Maynard Ferguson’s jazz odyssey

Over the years, our neighbors to the north (that would be the Canadians, for the geographically challenged) have produced such stellar musical talents as exquisite pianist Oscar Peterson, quirky rock band Barenaked Ladies, Grammy-winning pop producer David Foster, and one of the all-time high-note specialists. No, not Celine Dion — I’m talking about renowned trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

Ferguson, born in 1928 in Verdun, Quebec, has enjoyed a storied jazz career, with popular success to match. As famed jazz critic Leonard Feather once wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the horn man has earned “a unique place in the big-band world: He alone was able to crack the pop charts.”

After studying at the French Conservatory of Music, Ferguson formed his own big band in Canada at the tender age of 16, and quickly began to learn from the masters firsthand: The popular band became the opening act, recalls Ferguson, for “all the great orchestras, when they passed through Montreal — including Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman, Kenton, Dizzy and both Dorsey brothers,” he recalls. Ferguson moved to America in 1949 and found work with big bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn and Charlie Garnet that very same year.

In 1950, the gig Ferguson had long coveted — with Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra — finally became a reality. By that time, Ferguson had already earned a reputation as the musical Mark McGwire of his day: He could play higher than anyone else. Soon, he was a bona-fide star.

Since then, the trumpet wizard has gone on to build a significant jazz legacy on several fronts — but hitting the screaming high note, with his cheeks puffed out Dizzy Gillespie-style, remains his trademark. And while he may not quite hit that double-high “C” the way he used to, few trumpeters to this day can play in the upper register with the same grace, passion and accuracy as Ferguson.

“Stan Kenton used to introduce me every night, when I did my feature, by saying, ‘Here’s a guy who will someday have his own big band, as he did in Canada.’ I try to be that way with all the young guys in my band, encouraging them in their careers,” Ferguson relates. “I always say that I’m only mad [at] people [who] leave my band if they’re not successful afterwards. I learned that from Stan.”

Ferguson put together his first U.S. big band in 1956 — The Birdland Dreamband — and quickly recorded two well-received albums. The Dreamband became the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra (featuring Slide Hampton, Don Sebesky, Lanny Morgan, Joe Farrell, Wayne Shorter, Mel Lewis, Joe Zawinul, Jaki Byard and many other notables) the next year, cutting records for the Roulette, Cameo and Mainstream labels until 1965, before economic difficulties forced a breakup.

Ferguson put together a short-lived sextet the next year, then began spending more time in Europe and India, falling out of public view for a few years. In 1970, he recorded a “comeback” record on the Columbia label, featuring pianist Pete Jackson, baritone-sax player Bruce Johnstone and drummer Randy Jones. A series of what he dubbed “the M.F. Horn albums” turned off some jazz purists, but also garnered Ferguson mega-pop hits for his arrangements of such tunes as “MacArthur Park,” “Gonna Fly Now” (the theme from Rocky — Ferguson’s biggest popular hit) and the Star Wars theme. And though Ferguson’s high-powered version of Herbie Hancock’s funk classic “Chameleon” may have shaken up the jazz snobs, it gave the versatile trumpeter much credibility with a new generation of young jazz and fusion fans. Consistently raiding North Texas State and other top music schools, Ferguson managed to stock his succession of bands with such players as valve trombonist Rob McConnell, whose Boss Brass is one of today’s best big bands; Peter Erskine, the drummer for Weather Report, Steely Dan and the Yellowjackets; and acclaimed saxman Rick Margitza.

In the 1980s, Ferguson led a funky septet he called High Voltage, and in 1988, he put together his current band, Big Bop Nouveau — a 10-13 piece “little big band” that has toured and recorded nonstop since its inception.

But Ferguson’s greatest pleasure these days is passing on what he’s learned to younger musicians. “When I was young, I listened to as many different trumpeters as possible and tried to learn from each of them,” he once told Downbeat. “If a student is a Maynard Ferguson freak, I immediately tell him to go out and buy some records by Dizzy, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong. I try to teach them that one of the [most gratifying] rewards of playing music is when you start to sound like yourself.”

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