Ferguson: Master of the Brass
WASHINGTON — Maynard Ferguson heard his first live trumpet solo when he was 9, and that was that.
"I don't know what came over me, but I turned to my dad and said, 'Wow, Dad, get me one of these,' " he says, recalling the church social in his native Montreal where his musical epiphany occurred.
His father did, and 60 years, 70 albums, and 10,000 concerts later the thrill of playing the horn has not diminished.
Few critics have accused Ferguson of playing with excessive subtlety. Then again, few doubt that when it comes to utter mastery and range - he often soars to double high C and beyond - the veteran trumpeter and band leader is in a class by himself.
After 30 years, Ferguson's music has changed. His current 10-piece ensemble intersperses the old standards that were once his specialty with everything from spirituals to Indian "ragas," or musical themes. What hasn't changed is the driving energy of a band that sounds twice its size and, long after the end of the big-band era, continues to excite audiences - including young audiences - with its sheer force.
On stage, Ferguson demonstrates the innovation that has produced more Top 40 hits than has any orchestra since the 1940s era. Off stage, after a recent appearance in Washington, the affable jazz legend mixes his enthusiasm with nuance.
"Even when I use the upper register as a player, I still say you should be able to use all your feelings," he says. "There's nothing wrong with the screech trumpet but only if you can play those same notes romantically, because then you're doing music and not just athleticism."
Like most Canadian boys, Ferguson started life dreaming of being the next "Rocket" Richard, the great Montreal Canadiens hockey star. His mother, a school principal, had another role model in mind: violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz.
In the end music won out, but the trumpet, not the violin, became Ferguson's instrument of choice. "I think my mother and father knew I would never love anything as much as the B-flat trumpet," he says.
His budding talent earned him admission to the French Conservatory of Music in Montreal. There, jazz was verboten but Ferguson eventually found outlets for his growing interest in the music he describes as having "a spirit of adventure."
He played alongside pianist Oscar Peterson, also destined for stardom, in a high school dance band. By age 16, Ferguson was leading a 17-piece orchestra that was the warm-up act for big bands passing through Montreal, including Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.
"I was forced to adhere to all that discipline that I was delighted with later," he remembers of his training at the conservatory, where he says he acquired a love of the classical-violin repertoire. "But my impression at that young age was that jazz musicians seemed to have more fun."
Determined not to miss out, Ferguson moved to the United States for a three-year stint as a star trumpet player in Stan Kenton's band, then spent three more as a house musician at Paramount Studios recording scores ranging from "The Ten Commandments" to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movies.
His big break came when he was invited to form his own all-star band, where he headlined at New York's famed Birdland jazz club along with fellow jazz great Miles Davis. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the 30 years since, life has been an endless stream of one-night stands at dimly lit jazz nooks and cavernous high school auditoriums. In front of his band, he keeps an encouraging eye on his young protgs as they dazzle audiences with soaring solos and precision riffs.
Over the years luminaries such as Chick Corea and Jaki Byard have spun off from Ferguson bands into glittering careers of their own. To replace them, Ferguson has dipped into the talent pool of graduates from the nation's top music schools who keep the Ferguson tradition alive and vital.
Jazz has passed in and out of vogue over the years. To the discomfiture of some critics, Ferguson has reached hard to keep an audience, incorporating rock idioms but without losing the link to authentic jazz.
Asked if he is optimistic about the future of the music he loves, Ferguson points to auspicious developments. One is the serious attention now being given to jazz in conservatories and university music departments around the country. The other is the upgraded music and jazz education taking place in the lower grades.
"As a result of the up-leveling of music teaching in schools we're seeing the same thing we're seeing in sports, where people are maturing at a much earlier age. I've seen some junior high school bands that would knock your socks off."
"There are so many wonderful young people out there right now that I think the music is very healthy," adds Ferguson, who says aspiring jazz musicians should get experience any way they can. "I tell kids if your first love is jazz and you can get into the concert band, go right into it. Or the marching band, go right into it. Or if it's polka, take the gig. Don't be a snob because you learn from everything."
Asked what stands out most in a career filled with achievements, Ferguson says there are "great moments" and "great occasions."
"A great musical moment is having some young guys in your band knock on your dressing room door after a gig in some little club to tell you how great you played. That's one thing," Ferguson says.
As for great occasions, Ferguson singles out the closing ceremonies of the Montreal Olympics in 1976, where he blew out the Olympic flame with his trumpet, playing an upbeat version of "Pagliacci" in front of a billion TV viewers.
"That was not necessarily a great moment in the history of modern world music," Ferguson says with a laugh.
Maynard Ferguson's Immediate Tour Dates
25 Cape May Courthouse
Cape May, N.J.
27 Count Basie Theatre
Red Bank, N.J.
28 National Gallery of Art
30 Stone Mountain High School
Stone Mountain, Ga.
2 O'Neil Center
3 Chenango Valley High School
4 Keswick Theatre
West Dennis, Mass.
7-12 Blue Note Cafe