Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson
Photo Credit: Tim Owens

Maynard Ferguson

On this show, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson displays the extraordinary range and exquisite technique that have kept him at the forefront of jazz for five decades. Ferguson debuted with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in 1950 and quickly established a reputation for playing in the uppermost registers with greater power and facility than any trumpet player before or since. Tonight he energizes an enthusiastic audience in San Luis Obispo, CA, hitting incredibly high notes that somehow fit perfectly within the scope of the given tune. Maynard and Dr. Taylor show off their obvious musical and personal rapport with the evening’s opening number, “Just Friends,” kicking off this “on the road” edition of Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center on a high note.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Ferguson received his initial musical training at Montreal’s French Conservatory of Music. The instructors there ordered Ferguson not to play jazz. As a result, he says he’s been “playing jazz ever since.” Maynard’s mother encouraged his musical inclinations, “My mother noticed that as soon as I had a trumpet, it was an instrument I was in love with. She never had to tell me to practice.” Later, she bought Maynard all the jazz-trumpet albums she could find so he could practice along with them. Those albums built the foundation of Ferguson’s formidable talent. He began by listening to legendary trumpeter Harry James when James played with Benny Goodman. Eventually Ferguson focused on the trumpet work of Duke Ellington’s many great horn players. Duke’s presence looms large over the career of Ferguson, and Dr. Taylor and Maynard pay tribute to Ellington by tearing through a swinging version of “Taking the ‘A’ Train.”

Throughout a lively discussion, Ferguson repeatedly refers to his trumpet as a “toy.” His attitude toward the physical nature of the trumpet shows the influence of time spent in India. Maynard explains that an Indian swami taught him that the player, and not the physical tool, is the actual “musical instrument.” Ferguson’s Eastern philosophy on music further stems from time spent teaching a junior high school band in India--a job he still performs for six weeks each year. Maynard boils down his teaching philosophy into a simple directive: “Observe Pavarotti.” Through this notion, Maynard reminds musicians that the craft is physical as well as mental and emotional. Ferguson puts his whole body into playing; he tells Dr. Taylor, “when I’m playing correctly, my socks are soaking wet when I’m through.” This transcontinental discussion leads into a tribute to trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie: a rousing rendition of “A Night in Tunisia.”

A renowned bandleader himself, Ferguson cites Count Basie, Ellington and Kenton as major role models. He enjoys fronting a band, which gives him the opportunity to “put a lot of guys out there.” And he has. Both Joe Zawinul and Slide Hampton sprung from Ferguson-led ensembles. Maynard jokingly says of his musicians, “the only time I’ll be angry when you leave my band is if you’re not a huge success.” Dr. Taylor and Maynard use this discussion to swing into a stellar version of the classic Burke and Van Heusen number, “But Beautiful.”

Addressing the audience, Ferguson responds to a question about early musical influences. Besides his mother and Louis Armstrong (whom he refers to as the "dynamite duo"), Maynard cites Gillespie and admits to falling in love with the playing of Miles Davis. But he warns young musicians against worshiping jazz superheroes. “When I teach my master classes,” Ferguson says, “I say...if you’re a tenor saxophone student and you think the sun rises and sets on John Coltrane, then be sure and go backwards and listen to all the great players that came before him.” Ferguson says following this advice rewards a musician with his or her true personal sound--and not a mere carbon copy.

Ferguson obviously lives the musical life he teaches; his resulting ability to play in the highest pitches is only one among many attributes that still distinguish him among today’s trumpet players. Dr. Taylor and his trio--Chip Jackson on bass, and Steve Johns on drums--acknowledge Ferguson's unique abilities by accompanying him on the evening’s finale, “They’ll Never Be Another You.”

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