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Maynard Ferguson: Gonna Fly Now


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On Thursday morning, as Betty and I finished packing for our second trip to the Prescott, Arizona, Jazz Summit (more about that later), the e-mails started to arrive. The first was a rumor; the second confirmed the unwelcome news. Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter whose breathtaking virtuosity, especially in the higher register, epitomized the word incredible, had passed away at eight o'clock Wednesday evening (August 23) in Ventura, California. He was seventy-eight years old.

At times like these, we writers are counted on to offer some perspective, insight, words of wisdom or what-have-you. Well, there's nothing I can say about Maynard Ferguson that hasn't already been said or written by others far more knowledgeable or perceptive than I. He was quite simply in a class by himself, as a musician and, so I've heard, as a person as well. The fact is I never met him, even though I was lucky enough to have seen him perform on a number of occasions, the most recent in May at Ken Poston's tribute to Stan Kenton and Woody Herman at the Sheraton LAX hotel in Los Angeles.

Maynard was leading his nine-piece ensemble Big Bop Nouveau that evening, and as always, he poured as much energy and enthusiasm into the hour-long concert as one might reasonably expect from someone half his age. Even though it carried him to the brink of exhaustion, he loved what he was doing, and he made sure the audience understood that. True, the chops weren't nearly as formidable as in the days when he was nailing those astonishing high notes for Stan Kenton's orchestra and others, and some of his one-liners had a trace of mold on them, but there was no doubting Maynard's enduring passion and unequivocal love for jazz.

It was that love that enabled him to continue performing almost to the end. He had returned to California following several sold-out concerts in July at the Blue Note in New York City, during which time he and BBN had recorded a new album at Bennett Studios in Englewood, New Jersey. That marked the end of a long and matchless career that had begun in his native Canada in 1941 when Maynard appeared as featured soloist (at age thirteen!) with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra. Four years later, he formed his own big band.

Maynard came to the U.S. in 1949 and worked with bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet before joining Kenton's Innovations Orchestra in 1950. From then on, everyone knows the story, so I won't belabor you with the details except to say that, in my opinion, Maynard's ensembles from the mid-1950s to 1960s are some of the most exciting and memorable I've ever heard. Shortly after his passing my son Ken, who's now forty-five, sent an e-mail in which he recalled the great times we'd had listening to Maynard's albums when Ken was still a child. That's memorable.

Because of his extraordinary talent coupled with a genial and easygoing temperament, Maynard always drew outstanding musicians to his side. Even a partial list of those who passed through his various bands is markedly impressive, as it includes (in no particular order)...

Trumpeters: Conte and Pete Candoli, Don Rader, Rolf Ericson, Don Ellis, Bill Chase, Don Palladino, Buddy Childers, Dusko Goykovich, Nat Pavone, Lin Biviano, Walter White, Stan Mark, Bob Summers, Dennis Noday, Wayne Bergeron and Scott Englebright... Trombonists: Slide Hampton, Don Sebesky, Rob McConnell, Milt Bernhart, Bob Burgess, Herbie Harper, Kenny Rupp, Tom Garling, Jimmy Cleveland and Keith Oshiro...

Saxophonists: Lanny Morgan, Willie Maiden, Don Menza, Jimmy Ford, Carmen Leggio, Herb Geller, Joe Farrell, Bill Holman, Bud Shank, Richie Kamuca, Frank Vicari, Bob Gordon, Charlie Mariano, Ronnie Cuber, Pete King, Frank Hittner, Nino Tempo, Danny Moss, Bruce Johnstone, Andy Mackintosh, Denis DiBlasio, Rick Margitza, Tim Ries, Christopher Hollyday, Chip McNeill, Matt Wallace, Anthony Ortega, Glenn Kostur, Bobby Militello, Mark Colby, Mike Migliore and Dave Pietro...

Pianists: Jaki Byard, Joe Zawinul, John Bunch, Mike Abene, Roger Kellaway, Lorraine Geller, Bobby Timmons, Russ Freeman and (son-in-law) Christian Jacob...Guitarist: Howard Roberts...Bassists: Ray Brown, Max Bennett, Ron McClure, Red Mitchell, Curtis Counce, Joe Mondragon, Red Kelly, Rick Petrone, Linc Milliman and Red Callender...Drummers: Rufus Jones, Jake Hanna, Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis, Tony Inzalaco, Sid Bulkin, Frankie Dunlop, Peter Erskine and Danny D'Imperio.

Yes, Maynard Ferguson was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon; yes, he is irreplaceable; yes, he will be greatly missed, not only by his family, friends and fellow musicians but by music-lovers all over the world, among whom his name is as well-known as that of any jazz musician on the planet. We all know that. What bears repeating is that Maynard was much more than a remarkable high-note technician. He was first and foremost a jazz musician, highly proficient on a number of instruments including trumpet and valve trombone, and anyone who believes that he couldn't really "play jazz" is welcome to stop by my house anytime and allow me to disprove that misconception in a matter of moments.

So long, Maynard. Thanks for the memories, and for leaving behind so many marvelous recordings. You'll be with us as long as they are.

Meanwhile, Back at the Summit

Depressing as was the news about Maynard, life must move on, and so did we, flying first to Phoenix and then making the scenic two-hour drive northward to Prescott, home of the sixth annual Jazz Summit. This year's three-day event was of course dedicated to Maynard's memory—and to that of pianist / educator Clare Willey whose vision gave rise to the annual gathering and to whom this and future Jazz Summits are dedicated.

This was to be a special time for Betty and me, as we were staying at Jeanne Watkins' cozy Pleasant Street bed and breakfast with one of the weekend's stellar performers, pianist Bob Florence, his lovely wife Evie, and newlyweds Norm and Faye Tompach. When Summit organizer and former Stan Kenton lead trumpeter Mike Vax was a young man, Norm was his teacher. He and Mike remain close friends and are among the mainsprings of the Oakland-based nonprofit group, Friends of Big Band Jazz. Norm and Faye, who attended high school together some years ago (how's that for putting it delicately, Norm?), had been married for a week when they arrived in Prescott. Another fascinating story, but one we'll save for a more auspicious time.

The Summit, as usual an explicitly spontaneous and laid-back affair, began at noon Friday with a free outdoor concert at Prescott's picturesque Courthouse Square, with a handful of the weekend's headliners on hand to help jump-start the charming series of events. Ace trombonist Scott Whitfield, in from California, was among a group that included Vax, local trumpeter Steve Annibale, guitarist Jack Petersen, pianist Les Czimber, bassist Bob Lashier and drummer Larry Kantor. Later, they were joined by Florence, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, drummer Gary Hobbs and vocalist Blaise Lantana, music director at radio station KJZZ in Phoenix, who also served as the Summit's co-emcee with Al McCoy, the voice of the Phoenix Suns NBA team.

Highlights included Bird's "Au Privave," Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" (vocal by Whitfield), Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation," Lantana's vocal (to her own lyrics) on Gerry Mulligan's "Bernie's Tune," and Stamm and the group's more-than-appropriate salute to Maynard, "There Will Never Be Another You."

Friday evening's concert at the Elks Theatre was preceded by the annual fund-raising dinner at the Hassayampa Inn for Friends of Big Band Jazz, a sold-out event that helped offset a mildly disappointing turnout for the concert. Less than half the seats in the Elks auditorium were filled, and even more of them were empty following a first set that ran for more than two hours. As a result, not many were there to hear and enjoy Florence's spine-tingling solo medley, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" and "When I Fall in Love," which raised the curtain after intermission. Their loss.

The concert was opened by the Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Youth Band (whose pianist, Nick Day, was quite impressive), and the noontime performers were augmented by bassists Dwight Kilian and Tom Winker and tenor saxophonist Tony Vacca, whose smooth and swinging approach was invariably pleasing to the ears. The concert ended with everyone onstage for a fiery rendition of Juan Tizol's "Perdido."

Saturday morning was free (Norm and I listened to some CDs I'd brought along), while the afternoon was devoted to brief performances at the Ruth Street Theatre by high-school bands followed by clinics and workshops with the professionals. Taking part were groups from Chino Valley and Prescott high schools (Prescott's No. 1 and No. 2 bands) and the splendid Ellington ensemble from Tucson's Arizona Jazz Academy, ably directed by Doug Tidaback.

AJA was especially admirable on its two numbers, Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" and Fletcher Henderson's driving arrangement of the standard "Avalon." Not to disparage anyone else, but the AJA boasts an excellent trumpeter/trombonist in James Williams. If he can read as well as he plays, Williams seems destined to enhance some topnotch college band in the near future. I'd planned to write something more about the AJA after seeing them in Prescott last August; I'll have to redress that oversight this year.

After supper, we returned to the Ruth Street Theatre for the second of the weekend's concerts, this one opened by Prescott High School's Jazz Band One with guest soloists Vax, Whitfield and Vacca. The newcomers included Tidaback (trombone), pianist Joel Robin, drummer Cleve Huff and vocalist Delphine Cortez, while the highlights encompassed Florence's duets with Vacca ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and Stamm ("I'm Old Fashioned," "The Shadow Of Your Smile"), Vax's emotional tribute to Ferguson ("Danny Boy"), Whitfield's vocal on "Bye Bye Blackbird," Cortez's crowd-pleasing set, and group performances of "You And The Night And The Music" and the quickly improvised "Ruth Street Theatre Blues." The concert drew a much larger (but no more enthusiastic) audience than Friday's event at the Elks Theatre.

As Betty and I had to leave before noon on Sunday to catch our flight back to Albuquerque, we chose the earlier of two Jazz Brunches at the Hassayampa Inn. As we'd had trouble tearing ourselves away from Bob, Evie, Norm and Faye at the B&B, we arrived fifteen minutes late and were told that even though we had tickets, there were no seats available. It didn't look promising, but after several minutes of hemming, hawing and scrambling, two empty places were found and we were seated for breakfast. In the background I could hear a tenor saxophonist wailing on "Lester Leaps In." Not Tony Vacca, I surmised, so I turned to see who it was. None other than the great Dave Pell!

What an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Dave said he had been in Prescott for the entire weekend but was making his first appearance at the Festival. I was happy we'd chosen the early brunch, as Dave, now eighty-one years young, was driving back to southern California after the set. "I'm playing in a golf tournament tomorrow morning," he said. As for the trip, "it's only a ten-CD drive," he shrugged. Oh, to have only half of the man's energy! You couldn't pay me enough to drive from Prescott to Albuquerque.

One more thing happened at the Brunch that is worth noting, even though it means more to me (and especially to my brother Tom) than anyone else. While I was chatting with the AZA's Doug Tidaback, he mentioned that one of the new guys in town (Tucson) had played trumpet for about nineteen years with the Airmen of Note. Even before asking the name I had a hunch what the answer would be: Kenny Smukal.

That may not mean much to you, but for years my brother Tom (we both grew up in D.C.) has been telling me that Kenny is in his eyes the greatest trumpeter ever to play with the AON, and it was a pleasure to meet him and (I hope) put him in touch with Tom, who as this is being written is alive and well and preparing for a rendezvous with Hurricane (Tropical Storm?) Ernesto in Tequesta, Florida. When I told Tom I'd met Kenny Smukal it almost blew him away before Ernesto had a chance to do likewise.

After the Brunch, and a few parting words with Scott Whitfield, one of the classiest guys you'll ever meet, we took our leave and headed back to Phoenix, our spirits uplifted by three days of wonderful memories and our minds buoyed by the thought that this need not be our last visit to Prescott. Alas, we had to miss that afternoon's closing concert with vocalist Margo Reed but one can't have everything. It was a marvelous weekend, and we look forward to more of the same.

Ken Poston's Sure-Fire Cure For The Blues

Have you ever yearned to be in two places at once? If there were any way to make that wish come true, I'd save it for use during the first week in October, when Albuquerque's annual International Balloon Fiesta coincides with the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's tribute to Count Basie, Swingin' The Blues, at the Four Points Sheraton-LAX hotel in Los Angeles. The Balloon Fiesta is mandatory (Betty's sister June and her husband are visiting, for one thing) but oh, to be in Los Angeles when they honor the Kid from Red Bank!

Swingin' The Blues will showcase world-renowned alumni of the Basie orchestra leading their own groups and/or taking part in special concerts of music written for Basie. The sixteen concerts will feature a variety of big bands and smaller groups. Among the bands are two from New York City that are rarely seen and heard in Los Angeles—the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Thad Jones Legacy Project.

Others set to perform include Frank Foster's Loud Minority Big Band, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Frank Capp Juggernaut, the Johnny Mandel Big Band, Frank Wess, Joe Wilder, the Shorty Rogers Big Band Courting The Count, an Afternoon of Some Basie-ites, and (perhaps) the Clark Terry Big Band. Four university ensembles are scheduled to play music written for the Basie band by Benny Carter, Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones and Sammy Nestico. And as always, there will be panel discussions, film showings and special presentations.

A Pioneer Jazz Educator Leaves Us

Sadly, we have one more death to report, that of John Garvey, professor emeritus of music and founder/director of the Jazz Studies program at the University of Illinois. Prof. Garvey died of a heart attack on July 18 at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was eighty-five years old. Following the UI Jazz Ensemble's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968, John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times: "The Illinois band, directed by John Garvey, not only matched the professionals in its ensemble and solo work, but its arrangements, written by students, were far more varied and imaginative than the generally cut-and-dried orchestrations of the professional bands."

Alumni of Garvey's program at UI include trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Jim Knapp; saxophonists Kim Richmond, the late Joe Farrell, Howie Smith, Ron DeWar and Eric Schneider; pianists Jim McNeely, Mike Kocour and Ron Elliston; bassists Kelly Sill and Jon Burr, drummers Charlie Braugham and Joel Spencer, and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Garvey was known as the Godfather of Chicago's Jazz Members Big Band, whose founder/director, trombonist Jeff Lindberg, is another UI alum.

Garvey, who was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on March 17, 1921, left Temple University after three years to play violin and viola with the Jan Savitt Orchestra. In 1943, he was invited to become principal violist of the Columbus, Ohio, Philharmonic, even though he'd had no previous full-time orchestral experience, and in 1948, at age twenty-seven, accepted a position as Professor of Viola at the University of Illinois where he was a member of the renowned Walden String Quartet, then in residence at UI. Although a classical performer and educator, he never lost his enthusiasm for jazz, and in 1960 succeeded in establishing the UI Jazz Band, which quickly established its credentials by earning first-place honors at the prestigious Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival in 1967-68-69.

In addition to the Jazz Band and Jazz Studies program, Garvey founded the highly successful and popular UI Russian Folk Orchestra in 1974 and was its conductor until his retirement in 1991. Although the folk orchestra no longer exists, the jazz program continues under the leadership of former Maynard Ferguson saxophonist Chip McNeill, boasting seven full-time Jazz faculty with degrees offered at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. In 2004, the John Garvey Scholarship in Jazz Studies was established at UI.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!

New and Noteworthy

1. Brian Pastor Big Band, Common Men (BPO Music)
2. Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, Waves From The Vanguard (Dragon)
3. Chris Walden Big Band, No Bounds (Origin)
4. Kit McClure Big Band, Just The Thing (Red Hot Records)
5. Pete Cater Big Band, The Right Time (Vocalion)
6. Various Big Bands, Kenton Portraits (Tantara)
7. Bob Brookmeyer / New Art Orchestra, Spirit Music (ArtistShare)
8. Howard University Jazz Ensemble, HUJE 2005 (HUJE)
9. David Berger and the Sultans of Swing, Hindustan (Such Sweet Thunder)
10. John C. Smith & the Pecos River Brass, What A Wonderful World (PRB)
11. Rolf von Nordenskjold Orchestra, Berlin Sketchbook (Jazzhaus)
12. University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band, Get Here Sooner (UIJB)
13. Peter Welker, Duke, Billy And Tadd (Peachy Productions)
14. Nancie Banks Orchestra, Out Of It (GFI Records)
15. Bob Mintzer / Interamnia Jazz Orchestra, IJO (Splasch)

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