Out of the Exosphere and Back On the Scene
Down Beat, date unclear (mid 70's).
By Herb Wong
From the jazz portals of the opulent Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, the exospheric sounds of M.F.'s trumpet pierced the calm of the late August evening. Maynard's superb 14-man half-British band was into the first set, front burners wide open; and M.F. was buoyant and swinging his ass off!
Of late I had heard this exciting, upstart big band in two other settings - in concert out-of-doors, under a celestial canopy at the Concord Jazzfest; and at a demo-clinic concert with a high school jazz workshop band. I was wondering about the specific conditions contributing to the outrageously successful "return" of Maynard Ferguson. Where does the resurgent power emanate, reside or enervate?
I had first encountered Maynard when he was a startling feature of Stan Kenton's band in the early fifties. He is equally phenomenal today as he was then - double-high C's and all.
M.F. is a mature-thinking, openly reflective person who bounces off ideas with great ease; the slightest kernel of a thought spins out a web of interrelatedness. Parts of his value system are clearly enunciated in his holistic philosophy of life, and in his conduct in the musical milieu. This assessment is supported by the substance and implications of his thoughts, encountered in the ground floor flake-out room of the Great American Music Hall.
Wong: The latest editions of your band seem to meet a number of your needs, and this satisfaction is shared in part by the responsive audiences. What factors nurture these areas of satisfaction?
Ferguson: We settled into somewhat of a pattern that works to my advantage and to that of most of the guys in the band. You see, we do "tours" per se as opposed to a 12-months-of-the-year, every night-of-the-week schedule with an occasional night off. We present ourselves more as an attraction, rather than as a band, in the manner in which we are booked. I feel it's a concept that keeps us fresh and alive. For instance, after we close our current tour, we take a month off at home in Europe before starting the next one.
Wong: What type of activities occupy your refueling or free time away from the tour commitments?
Ferguson: We get into some of our new writing. For instance, the two new compositions by our pianist-writer Pete Jackson are on our new "live" Columbia record. The creation of this new material - and I think they are brilliant compositions - was possible because of our refueling pattern. At the end of a tour I can say to Pete: "Let's get lost for a week and then let's get together on new ideas." The creative state of the writer doesn't suffer.
Originally this format was a result of my coming back on the scene. I had an all-British orchestra and, out of union and work permit necessities, we were obliged to do it that way. But we ended up realizing that this scheme was definitely an asset.
During the breaks we also plan our next recording projects with Columbia without the pressure of going from one concert or gig to another and trying to sandwich in all of these supplemental activities.
Wong: In the band business, there are usually disruptive effects resulting from any fracture of a band's ongoing schedule of performance. How do your intermittent rest periods sit with the band?
Ferguson: We've never really lost anybody because we took time off. The band is at its best right now and as a matter of fact, we have lost various members because of the popularity and success of the band. Some of the tours have become longer and they come more often than in the onset. So a guy who has three or four children and lives in England finds that whereas the first tour was a pleasure and, indeed, a life-long dream, he suddenly cannot fit it into his life style. Blowing his whole family game or, more certainly, altering it greatly would be at stake. My family lives in Windsor, England and it's worked out for me, obviously, but we all have different needs. And we all adjust differently. Most of the group love and prefer our work arrangements. The band does pay rather well - all the hotel and expenses as well as their salary add up nicely. And we don't have any exclusive game with them during their off time. They generally treat it literally as a vacation time. On the last break, my family relaxed in Spain. When we all regrouped, it was to put our new things together, run down the new charts.
Furthermore, when the band has been going at a solid pace and you know the tour will end in a few weeks, your mental attitude perks up. Despite enjoyment, there is physical exhaustion and a potential for mental weariness. So the anticipation of the break promotes a healthy outlook. And it shows up in the music!
Wong: Some of the carry-over values are perceptible on and off the bandstand.
Ferguson: Right! One of the things you'll hear about my band is the excitement occurring on the bandstand - lots of pleasure and laughter. But this elation and revelry would have to simmer and phase itself out if we were to go at it every night of the year! Spirit has so much to do with it all. I feel very good when I walk on - no bad vibes.
Wong: What's new with you as next steps?
Ferguson: In the wind is a CBS-TV thing whereby we may be doing eight specials, including my conducting the music and taking part in the show visually.
Wong: I understand you'll be at the super trumpet summit in Colorado again.
Ferguson: We hit Denver at the week-long World Trumpet Symposium. We're the leading attraction, with the only large orchestra as an entire unit on the program. Guys from the Rochester Brass Ensemble, the N.Y. Philharmonic, trumpeters from all over the globe will be around.
Wong: How do you facilitate understanding or handle such a wide cross-section of musical persuasion?
Ferguson: We demonstrate in the clinic context much as we manage during the school year in high schools and colleges. Section techniques and a full concert are parts of the clinical curriculum we present. And this adult symposium audience shows as much inquisitiveness as the young cats.
Wong: Since I am involved with jazz educational activities, I'm interested in your comments on the state of the art of music education and its impact.
Ferguson: One of the reasons I left the U.S. in 1967 had to do with my unhappiness with the young people's lack of interest in the music I've been interested in. But I believe firmly that the biggest improvement in the U.S. in the last decade is the tremendous current interest in music. Much credit is due the music educators and their supporters. Even though I believe that many of these guys got into the education game as an alternative to whatever fantasy they might have held in the past, they suddenly are caught up in the swirl of the jazz education movement.
With hundreds of thousands of kids in the jazz band thing, I tell you, these kids are comin' up and like man, no one is ever going to turn them around! They have already made their artistic imprint on music history. What they're into now, they'll always be into and they may change and grow with it as their ears and ideas grow. We know it's impossible for all of them to become musicians, but our culture is veering toward regarding music as a social thing, as music has been regarded for centuries in Asian cultures.
Wong: Shouldn't there be a big stack of big bands coming out of the momentum?
Ferguson: As a goal, definitely! A major responsibility of music educators is to motivate the kids to want to become leaders. I don't think this is a strong part of the jazz education thing at the moment, however. Like, we're creating 8 million sidemen and no leaders! Do you realize that with my five children and my graying hair I am one of America's youngest successful band leaders...man, I'm 45 now. I'm hoping that jazz education will evolve to the level of building big band leadership power.
Wong: Besides the small existing circle of big band leaders and their image power, what other conditions might help precipitate more leaders?
Ferguson: Well, the stronger we few become, the easier it'll be for the young aspirants as they follow a path of success...accepted by more than one generation. It means creating something that's not a foreign element to the audience - guys cannot turn their backs on their audience with disdain or lack of warmth and outward rapport. Like I really enjoyed my last set tonight. It's fantastically rewarding for me. And you know the band and audience were likewise turned on. When I turned over the Lyn Biviano the 18-20 bars of solo which I recorded, I really enjoyed doing that, but I wouldn't let him play if I didn't think he'd play the crap out of it! The insights and nuances of being a leader come from parallel personal development and experience, of course. But they are potentially possible with the jazz education enterprise.
Wong: Now I'm prompted to have you summarize your rationale for the somewhat unorthodox instrumentation you have in your band.
Ferguson: The front line has a bass trombone, a tenor slide trombone, a baritone sax, an alto sax, a tenor sax and one leader playing trumpet, flugelhorn and superbone; then there's a drummer, one bass guitar/upright bass, a piano, and a trumpet section with two soloists. This formula works for me although I enjoy other big bands that are larger than mine. I feel no boredom within my band. There is no one saying, "Oh, God, I wish he's give me a chance to blow" because everyone who is a soloist is a soloist who blows on my band. There are people who say, "You don't use that size band in your records," but I do...except on MF Horn One when I did add a few guys. Now, I'm a firm believer of change. And next time I come back, maybe I'll have 10 brass or 15 saxes. In other words, it comes down to a lack of commitment - important in any art form. Then when you wish to change, you just swing right ahead and change it! It's like a guy who listens to Coltrane for the first time and says it's rubbish; and if he's got his head together on the fifth listening and if Coltrane turns him on, he won't have trouble.
I'm Taurus the Bull. I tend to react with innocence and instinct rather than with logic and reasoning
We talked of many other things, including Maynard's experiences in India, which brought forth an anecdote with delighted him very much. Maynard was playing his trumpet for some young schoolchildren, who were asked to write about their reactions to M.F.'s horn work (accompanied by a Manatovani record). The winning entry was by an eleven year old girl who wrote that at first, Maynard's playing was like a roaring of a lion and it frightened her. Then suddenly it was like the sweet twittering of a bird, and she knew it must be beautiful music.