Rocky Road to Fame and Fortune
Originally printed in Down Beat in the late 70's.
By Lee Underwood
Maynard "Double High-C" Ferguson, who considers himself to be a "multi-directional" trumpet player and bandleader/composer/producer, has entertained international audiences for more than three decades.
Today's parents and grandparents thrilled to his screaming, Down Beat poll-winning high and double-high C's in the famous 1950-52 Stan Kenton band. They remember Maynard's 1956 Birdland Dream Band (featuring Al Cohn, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown, and Ray Brown), as well as his 1957-59 13 piece "jazz farm," which included Don Ellis, Don Sebesky, Joe Zawinul, Bill Holman and Chuck Mangione. That band recorded A Message From Newport and won second place (behind Count Basie) in the 1959 Down Beat Readers Poll.
Today's generation of high schoolers and collegians knows Ferguson and his 13 piece band for his Grammy-nominated version of Bill Conti's Gonna Fly Now (the theme from Rocky). They know him for his follow-up disco hit Rocky II (highlighted by Sylvester Stallone's spastic pummeling of a real punching bag in the background). They know him for his flamboyant extravaganzas of still other themes from film, TV and classical music: Summer of '42, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek, Maria from West Side Story, Scheherazade, and of course, his famous Pagliacci, which he played live at the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Montreal Olympic games.
Ferguson is quick to point out that he has also recorded Sonny Rollins' fast paced Airegin, John Coltrane's Naima and Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight.
Careful not to offend those who don't care for movie themes or vintage jazz, Maynard has also recorded pop tunes by James Taylor and the Beatles, and rock tunes by Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Stanley Clarke. Multi-directional, indeed.
Born in Verdun, Quebec, on May 4, 1928, Ferguson, now 52, studied piano and violin at age four; enrolled at the French Conservatory of Music at age 9; studied all reed and brass instruments; settled on trumpet, and began leading his own jazz band at age 15.
After playing with Boyd Raeburn, Charlie Barnet and Jimmy Dorsey in the late '40s, he joined Kenton and attained international fame. During the late '60s, he lived in England and India, signed with CBS in 1969, returned to the States in 1973, and has been popular ever since with such albums as MF Horn, (which included MacArthur Park and led to MF Horn II and III), Chameleon, Primal Scream, Conquistador (with Jay Chattaway's arrangement of the Rocky theme, and two recent albums he produced himself, Carnival and Hot.
Maynard has long been interested in music education and in designing new musical instruments. For years, he has conducted clinics in high schools and colleges. He has also designed the MF Horn series of instruments for Holton-LeBlanc, including the Firebird (combination of valve/slide trumpet) and the Superbone (combination valve/slide trombone).
Fame, the most unstable drug there is, makes peculiar demands. On the one hand, people listen to what the celebrity wants to say. On the other hand, the celebrity who takes a strong stand risks offending those who do not agree. Commercially successful and politically astute, musical celebrity and veteran of a thousand interviews, Maynard Ferguson knows all of the pitfalls, which is perhaps one of the reasons he is affectionately known by some as "The Fox."
The position which Maynard has attained, and for which he deserves all due credit, raises several serious questions among those musicians the world over who wrestle in their souls with what they see as a conflict between art and commerce-often feeling, as trombonist Glenn Ferris once explained, that the dictates of commerce can be antithetical to the dictates of art.
"A lot of musicians," said Ferris, "are racking their brains out, feeling that their music is not worth pursuing because there aren't any money people hanging around saying, 'This is where it's at. This is hip.' Doubt sets in; and the musician winds up putting down the true flowering of himself and his music. The expression of his awareness of life through music becomes sidetracked into being what the system demands and applauds and pays for...This economic trip has nothing to do with music. It's business, and business has to do only with who you know and who likes you and which of their 'bags' you fit into-they've got a 'bag' for everything" (Profile, DB, 12/15/77).
Ferguson: I always have that fun thing with composers and arrangers. I say, "Are you sure what my thing is?" As soon as they say, "Yeah, I know what your thing is," I say, "Great. Now do something different." That is, something which is me, but which I don't impose on other people.
Basie, for example, has sounded the same for many years, and yet I can still sit in front of that band and thrill to it. The same thing with Ellington, even with his great creativity. The same thing with the Beatles. I refer only to their validity. I have no interest in talking about the things that don't enhance me. Their music is their right, their privilege, their art.
Down Beat: At the same time, from the age of four to the present, you have plunged into all kinds of music, and your key word has been "change." To refuse to comment on music you don't like is, of course, politically tactful. That way, you don't offend somebody such as Basie, who has not changed. Nor have Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and numerous others. They find their sound, stick with it, and do not evolve conceptually. That kind of a remark is not necessarily a criticism. It can be a simple, legitimate observation.
Ferguson: I can't sit there and listen to Oscar Peterson play his buns off and then say, "Boy, that was really boring." If I heard Oscar right now, I know I would love it.
Down Beat: The question is not whether Oscar is great or not. We know he is. The question involves whether or not you as a musician feel free enough to articulate what you truly feel about the work of other artists, thereby giving the readers insight into both you and those other works.
Ferguson: A few years ago, I went to hear Oscar after not hearing him for seven years. I was thrilled. I have no preconception about whether I'm going to be bored or entertained. It's a great pleasure not to be bored.
Down Beat: In 1978, your version of Bill Conti's Rocky theme was nominated for a Grammy. You've been playing it virtually every night since you recorded it in 1977. How do you keep from getting bored with it?
Ferguson: Duke Ellington played Take The A Train for a zillion years. And for many years, nobody looked at Maynard Ferguson. Now they do. I love that independence.
Down Beat: Independence?
Ferguson: I love the independence of if I never have another hit single, we're still gonna burn it out every night and we know we'll have good albums. I enjoy doing my own thing and being contemporary, and doing it honestly. I really enjoy playing Rocky, and if you listen to it, you'll see that, in person, my solos are not the same, and the drummer doesn't play it the same way.
Down Beat: When you were 15 and forming your first band, what was your original vision of yourself? Have you become what you wanted to be? What did you aspire to?
Ferguson: I felt it was amazing that people applauded me more than the other guys in the band, because a lot of the other guys were over 30 then, and I was busy learning from them. People liked what I played, and musicians were either dazzled or offended. It's been that way almost my whole career.
If you listen to some of my earlier things, like All the Things You Are, I started doing things that I stopped doing, I felt inhibited. I was afraid the guys wouldn't like me. I've always wanted the guys to like me, and that includes people like critic Leonard Feather and all the guys who are a lot older than me.
Also, I'm a great believer in change. I don't know what I said in my last Down Beat interview, but I reserve the right to say the opposite today, if that's what I feel.
Down Beat: How would you describe those changes?
Ferguson: When you say you didn't have an idol when you were a kid, it sounds politically evasive, but that's really the truth, in that I had so many of them, not just one.
Certainly Dizzy was an influence, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, and all of Duke's players. I hate to say that, because it leaves out so many others. I've played free music with John Surman in England, and I love classical improvisation, a bag of mine on flugelhorn.
On Pagliacci, for example, I don't play a single phrase from the jazz bag. I do my Enrico Caruso thing. Sometimes I walk in the audience, sometimes I walk over by the piano and play acoustically beside David Ramsey. We never play it the same way twice. If you picked up your guitar there, and you played in the Segovia bag, I would stay with you harmonically, but without playing anything from the jazz bag.
Down Beat: Does Rocky give you the identity you really want?
Ferguson: When you say "want"-Peter Philbin of Columbia heard my band, then caught a sneak preview of a movie called Rocky. He and others thought the picture was going to be a hit. Arranger Jay Chattaway and pianist Bob James and about seven other heavyweights thought it would be really hip if my band did it. So we did it, and it took off. Of course, if the film had flopped, then our single wouldn't have had time to sustain itself.
Down Beat: In relation to Pagliacci, Leonard Feather discussed what he called excesses, the flamboyant big sound, the expansiveness. Have these elements not become a kind of standard Maynard Ferguson formula for commercial success?
Ferguson: No more than it was a formula for Enrico Caruso. Surely, as much as I may try, I'm probably not as flamboyant as Enrico. I mean his white gloves, his walking among the people, his singing.
Besides, opera is not as formulated as we may think it is. We don't understand the words. We are moved by the vocal music, the pure music of it, without the words. When I listen to opera, I'm not spending my time with a dictionary. I'm more interested in the music itself, the music of the voice.
Down Beat: The question was not directed toward a discussion of opera, but toward you and the concept of commercial formulas. To what extent can you maintain your allegiance to artistic change and growth, while at the same time complying with the commercial requirements of giving people more Rocky, more Battlestar Galactica?
Ferguson: I think it has to do with the advancement of young people. They are really interested in artistry, and I find it really important to base everything on enjoyment. So I go my own way, changing my mind freely, delighted whenever I discover something new.
Down Beat: The suggestion of the question was that perhaps for some time you have not changed your mind.
Ferguson: If I haven't changed, my mind has nevertheless been open to it. You mentioned Pagliacci. I'd love to know the formula we played that in.
Down Beat: That was my word. Your music and Leonard Feather's comments in the L.A. Times prompted me to ask that question about formulas. He said, "The florid, fulsome adaptation of the 84 year old aria from I Pagliacci is the kind of vehicle Harry James might have been expected to use in 1941. As long as the public exists to eat up excesses of this kind, there will always be performers to minister to its hunger."
Ferguson: That's all right. Leonard was a man in 1941 when I was a young boy. To me, there's nothing wrong with 1941, or else he wouldn't have loved Harry James [Feather was 26 and '41].
Down Beat: I don't think he was saying he loved Harry James. I think he was suggesting that possibly your Pagliacci was calculated commercialism, derivative, excessive, and dated.
Ferguson: Leonard and I go out to dinner with our wives and have a good time. I love one of his lines. He said, "As long as we agree to disagree, Maynard." I said, "I don't agree." I don't go out to dinner with Leonard because I agree to disagree. I do it because he came up to Ojai where I live, and he's talking about his kids, and I'm talking about mine.
Anything other that that, unless he plays my trumpet for me, is kind of silly. I'm certainly not going to write his articles for him. He's got to do his gig, and I've got to do mine.
Down Beat: Again that nicely evades the essence of the question, which is not about critics in general or about Leonard in particular, but about a specific issue regarding your music.
Ferguson: My gig has to please me. If I sound like a 1941 Harry James to Leonard, well, it's not my job to give a rebuttal. His job is to get paid so many dollars per word. My job is to enjoy myself playing the trumpet.
Romanticism is still a part of music. I also reserve the right to snake out. I don't think I sound very romantic when I'm playing a fast tempo Airegin.
Down Beat: There are many musicians coming out of schools and clinics now. Besides your band and a few others, where can they work? Are we over-producing musicians?
Ferguson: No, I don't think we can ever over-produce musicians. Many of them are not only musicians. They are doctors and lawyers who also love playing the piano or the tenor sax.
Down Beat: Do you still use live auditions?
Ferguson: No, because too many good musicians don't play well at auditions, so I listen to cassette tapes of their work and go by that.
Down Beat: You are well known as a clinician. How might today's clinics be improved?
Ferguson: I used to do a lot more than I'm doing now, and I miss doing them, but when you're playing seven nights a week in halls or universities, colleges, junior high schools, which is what I love, that's when you know that really young people are into your thing. We've been doing this success thing enough now, and we're suddenly getting probes from Las Vegas and places like that, where, for awhile, we were Death Valley in those places, because if you're a kid's favorite-as you know, the main disease in Las Vegas is children. If you really want to bore, show up in Las Vegas with seven children like I did at the Tropicana once, and they go "Yecccch." I mean definitely, you know, your children, I mean...Number one, they can't go across the lounge, because they have to cut through the gambling casino; they have so many like no-no's, unbelievable. All my kids used to play the slot machines. I think that that's a Ferguson trait right there. As soon as you're told you can't do something, you know. They all got busted. Every one of them got busted in the lounge at least once when we were playing the Tropicana years ago. You know, like looking around, then slapping a quarter in and pulling the thing, and then the nice man says, "What room is your daddy in?" "Oh my daddy's conducting the show right now." [laughter]
Down Beat: So much for clinics. What will you be doing on your new as-yet-untitled album that you might consider to be a step forward?
Ferguson: It's a little early to answer that one, because the album is not yet completed. One of the things I enjoy is the work of that great Indian violinist Subramaniam, who is a good friend of mine, so I got together with trombonist/arranger Nick Lane, and I think we'll do something in the Indian bag. It's a difficult piece of music, so I don't know yet whether it will go on the album, but I hope we can include it.