Walter Maynard Ferguson (May 4, 1928 - August 23, 2006) was a Canadian jazz musician and bandleader. He came to prominence playing in Stan Kenton's orchestra, before forming his own band in 1957. He was noted for being able to play accurately in a remarkably high register, and for his bands, which served as stepping stones for up-and-coming talent.
Early life and education:
Ferguson was born in Verdun (now part of Montreal), Quebec. Encouraged by his mother and father (both musicians), Maynard was playing piano and violin by the age of four. Newsreel footage exists of Ferguson as a child prodigy violinist. At nine years old, he heard a cornet for the first time in his local church and asked his parents to purchase one for him. At age thirteen, Ferguson first soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra. He was heard frequently on the CBC, notably featured on a "Serenade for Trumpet in Jazz" written for him by Morris Davis. Ferguson won a scholarship to the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal where he studied from 1943 through 1948 with Bernard Baker.
Ferguson dropped out of Montreal High School at age 15 to more actively pursue a music career, performing in dance bands led by Stan Wood, Roland David, and Johnny Holmes. While trumpet was his primary instrument, Ferguson also performed on other brass and reed instruments. Ferguson later took over the dance band formed by his saxophonist brother Percy, playing dates in the Montreal area and serving as an opening act for touring bands from Canada and the USA. During this period, Ferguson came to the attention of numerous American band leaders and began receiving offers to come to the United States.
Ferguson finally moved to the United States in 1948, intending to join Stan Kenton's organization. However, Kenton had just disbanded his orchestra, so Ferguson initially played with the bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet. The Barnet band was notable for a trumpet section that also included Doc Severinsen, Ray Wetzel, Johnny Howell, and Rolf Ericson. Ferguson was featured on a notoriously flamboyant Barnet recording of Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are" that showcased Ferguson's upper register playing. The recording reportedly enraged Kern's widow and was subsequently withdrawn from sale. When Barnet temporarily retired in 1949 and disbanded his orchestra, Ferguson accepted an offer to join Stan Kenton's newly formed Innovations Orchestra.
Kenton and Hollywood:
Stan Kenton's bands were notable for their strong brass sections and Ferguson was a natural fit. In 1950, Kenton formed the Innovations Orchestra, a 40-piece jazz concert orchestra with strings, and with the folding of the Barnet band, Ferguson was available for the first rehearsal on January 1, 1950. While the Innovations Orchestra was not commercially successful, it made a number of remarkable recordings, including "Maynard Ferguson," one of a series of pieces named after featured soloists.
When Kenton returned to a more practical 19-piece jazz band, Ferguson continued with him. Contrary to the natural assumption, Ferguson was not Kenton's lead trumpet player, but played the third chair with numerous solo features, as noted in the scores written for the Kenton band during this period. Notable recordings from this period that feature Ferguson include "Invention for Guitar and Trumpet", "What's New?" and "The Hot Canary".
So popular was Ferguson with Kenton that for three years running, 1950, 1951, and 1952, he won the Down Beat Readers' Poll as best trumpeter.
In 1953, Ferguson left Kenton to become a session player for Paramount Pictures, soon becoming the first-call player. Ferguson appeared on 46 soundtracks including The Ten Commandments. Ferguson still recorded jazz during this period, but his Paramount contract prevented him from playing jazz clubs. This was sometimes circumvented by appearing under aliases such as "Tiger Brown", "Foxy Corby", and others. While he enjoyed the regular Paramount paycheck, Ferguson was very unhappy with the lack of live performance opportunities and left Paramount in 1956. Ferguson can clearly be discerned on several soundtracks from the time, including the Martin and Lewis films "Living it Up" and "You're Never Too Young."
The Birdland Dream Band:
In 1956, Ferguson became the leader of the Birdland Dream Band, a 14-piece big band formed by Morris Levy as an "all-star" lineup to play at Levy's Birdland jazz club in New York City. While the name "Birdland Dream Band" was short-lived and is represented by only two albums over the course of a year, this band became the core of Ferguson's performing band for the next nine years. The band included, at various times, such players as Slide Hampton, Don Ellis, Don Sebesky, Willie Maiden, John Bunch, Joe Zawinul, Joe Farrell, Jaki Byard, Lanny Morgan, Rufus Jones, Nino Tempo, Nat Pavone, Bill Berry, Bill Chase, and Don Menza. Arrangers included Slide Hampton, Jay Chattaway, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman and Marty Paich.
In 1959 Ferguson guested with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Bernstein performing Symphony No. 2 in C "TITANS" by William Russo, a complicated modernist piece featuring the extreme high register of the trumpet. It is argued that at the time, perhaps no trumpeter but Ferguson could have played the piece at all. Since then, only a handful have attempted to perform the work.
As big bands declined in popularity and economic viability into the 1960s, Ferguson's band performed more infrequently. Ferguson began to feel musically stifled and sensed a resistance to change among his American jazz audiences. According to a Down Beat interview, he was quoted as saying that if the band did not play "Maria" or "Ole," the fans went home disappointed. Ferguson began performing with a sextet before finally officially disbanding his big band in 1966.
Millbrook, India and psychedelic spirituality:
After leaving his long-time recording contract and the end of his main club gig, Ferguson moved his family to the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook, New York in November 1963 to live with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and their community from Harvard University. He and his wife Flo used LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs for spiritual awakening. They lived at Millbrook for about three years, playing clubs and recording several albums. In 1967, as the Millbrook experiment was ending, Ferguson moved with his family to India, and taught at the Krishnamurti-based Rishi Valley School near Madras. He was associated with the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning's Boys Brass Band, which he founded and helped teach at for several years. While in India, Ferguson was influenced by Sathya Sai Baba, whom he considered as his spiritual guru.
In 1969, Ferguson moved to just outside Windsor (about 20 miles from London) in a very small place called Oakley Green. He had two houses while he was in the UK, the final one being a 3 story house down by the River Thames.
That same year, Ferguson signed with CBS Records in England and formed a big band with British musicians that performed in the newly popular jazz/rock fusion style. The band's repertoire included original compositions as well as pop and rock songs rearranged into a big band format with electronic amplification. This British band's output is represented by the four "MF Horn" albums, which included arrangements of the pop songs "MacArthur Park" and "Hey Jude".
In 1970 he led his big band on UK television as part of BBC's Simon Dee Show (also known as Dee Time). Ferguson often quipped with Dee, similar to his contemporary Doc Severinsen's rapport with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. By 1971, Ferguson was a household name in Britain.
Return to the U.S.:
Ferguson's new band made its North American debut in 1971. With a revived career, Ferguson relocated to New York in 1973 and gradually replaced his sidemen with American performers while reducing the band size to twelve: four trumpets, two trombones, three saxophones and a three-piece rhythm section plus Ferguson. The quintessential recording of this period is the album MF Horn 4 & 5: Live at Jimmy's, recorded in 1973 in New York. Ferguson latched on to the burgeoning jazz education movement by recruiting talented musicians from colleges with jazz programs (notably Berklee College of Music, North Texas State University and the University of Miami) and targeting young audiences with performances and master classes in high schools and colleges. This practical and strategic move helped him develop a strong following that would sustain him for the remainder of his career.
In 1976, Ferguson performed a solo trumpet piece as part of the closing ceremonies for the Summer Olympics in Montreal, symbolically "blowing out the flame".
Recordings for a 1975 album were abandoned and the next year Ferguson began working with producer Bob James on a series of commercially successful albums. These were complex studio productions featuring large groups of session musicians, including strings, vocalists and star guest soloists. The first of these albums was Primal Scream, featuring Chick Corea, Mark Colby, Steve Gadd, and Bobby Militello. The second, Conquistador in 1977, resulted in a top-30 (#22) pop single, "Gonna Fly Now" (from the movie Rocky), a rare accomplishment for a jazz musician in the 1970s. Aside from an exciting Jay Chattaway arrangement and dense Bob James production, the single was also helped by the fact that it was released prior to the official soundtrack album of the hit movie. Ferguson maintained a hectic touring schedule during this period, with well-attended concerts that featured concert lighting and heavy amplification. The commercial success allowed him to add a guitarist and an additional percussionist to his band's line-up.
Ferguson continued with this musical model for the remainder of the 1970s, receiving considerable acclaim from audiences but an often tepid response from some jazz purists, who decried his commercialism and questioned his taste. Ferguson reportedly also began to experience great frustration with Columbia over being unable to use his working band on recording projects and having difficulty including even a single jazz number on some albums. Ferguson's contract with Columbia Records expired after the 1982 release of the Hollywood album, produced by jazz bassist Stanley Clarke.
Ferguson recorded three big band albums with smaller labels in the mid 1980s before forming a more economical electronica-fusion septet, "High Voltage," in 1986. This ensemble, which featured multi-reed player Denis DiBlasio and trombonist Steve Wiest among an abridged horn section, recorded two albums and received mixed reviews.
Big Bop Nouveau:
To mark his 60th birthday in 1988, Ferguson returned to a large band format and to more mainstream jazz. That then led to the formation of Big Bop Nouveau, a nine-piece band featuring two trumpets, one trombone, three reeds and a three-piece rhythm section which became his standard touring group for the remainder of his career. Later, due to the increasing responsibilities being placed on the trumpet players, the baritone sax position was replaced by a third trumpet player. The band's repertoire included original jazz compositions and modern arrangements of jazz standards, with occasional pieces from his '70s book and even modified charts from the Birdland Dream Band era; this format proved to be successful with audiences and critics. The band recorded extensively, including albums backing vocalists Diane Schuur and Michael Feinstein. Although in later years Ferguson's playing occasionally lost some of the range and phenomenal accuracy of his youth, he always remained an exciting performer, touring an average of nine months a year with Big Bop Nouveau for the remainder of his life.
In the mid 1970s, Ferguson settled in Ojai, California, where he lived to the end of his life. His marriage to Flo Ferguson (in 1956) lasted until her death on February 27, 2005. Ferguson had three daughters: Corby, Lisa, and Wilder, and a stepdaughter, Kim, from Flo's first marriage. A son, Bentley, predeceased his parents. Kim Ferguson is married to Maynard's former road manager, Jim Exon. Wilder Ferguson is married to jazz pianist (and former Big Bop Nouveau member) Christian Jacob. Lisa Ferguson is a writer and film maker living in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, Ferguson had two granddaughters, Erica and Sandra. Maynard Ferguson died on August 23, 2006, at the Community Memorial Hospital. His death was reported as being due to kidney and liver failure brought on by an abdominal infection.
In 1992, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Ferguson was also initiated as a brother of Kappa Kappa Psi at the Gamma Xi Chapter (University of Maryland at College Park).
A 4-day series of seminars and concerts honoring Ferguson and his career were held in Los Angeles with Ferguson in attendance in fall of 2004. Called "Stratospheric", band members past and present, friends, relatives, and fans attended the event.
In 2006, he was presented Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity's Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award at its national convention in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been initiated as an honorary member of the Fraternity's Xi Chi Chapter at Tennessee Tech University in 1976.
The Sherman Jazz Museum in Sherman, Texas opened in 2010 and houses the extensive memorabilia of Ferguson's estate.
Ferguson was one of a handful of virtuoso musician/bandleaders to survive the end of the big band era and the rise of rock and roll. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to the musical trends that evolved from the 1940s through the 2000s. Ferguson's albums show an evolution from big band swing, bebop, cool jazz, Latin, jazz / rock, fusion with classical and operatic influences. Through his devotion to music education in America, Ferguson was able to impart the spirit of his jazz playing and technique to scores of amateur and professional trumpeters during the many Master Classes held throughout his long career.
Ferguson was not the first trumpeter to play in the extreme upper register, but he had a unique ability to play high notes with full, rich tone, power, and musicality. While regarded by some as showboating, Ferguson's tone, phrasing and vibrato was instantly recognizable and has been influential on and imitated by generations of amateur and professional trumpet players. A direct connection to Ferguson's style of playing continues in the work of the trumpeters who played with him, notably Kurt Thompson, Patrick Hession, Roger Ingram, Wayne Bergeron and Eric Miyashiro. Although some had believed that Ferguson was endowed with exceptional facial musculature, he often shared in interviews that his command of the upper registers was based mostly on breath control, something he had discovered as a youngster in Montreal. Ferguson also attributed the longevity of his demanding bravura trumpet technique through his later years to the spiritual and yoga studies he pursued while in India.
Al Kooper has written and stated that Ferguson's orchestra inspired Kooper's formation of the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. Bill Chase and scores of other trumpeters were clearly influenced by Ferguson's playing and performing style.
While Ferguson's range was his most obvious attribute, perhaps equally significant was the personal charisma Ferguson brought to a musical genre that is often seen as veering towards the cold and cerebral. As Ferguson's obituary in the Washington Post declared:
"Ferguson lit up thousands of young horn players, most of them boys, with pride and excitement. In a (high school) world often divided between jocks and band nerds, Ferguson crossed over, because he approached his music almost as an athletic event. On stage, he strained, sweated, heaved and roared. He nailed the upper registers like Shaq nailing a dunk or Lawrence Taylor nailing a running back - and the audience reaction was exactly the same: the guttural shout, the leap to their feet, the fists in the air. We cheered Maynard as a gladiator, a combat soldier, a prize fighter, a circus strongman - choose your masculine archetype."
Ferguson designed and popularized two unique instruments called the 'Firebird' and the 'Superbone'. The Firebird was similar to a trumpet, but had the valves played with the left hand (instead of the right) and a trombone-style slide played with the right hand. Indian-American trumpeter Rajesh Mehta bought this trumpet while living in Amsterdam and played the Firebird in his own innovative music contexts from 1998 until 2011 when he had American trumpet maker George Schlub create the Orka-M Naga Phoenix trumpet for him. The Superbone was another hybrid instrument, which was fundamentally a trombone with additional valves played with the left hand. Ferguson regularly incorporated Indian instruments and influences in albums and concerts.
Shortly before his death, he received the Man of Music Award by Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity, of which he was a member. The Maynard Ferguson Institute of Jazz Studies at Rowan University was created in 2000, the same year Rowan bestowed Ferguson with his only Honorary Doctorate degree. The Institute, currently under direction of Ferguson's longtime friend and fellow musician Denis Diblasio, supports the Rowan Jazz Program in training young jazz musicians.
Maynard Ferguson band alumni regrouped for a memorial concert soon after his death, fronted by high range trumpeters Wayne Bergeron, Patrick Hession, Walter White, and Eric Miyashiro. A DVD of the concert was released, also featuring footage of Ferguson in performance, and spoken tributes from colleagues. A similar ensemble united for a tribute concert on what would have been Ferguson's 80th birthday. Other occasional groupings and concerts, often with Ferguson band alumni, have occurred.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license