by Josef Woodard
At the risk of generalizing, jazz trumpeters often fall into one of two expressive camps: there are those who chase the high and fast notes, and those who work the brooding lower range of the instrument. Maynard Ferguson not only fell into the former, stratospheric blower category, but his name came to symbolize that school of playing, from the ’50s on through the final chapter of his last several years. The Montreal-born Ferguson, who died at age 78 recently in his adopted hometown of Ojai, exuded potent life force through his music, and it’s hard to imagine his voice now stilled.
He may have possessed — to quote his 1998 album title — a “brass attitude,” but there were contemplative aspects to the man lesser known to the outside world. He moved to Ojai in 1974 to escape the urban bustle, but also because of the spiritual tranquility there, and the legacy of Krishnamurti. Ferguson often traveled to India, for both musical and extra-musical reasons, when not touring with one or another of his bands, including his last band, Big Bop Nouveau. On another local note, Ferguson also did a fair amount of recording in Santa Barbara’s own Sound Design — including the aforementioned Brass Attitude album for Concord Records, an album engineered and mixed by the studio’s Dom Camardella.
Although Ferguson first dazzled listeners with his fast, high sound in the Stan Kenton big band, he became even more well known as a leader of a big band in the late ’50s. The chameleonic ranks of Ferguson’s bands included multiple rising star players, including keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Jaki Byard, Chick Corea, and Bob James (and Santa Ynez’s own Ian Bernard, for a time), as well as Peter Erskine, Slide Hampton, Joe Farrell, Don Ellis, and countless others.
As the jazz market faded in the ’60s, so did Ferguson’s public life, but he came back in the ’70s with smaller combos and some fairly cheesy ideas, including a popular brassy version of the Rocky theme. That earned him a radio hit, royalties, and scorn from jazz fans. In the last phase of his career, starting in the early ’90s, the trumpeter returned to a more or less purist jazz approach, although he might have viewed it otherwise. In an interview in the ’90s, Ferguson commented, “I always hate to use the word ‘pure,’ because if something or an idea sounds good to me, I don’t worry about the category. If you evaluate an artistic idea too much instead of just doing it, that can be wrong. I’ve had that work with purely far-out kinds of things, and I’ve had it work with ‘Going to Fly Now’ from Rocky. That was just fun to do.”
He noted, with a laugh, that the single’s success reminded him of a comment made by his first employer, Charlie Barnett, in 1949. “Charlie said, ‘Whatever you do, never record something that you don’t like just for money, or thinking maybe it will become a hit.’ This was the only time he mentioned God to me, but he said, ‘God will punish you and make it your biggest hit. For the rest of your career, you’ll have to play the damn thing.’”
Asked about his secret of success and his incurably upbeat demeanor, Ferguson said, “I just enjoy what I do. And I enjoy coming home and living in Ojai, of course. I have great neighbors. Sometimes I practice outdoors. I’ve always said, ‘With the first complaint, I stop.’ I’ve never had one yet. I guess they have a good sense of humor.”
If Ferguson’s critical reputation rode the rollercoaster of extremes, he always maintained a positive attitude and was a devoted educator, as well as a kinder, gentler road warrior.
“Many years ago, my friend Willie Maiden was our road manager,” he recalled. “We had problems with a broken-down bus and all those things right out of The Glenn Miller Story. You rush in at the last moment and haven’t had a shower or dinner, but it’s showtime. The first tune swung like mad anyway. I remember this was in Detroit, and Willie looked up at me, unshaven, and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s why we go through all of this.’ It’s all about the music.”