Maynard Ferguson grinned with delight as the sounds of "Blue Birdland roared from a big band of 14 trumpeters. When the chart ended, he climbed on stage and declared, "Finally, somebody got it right! We don't need those funny instruments like saxophones and trombones!
MF's classic wit and charisma were bonus elements of the four-day production in 2004 of "Stratospheric: A Maynard Ferguson Big Band Alumni Reunion. MF reminisced energetically during panel discussions and was readily accessible to chat with admirers before and after events.
That October weekend in Los Angeles was high-note heaven for nearly 1,000 fans from around the nation and world, including England, Germany, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Among the 15 concerts were 11 big bands led by or featuring Ferguson alumni, with MF sitting like a proud papa in the front row of the audience.
Top crowd-pleasers of the lip-athon were that 14-horn "Trumpet Summit set and the concluding concert by Maynard's current Big Bop Nouveau. "The Boss was scheduled for just that one performance, but he snuck in for a surprise cameo during a trio set led by his son-in-law, pianist Christian Jacob.
Themed sets saluted various MF eras, including the Stan Kenton years, Birdland Dream Band era, Emarcy-Roulette-Cameo periods, 1950s West Coast years and MF Horn London Sessions.
This is the legacy of the man who once said he thought he was born 30 years too late, in 1928. But he organized his first band in 1972 and led many others for the next 34 years. MF remained viable by continually reformulating the repertoire and size of his bands so they stayed contemporary and continually working.
For example, the MF Horn-London themed set featured his pop-music arrangements, including "MacArthur Park, "Country Road, "Spinning Wheel, "Theme from Shaft, "Bridge Over Troubled Water and "Hey, Jude. As Maynard later quipped, "We played everything but Welsh mining songs.
The two closing sets were incredible and unforgettable. First that testosterone-fueled "Trumpet Summit, thrilling with renditions of "Perdido, "Bye Bye Blackbird and "I Can't Get Started, the latter featuring Mike Bogart updating the lyrics with "Maynard Ferguson made me a star.
Then Big Bop Nouveau ensemble delivered to the max, featuring a supercharged version of "It Don't Mean a Thing, a soulful "But Beautiful and a greatest-hits medley, MF delivering his legendary sweet heat. Then the Summit trumpeters joined him on stage for a lengthy blues that featured each in turn.
The celebration more than met my highest expectations, from the fascinating panels with colorful anecdotes to the intriguing film clips dating from the '50s in Canada, and especially those dynamic big band sets. There also were midday concerts by four area college ensembles playing both MF charts and other arrangements.
But it was the presence, in the full sense of that word, of Maynard Ferguson among us that is most indelibly imprinted on my jazz memory. I heard him perform several times after that, twice in the Phoenix area, and it seemed as if he could go on playing forever. Now he is gone, but his music lives on, just as does the music of Ellington and Basie et al.
This event was part of an ongoing series produced by Ken Poston (assisted by Bobby Shew) for the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, but it was the very first to focus on a living musician. Poston began these tributes in 1991 with retrospects of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.
The next event is Oct. 5-8, 2006, a tribute to Count Basie titled "O'clock Jump at the Four Points Sheraton LAX in Los Angeles. The lineup includes the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Clark Terry, Johnny Mandel, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, the Frank Capp Juggernaut, Joe Wilder, Snooky Young and more. Info and tickets at www.lajazzinstitute.org or 562-985-7065.