by Josef Woodard

MaynardFerguson.jpgAt 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.”


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