M.F.'s Back in Town
Originally printed in the April 13, 1972 issue of Down Beat.
By Eve Berliner.
Maynard Ferguson has been gone from the United States for four-and-a-half years, living in England and for a time in India. He left this country in a darkness - an interlude of artistic withdrawal and private despair, facing financial ruin; he broke for a new life and found it on the other side of the ocean.
And now he was back, on his second U.S. tour in two-and-a-half months, his sound, his soul on fire with today.
The place: the dressing room of Brandi's Wharf, a pleasant supper club in Philadelphia. The scene is surreal: Maynard on a meteoric warm-up streak, hitting a high note, whirling in slow motion; fans, people running in and out; Maynard moving into his strange Hatha Yoga breathing exercises, stretching, leaning, his entire body seeming to fill with air. Then he's resting a moment, taking a sip of coffee, posing for a photograph, somehow alone in the madness, a boyish shyness showing through it all.
His band explodes in pockets of energy around him - young, bursting, funny, colorful - a rebellious bunch of crazy English characters who also happen to be talented, serious musicians.
Maynard admits that he feels loved as a leader by his band. He injects them with exuberance. He frees them to be themselves. As a result, they dress wild and play wilder, and there is not a sign of a bruised ego in the bunch; in fact, injured egos are most conspicuously lacking among the trumpet players.
Says trumpeter Martin Drover: "There is no question of competitiveness. Maynard is an amazing inspiration. He is like a dynamo inspiring the band." And from section mate Bud Parks: "Ego problems with Maynard? We're so satisfied we can't have any ego problems."
(One must add, for the record, that cherubic, blue-eyed alto sax and flute player Jeff Daley has confessed to superiority over Maynard in the performance of a strange, convoluted tongue movement their leader has dubbed a-suck-a-lick-'n-roll. "Maynard hates that I've got the edge on him on that," Jeff grins.)
"My talent," says Ferguson, "is getting people to play great. We're having such a good time. In my band there's no such thing as a mistake. If you louse it up, we're going to laugh and have a good time seeing how well we can play those charts.
"To have the music happen with the right kind of feeling is the name of the game. Joy is the name of the game, and if we hit a few wrong notes along the way - well, that's all right. I like to think of myself as a happy amateur."
Maynard never rebukes his player. "They know if they're not catching fire. They don't need additional punishment from me. Sometimes players complain to me, 'You never say anything to me when I play badly'. I seek for perfection slowly. I wait to see if it gets better by itself. Desire must be the making of it. I would rather people criticize me for lack of discipline in the band and feel joy in playing."
Sometimes Maynard tells people he puts "secret stuff" on his lips. He's been known to report that he plays the way he does "to support my wife and kids" or because "I like it."
"The truth is I don't know why everyone doesn't play this way. I guess nobody told me it was hard. It's a form of coordination - I'm sure of it - plus a state of mind, and of course the breathing part of it.
"When I'm right, I know there's nobody else who can do what I can do and them I'm higher than any drug can make me. Then it's magic; sheer freedom bursts when I play completely unconsciously with innocence and instinct. You know, sometimes I really feel alone out there."
Part of you is an athlete as well as an artist, says Ferguson. Playing the trumpet is a strenuous physical test. "You must be tuning yourself in first and then having a feeling of turning other people on and having a good time, because if God is in all of us, then for God's sake let's have a good time."
One thing is certain about the Ferguson enigma: The answer is not to be found in the way he cares for his horn. "I'm rougher on horns than anybody, possibly even my son. I really bang them up." Maynard's horn is currently patched up with black electrical tape. He cleans it infrequently.
One clue to the mystique may be Maynard's discovery that the breathes "totally abnormally for a Westerner" - slowly, deeply - "I don't breathe like everybody else."
Of his high register Maynard says: "It's just something I seem to be able to do; I enjoy every effort. Its always a thing of pleasure and joy to do that. It certainly gave me an identity, maybe more of an identity in that direction than I wanted."
At his February Town Hall concert in New York, Ferguson hit an F above double high C. His manager, Ernie Garside, reports that he has seen the trumpeter black out coming off a high note, instantly pull himself together, throw a wink to the band and mutter, "Yeah, how about that one?"
His fans enter the dressing room in awe:
The stunned 8-year-old wearing glasses too large for his head; he's been playing trumpet for two years and has just heard Maynard for the first time. He poses nervously for a photograph with Maynard, who is gently reassuring.
The flushed young woman who asks breathlessly: "Do you kiss girls?" "Why, sure," he smiles, lightly kissing her on the mouth.
The music teacher who gasps, "Maynard, you're just not human!"
Maynard laughing, taking from his carpetbag the latest and most astonishing gift from a fan: a mouthpiece, the inside of which is constructed from broken glass, glue and a razor blade, "My warm-up mouthpiece," Maynard grins, "especially designed for double tonguing. I practice on it an hour every day."
Pianist Milt Buckner, animated, earthy, real, enters the dressing room, Maynard greets him exuberantly, lovingly; a friend. His arms go around Milt and a fan snaps the picture.
Maynard rapping with the guys, radiating laughter, energy. A series of autograph hunters, some requests for oldies - Maria is the favorite - Maynard usually acquiescing.
Maynard's manager tells of a fan letter Maynard receives from a convict imprisoned in an English jail. Maynard got permission from the authorities to visit him and gave him a trumpet lesson.
Suddenly, a surprise. An old mouthpiece is presented to Maynard, clipped from him almost 10 years ago - the mouthpiece on which he recorded the mind-shattering Ole. Maynard beams. "How do you like that?" A friend handles the mouthpiece, overwhelmed: "A piece of history." Maynard gives it to him. "I'd like you to have it," and with a wink "You can make a small bedlamp out of it."
More autographs. "Once I decided I ought to be writing someone of significance on these things so I impulsively signed "God is love," on some woman's autograph. She chased me for the next four years. I play it safe now." And he scrawls "Best wishes, Maynard Ferguson."
A fan apologizes for a signature already there - "Good luck to you from Doc Severinsen," it reads - and Maynard adds in small letters "plus Maynard Ferguson." Ferguson tells about one of his more ardent fans, a prominent brain surgeon in Texas, who has asked the musician to leave him his brains. More autographs. Maynard forgets to return the ballpoint pen and confesses the habit is chronic.
An endless stream of trumpet students and buffs is giving Maynard the third degree. What do you think of this mouthpiece, this trumpet; would you test this one out; what do you think of that; what am I doing wrong; what is this about breathing exercises; why, how, tell us, what is this miracle?
Maynard is softly bemused, sensitive, a bit baffled, happy, elated by it all, a little tired, still able to laugh at himself, the people, the joy, the absurdity.
In a Chinese restaurant at 4 a.m. after the show, Carly Simon comes over the radio. Maynard is unfamiliar with her. He simply doesn't "tune that one in." He zooms in with his head only when the music compels it. Otherwise it just passes him by, unheard. Maynard laughs at the recollection of old friend Willie Maiden "who used to go berserk" from Muzak piped into elevators and restaurants.
Maynard's never had any musical heroes. "I've never listened to anyone over and over. That's why I've never copied anyone. As a kid, you see, I did a awful lot of playing in proportion to listening." At 13, Maynard had already put together his first band.
"Wind instruments, that was it. It came from within. I might have been the smartest kid in the class during my early school years, but then the fun thing took over. It was very strong in me. I left the public school system at 13 years of age." His parents, both teachers (his father was a school principal) had the wisdom to stand by him and believe in him. "They were unsure at times, but they felt that they could give me a lot of my education at home. I was very lucky. They understood."
Maynard is, in fact, an incredibly lucky person, as illustrated by this incident:
In India, he was bitten on the big toe by a poisonous snake. By an act of fate, it happened only 100 yards away from a school hospital. "I remember those dark, brooding Indian women standing over me. I looked in their strangely beautiful faces and saw death in their eyes." He survived after having a solution poured through his system for 24 hours.
Maynard, incidentally, attended the same high school as Oscar Peterson in Montreal. "We used to play together in my brother Percival's band," laughs Maynard. "The Montreal High School Victory Serenaders. Oscar used to play boogie woogie and sing the Sheik of Araby," Maynard recalled.
Maynard talked about some of the outstanding trumpet players of today, among them the great William Vacchiano, lead trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic.
"I have a wonderful story to tell you about Vacchiano," Maynard said. "A few years ago, Bill Russo was commissioned to write a symphony to be performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
"He wrote something that was very far-out in a symphonic schooled sort of way - complicated rhythms, you know? It was very controversial, very hard to play, and I was brought in as the principal soloist."
The trumpet played a crucial part in the symphony, called The Titan. "I never played a note for the first three movements but the fourth movement was one long incredible trumpet solo - all me.
"Anyway, after the fourth and final performance, Vacchiano came over to congratulate me and informed me that the brass had worked harder then they'd ever worked in their life and said if I ever lost my lip I could always play lead with the New York Philharmonic."
Maynard stated that he practices to tapes of the band from which his own parts have been removed. "I believe in practicing what you play rather than just practicing." He does not believe in practicing every day. He owns only four trumpets.
Maynard will soon be marketing his own "M.F. Horn" through one of the major instrument companies here, built along the specifications of his own horn with a range of mouthpieces to suit individual players. "I won't be making mouthpieces that are impossible to play on - not right away," he adds with a grin.
I spoke with the trumpeter's intense, gifted composer-arranger-producer, 32-year-old Keith Mansfield, the creator of some of the beauties in the current Ferguson repertoire. The two met four years ago in London, when as a producer at CBS Mansfield was assigned to Ferguson. The first result was an album of commercial tunes, played in ballad style, "which in effect relegated Maynard to yesterday rather than allowing him to be relevant to today."
Mansfield was convinced that Maynard could be part of the charged, wild, rhythmic scene of today. An arranger for 17 years and aware of Maynard since the age of 14, he understood the trumpeter's harmonic sense, his drive, sound, and conception. Exploring the '70s with the Ferguson band has turned out to be "kid of the culmination of a dream."
Maynard has his own dream, too. He is taking his band in a new direction and he wants to be free. The great Indian philosopher-poet Krishnamurti has become Maynard's spiritual teacher. He instructs each man to be free, alive to the moment, open to change. "A man must think for himself, accept change for himself and then he'll be receptive to change," says Ferguson.
The issue of change is a significant one for him, particularly in music. "The old followers tend to dislike it, and the new fans can't relate to the old thing." Maynard is reluctant to play the old charts, "to imitate the band of yesterday instead of being the band of today. I don't want to become the Play it again, Sam, of America."
Maynard's audiences are a college of nostalgia and youth, old and new. They are passionate, and they are buying his records. He was nominated for a Grammy Award this year for best big band album (M.F. Horn on Columbia).
Maynard Ferguson is into new dimension, new sounds. The nirvana he really wants to experiment with now is "Indian music, my musicians and African drummers."
For Ferguson, India was Shangri La. There he steeped himself in a new kind of life, and the sound of the East has only just begun to emerge in his music.
"You know," he says softly, "an instrumental player is a mystic communicating with sounds, not language. Instrumentalists have many experiences. It's hard for them not to have magic involved in a performance."
The Indians call it an ecstatic and mystical state of mind; Maynard says he has experienced it.
The audience, riveted, watches him moving, feeling it through his horn, telling it all - his pathos, his ecstasy.
An audience consumed, gone with him.
Later, alone, he gathers his energies, free inside.
After a while, he speaks, his voice strangely suffused. "You know," he says, "after I play like that I really feel happy."