CBS Radio News called this morning and asked me to talk about Maynard Ferguson. That’s how I learned that Ferguson died last night in Ventura, California, just down the road from his home in Ojai. He was seventy-eight. He had an abdominal infection that shut down his liver and kidneys. The phenomonal trumpeter had been performing on tour with his band, Big Bop Nouveau, when he became ill and went to the hospital. Before him lay a full schedule of performances–an indicator of the almost superhuman energy and enthusiasm that drove Ferguson from the beginning of his career at the age of fifteen, to the end. In his early twenties, he left his native Canada and played with Charlie Barnet, then became a spotlighted soloist with Stan Kenton.
Answering a series of questions from CBS’s Scott Saloways, I said that Ferguson made his biggest general impact with his 1977 hit record of “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the motion picture Rocky, and that he will probably be primarily remembered by the public as a man who could generate excitement by playing double high Cs in the super-stratsophere of the trumpet. Saloways asked if that was his greatest contribution.
No. He was a fine improviser who could build lovely long-lined solos in the middle register when he had a mind to and the circumstances were right. The circumstances were perfect in the sextet that he operated for a time in the late 1960s when the economics of low demand forced him to abandon the big band format he loved as a showcase for his trumpet acrobatics. It was one of his most musical periods. This album is evidence of that, and there is more in this 1954 Dinah Washington jam session, in which Ferguson goes head to head with fellow trumpeters Clifford Brown and Clark Terry. But musicians and serious listeners are most likely to venerate Ferguson for the big band he led in the late 1950s and early 60s. He brought together some of the brightest young players and arrangers in jazz and gave them their heads while providing leadership and just enough discipline to make the band coalesce. It had all of the power and none of the schmaltz that characterized his 1970s hits on “McArthur Park” and the “Rocky” theme. In this review for Jazz Times in 1995, I attempted to describe why the band was important.
The Complete Roulette Recordings of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra
Mosaic MD 10-156 (53:39) (46:18) (43:43) (49:28) (53:30) (54:58) (55:09) (64:39) (60:46) (69:49)
After immersing myself in nine hours of the Ferguson orchestra of the late 1950s and early sixties, I’m certain of two things:
* Double high Cs will be ringing in my brain for months.
* Ferguson gave the orchestra a signature sound and much of its drive, but this was an arrangers’ band.
The high-note trumpeter had charts from established writers like Marty Paich, Bill Holman, Ernie Wilkins and Benny Golson. He also encouraged arrangements from band members, and launched the arranging careers of Slide Hampton, Don Menza, Mike Abene and Don Sebesky. Willie Maiden had been a journeyman arranger for Ferguson since 1952. The uniqueness and command of the idiom in Jaki Byard’s few arrangements for the band emphasize the mystery of why his writing skills didn’t put him in wide demand. It was a remarkable stable of arrangers, many of them writing for a group of musicians with whom they played every night.
The resourcefulness of the arrangers made Ferguson’s ensemble sound bigger than its 13 pieces. Some of the charts experimented with keys and voicings in ways quite daring for the period, or any other. The 141 tracks of this 10-CD set include many standards in addition to the original compositions generated by the arrangers. For the most part, the arrangers fashioned standards for the dance jobs Ferguson frequently played, but they produced some of the most interesting writing in the album, much of it by Hampton, Sebesky and Maiden. Hampton’s version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and Sebesky’s “I’m Beginning To See The Light” are two examples of innovation applied to familiar material.
As for the straight-ahead jazz charts, the “Fox” series, “Three Little Foxes,” “Three More Foxes” and “Fox Hunt” contains exciting workouts for the trumpets. “Oleo” and “The Mark Of Jazz” have some of Hampton’s best early writing. The ingenuity of Byard’s section-against-section scoring and stretched blues harmonies in “X Stream” (aka “Ode To Bird’s Mother”) underscores lost opportunities when Ferguson failed to make greater use of the pianist’s talent for orchestration.
To emphasize the importance of the arranging staff is not to downplay the importance of the band’s soloists. Maiden’s tenor saxophone was central to the excitement, as were Menza’s and Joe Farrell’s during their time with Ferguson. Also important were the young Slide Hampton’s trombone work, the alto solos of Jimmy Ford, Lanny Morgan and Carmen Leggio, the idiosyncratic range of Byard’s piano and the drive of Joe Zawinul’s. Drummers Frankie Dunlop, Rufus Jones and Jake Hanna swung the band while meeting the book’s complex challenges.
The enthusiasm Ferguson transmitted to his young musicians made it one of the most exhilarating bands of the period. The force and range of his horn dominated the trumpet section, especially when he doubled the lead an octave or two higher. Still, these recordings have important ensemble and occasional solo contributions by Bill Chase, Clyde Reasinger, Chet Ferretti, Don Ellis and Jerry Tyree.
The freshness and joy of playing that marked the Ferguson band come across with impact in this collection. As usual in Mosaic sets, the accompanying documentation is part of the pleasure. The helpful essay and play-by-play description by Bret Primack includes the reconstruction of a night at Birdland that will stimulate amusement and recognition in anyone who ever endured Pee Wee Marquette and sat in an audience walloped by the power of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra.
Now the bad news. The box, like all Mosaic sets a limited edition because of a licensing agreement, sold out long ago. As of this writing, Amazon has one for sale at the going collector’s price, $750.00. Hurry. Worse, none of the Roulette recordings seems to be available in CD form. Here is a website that claims to have some of the original Roulette LPs at reasonable prices. Good luck.
Finally, this message from the pianist Christian Jacob, one of the many fine musicians of several generations whom Ferguson discovered and encouraged. Jacob became a member of the Ferguson family.
I have the deep regret of letting all of you know that last night at 8PM, one of the greatest jazz legends passed away from liver and kidney failure. This legend happened to be my beloved father in law: Maynard Ferguson.
He passed very quickly and with minimum pain. He will be sorely missed, by his 4 daughters his 2 son in laws, his 2 grandchildren, and of course all the friends and fans who have loved him throughout the years.