Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Scribble
from the Apple, is now available. For Nick's reviews,
visit his website: www.nickcatalano.net
International Jazz Festival sparked many conversations
hailing the evolution of the event in recent years and its growing
importance for musicians everywhere. It certainly ranks among
the best jazz convocations in the Western Hemisphere. The occasion
of the festival offered me an opportunity to reflect on the
history of Canadian jazz and my association with some of its
leading exponents. The first name I thought of was Maynard Ferguson.
multiple associations with jazz include: performer since childhood,
a writer during past decades, and a producer showcasing many
of the greatest names of the past half-century.
my associations with the music one of my principle frustrations
has been the failure of many to recognize jazz as a major art
form on a par with the best musics anywhere. As a corollary
of this epic failure many great jazz artists have received less
than their due as superlative artists. One of the curses in
this failure occurs when a jazzer enjoys ‘popularity.’
Ironically, being well-known among the masses often causes history
to miss unique aesthetic achievements and especial artistic
merits. Such is the case with Maynard.
in the seventies I produced shows starring Benny Goodman, Lionel
Hampton, Harry James, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck,
Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and
a host of legendary jazz vocalists i.e. Sarah Vaughan, Chris
Conner, Anita O’Day . . . got to know them well and, in
my capacity as a reviewer, got to interview them and write about
them. Many of them became lifelong friends.
concerts with Maynard were especially memorable. His dedication
to the music was unwavering. One time I had to stuff him and
his wife Flo into a makeshift green room -- an unkempt basement
locker room; during my frustrating apologies the Fergusons kept
reassuring me and telling me to relax. On other occasions there
were similar venue problems and Maynard’s attitude was
the early 70s Maynard’s popularity soared. His albums
-- Live at Jimmy’s, M.F. Horn 4&5,
and Chameleon recorded in ‘73 and ‘74 sold
widely and even non-jazz audiences were drawn to the excitement
of the music and Maynard’s unique showmanship -- always
ingenuous and emotionally communicative. And his incredulous,
soaring high notes always engendered riotous applause as clubs
and concert halls were packed everywhere.
1976 the Ferguson band released Conquistador, an album
featuring the single “Gonna Fly Now” – the
theme from the academy award winning film Rocky. That
single reached the top of the Pop charts and Ferguson’s
popularity soared ever higher. I was lucky enough to produce
several dates during this heady time.
always seems to dim the enthusiasm of critics. As the Ferguson
band gained fans all over the planet due in part to Maynard’s
indefatigable work schedule, the critical response waned. Few
writers focused on the seriousness of his musicianship and the
astounding versatility of his trumpeting; because of his high
C notoriety few critics noticed his intensive staccato articulation
in up tempo bebop literature. And his Mozartian child prodigy
origin was totally ignored.
in the Verdun area of Montreal in 1928, young Ferguson, son
of parents who were both musicians, started playing violin and
piano at age four. When he was nine he asked his parents to
buy him a cornet after hearing the instrument for the first
time. Incredibly, at age thirteen he was soloing with the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra. Instantly he became a radio
star playing “Serenade for Trumpet in Jazz” by Morris
Davis -- a legendary Canadian composer and won a scholarship
to Conservatoire de Musique du Quebec a Montreal where he studied
from 1943-48 mastering the gamut in composing, arranging and
performing. Very few ‘popular’ jazz figures can
present such classical credentials.
of his incomparable high note artistry, Maynard was sought after
by every big band leader imaginable. Upon finishing his conservatory
training he moved to the United States and in rapid succession
starred in the bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie
Barnet whose recording of Jerome Kern’s “All the
Things You Are” featured Maynard’s screaming high
C trumpeting. Leading trumpeters in these bands -- Doc Severinsen,
Rob McConnell, Rolf Ericson) -- simply sat back in disbelief
as Maynard awed his peers. (His soaring range so infuriated
Kern’s widow that the record was withdrawn from sales).
Soon he was soloing in Stan Kenton’s band and those recordings
with his high-note imprimatur secured his reputation throughout
the entire jazz world.
1956 Maynard married Flo. They eventually had six children and,
ever mindful of burgeoning family responsibilities, Maynard
accepted employment with Paramount Pictures. He performed in
46 film soundtracks including The Ten Commandments
and was able to provide comfortably for his growing family.
After securing a future for Flo and the kiddies, Ferguson needed
to escape the shackles of commercial music and returned to jazz
joining the Birdland Dream Band which eventually evolved into
his own orchestra. In 1959 he signaled his fealty to his classical
roots performing William Russo’s Symphony in C
with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
the following years Ferguson led various versions of his own
orchestras achieving the aforementioned popular heights. But
during these years and successes he was ever mindful of the
serious, complex and subtle hallmarks of artistic music. And
as I iterated earlier, even though commentators ignored so much
of this, he maintained his focus. He was particularly insightful
when hiring musicians who shared his artistic vision. He scoured
the best music schools (Berkeley, Eastman, Miami) for the best
talent and collected great performers from foreign countries
on his world tours (Danny Ross, Peter King from England and
Bruce Johnstone from New Zealand).
prodigious intellect sought recompense outside of music. He
continually moved his family around the world studying the vagaries
of British culture while living in England. Later the family
moved to Millbrook New York where he and Flo hobnobbed with
professors from Harvard and experimented with psychedelic drugs
alongside Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. In 1967, he moved everyone
to India where he taught music and absorbed important Asian
ethical and aesthetic traditions and incorporated Indian instruments
and influences into his music.
musical polymath, Maynard played French horn, valve trombone,
baritone horn and designed the ‘superbone’ and ‘firebird’
the latter adopted by Indian musicians who utilized it in complex
Asian notation systems. In his later years he received myriad
honors and awards from institutions and governments and an honorary
doctorate from Rowan University.
Ferguson biography has yet to written but when an attempt is
made the Renaissance life of this extraordinary musician will
have to include detailed analysis of his vast aesthetic and
intellectual activity. If researched carefully the popularity
of his life’s achievements will be eclipsed by an elevated
artistic one and, perhaps, at that time the breadth of his talent
may be completely revealed.