actually, there was enough interest and talent that we had two big bands. As a sophomore I played in the second band where, among other things, we did Maynard's version of "Chameleon." My best friend and I attempted the lead line and sort of played it, but you know, we were just sophomores... As for the main band, before Maynard blew up the hot charts in the band were Bill Chase charts. Just before I joined the band the big feature was Get It On (nice chart, that one). But when I joined as a junior the book was filled with Maynard charts. Now during this year (1977-1978) the band was particularly strong. In fact about a quarter or third of the band turned pro out of high school. Our lead trumpet player, Joe Miller, was an okay player the year before, but over the summer he had done some practicing. Like everyone else he wanted to play like Maynard. When we came back to school for band camp he stood in the football field and played "MacArthur Park." We were in awe. Equipped with Joe, a couple other trumpet players that could really play and a really good rhythm section we took on a lot of tough charts.
During my junior year a new album came out, highly anticipated by my musical friends. Primal Scream had been something of a let down, for although it had some good stuff, it maybe felt a little too over-arranged and didn't have enough of Maynard's energy. I think it hurt that it really wasn't a big band album. After all, Maynard's energy flows with his band. So hopes were high for the new one. Naturally, when we heard Conquistador we were thrilled. Oh yeah, it was still very much arranged, but it was well arranged, it was definitely a big band album, and it was hot, very very hot. Of course as we know it catapulted Maynard to superstardom. Once again, it was pretty cool to actually experience that. So, our band added "Rocky" and "Conquistador" to our book.
"Rocky" was Joe's big feature and he could play the whole thing, virtually note for note. The entire band played that chart well. We played it at a festival with some college bands and we blew them off the stage. It was an incredible rush and just made our Maynard mania stronger. We also played "Nice and Juicy", "Country Road", "Spinning Wheel" and a few others. We attempted "Give it One" but that was too much for us. So was "La Fiesta." What were we thinking? So, definitely, was "Conquistador." Joe couldn't play that. Nonetheless we were a band that spent a lot of effort trying to emulate Maynard's band and sometimes we were pretty good. By the way, Joe still plays professionally in Cleveland and he is a very good player.
So, with all of this as backdrop, with Maynard becoming a name even non jazz fans were digging, with Maynard-worship running rampant in our school band, with Conquistador going gold, Maynard came to Cleveland. He was playing the Front Row, a suburban venue that all the hot acts played. It was a theatre in the round, very large, with a rotating stage. Now you have to realize the difference between Maynard as a legend and respected band leader as he is now, and Maynard as a superstar as he was then, for a brief time as hot an act in music as there was. Maynard's concerts were more like rock concerts than jazz concerts at this point, with mega volume and splashy lighting and all that. And Maynard was flush - he was touring with a larger band than usual. On this gig I believe he had sixteen in the band. He had five - count 'em - five trumpet players. And, by the way, in my opinion that section, with Stan Mark on lead, was the most powerful he's ever had (except for maybe when Bill Chase was lead). Stan Mark was a mother. He's the closest player I've heard to having Maynard's full sound. Naturally the trumpets were miked to the max - more than they are these days. Hell, the whole band was miked to the limit. Biff Hannon had keyboards all over the place. It was a nasty band and a nasty sound.
It wouldn't be a Maynard concert without "Blue Birdland" to open. As the band played the riff Maynard was introduced as "Columbia Records recording artist and the greatest trumpet player in the world, Maynarrrrrrrd Ferguson!" Maynard put his horn to his lips and blew the roof off the dump. Then the band opened with "Give it One." I wish every Maynard fan could get a chance to hear his band play that tune live. It's a great tune, my favorite opening tune for Maynard. It was played significantly faster than on the album, except for the part in the middle section when the trumpets play this unison riff that goes low and then back high. That was slowed down to come out note by note, this shimmering trumpet sound layered up in perfect harmony to Maynard, climbing up to a high 'G.' Then it was back to the blistering tempo to finish. Every trumpet player knows that your chops are different for each performance. Consistency on trumpet is extremely difficult, which makes Maynard's longevity all the more amazing. But like everyone else Maynard has nights when his chops are on and nights when they're not. After "Give it One" everybody knew that this night that they were perfect.
I don't recall all the charts the band played that night but some of it I remember almost note for note to this day. They opened the second set with "Rocky" and the place went nuts. They played "Chameleon and the place went nuts. They played "Pagliacci" and Maynard went nuts. He never tired, not the whole night. He played a terrific Superbone solo, I think on "Shaft." I think he played "Gospel John" but I don't remember for sure. The band showed incredible variety. It was very percussive and rhythmic, aided no doubt by the fact that Loon P. Mosello, one of the trumpet players, had a full percussion setup and used it throughout the evening. It was just a great concert from top to bottom. But of all this there were two highlights.
One, surprisingly was "Star Trek." This chart was not a favorite of mine by any means. Not until this performance. The opening was extended for several minutes, with Biff Hannon doing a lot of very cool stuff with synthesizers. When the band got going Maynard played the theme, keeping it down all the way. Then Bobby Militello came out and set a world record for a flute solo duration. He was terrific. Finally it was all Maynard, taking the theme up an octave and absolutely soaring. I'm not sure how high he went, but it was all broad and beautiful, and flawless.
The other highlight, and the biggest of the night, was "Conquistador." If you never got a chance to hear Maynard in his prime play that, you missed something. Maynard opened with the well known fanfare, except augmented it in range and power. His sound filled the hall. Again the opening was extended, setting the mood with that rhythmic parade drumming and some atmospheric keyboards and low ostinato rumble. Then the trumpets filed out from the back and one at a time took their turns on trumpet calls. They were all fantastic. Loon Mosello did a classical thing, then went high with more power than expected. Stan Mark blew everyone away with a powerhouse call that sounded like Maynard through and through. Then Ron Tooley took the front. He stood there silently for a moment. Then he lifted his horn and played the famous Close Encounters five note them D - E - C - low C - G in the middle register of the horn. Close Encounters having come out that year, everybody laughed. Ron stood there briefly. Then he took it up an octave, with paint peeling power, and another wide Maynard-style tone. The crowd cheered while he stood. Then he took it up another octave which pretty much stunned the audience. Then he turned around, having played nothing else, and went back to his spot. It was awesome. I guess he wanted to push Maynard, and he did because when the famous "Conquistador" build-up came Maynard let it all go. That performance was so hot I can't describe it to you. The solos burned, the horn riffs were so hard, so tight. Maynard played like a man possessed.
It wasn't just the visceral power of the band that impressed. As always the tightness, the precision, the professionalism were impeccable. But despite the criticism of some critics at the time, this was a damn good jazz band. Mike Migliori, Mark Colby, Randy Purcell, Biff Hannon, all were good soloists. They listened to each other. The band was responsive, pulsing, musical. It wasn't all blasting power, which is why the really powerful stuff was even better. All in all it was an unforgettable night, and without a doubt the best concert I have ever attended.
To be honest, everything Maynard did after that was more or less a let down, although there have been moments. But for me, with his stratospheric shot up into stardom, and our band playing his stuff, and being a young trumpet player, and Maynard at the peak of his abilities, that concert was the pinnacle. And lest you think that the fact that everything that followed didn't measure up is a downer, then think again. It's the pinnacle that matters, and it wouldn't be a pinnacle if it didn't stand alone. That Maynard could reach such a level for me, for countless other fans, is the truest testament to his greatness. It is why we still follow him today, why we appreciate him still out on the road, still coming out to "Blue Birdland", still nailing the high notes. Here's to you, Maynard. Thanks.