Maynard Ferguson: Gonna Fly Now

Jack Bowers By

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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

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