|A Conversation With Maynard Ferguson
from BBC Radio 2, "Jazz Notes”, August 1995
Originally broadcast on "Jazz Notes" on BBC Radio 2, 28 August 1995.
with Campbell Burnap
An interview by Campbell Burnap with Maynard Ferguson, during the 1995 Wigan Jazz Festival. Ferguson's "Big Bop Noveau" Big Band performed, and Maynard conducted a Trumpeter's Master Class.
CAMPBELL BURNAP (CB):...welcoming you to another Monday edition of Jazz Notes...
(JAZZ NOTES Theme....)
CB: Earlier on, in this long hot summer, I was at the Wigan Jazz Festival to interview a visiting overseas star, who, nearly 30 years ago was causing quite a commotion in British Jazz circles. A trumpeter, who, working from a Manchester base, and using musicians from the BBC's Northern Dance Orchestra, began shivering the timbers and blowing away any cobwebs of complacency in concert halls, clubs and TV Studios around the U.K. His trumpet method was both atmospheric and stratospheric, while his stage personality could illuminate whole streets. A Bully Boy of the trumpet, if you like, a brass hooligan in the friendliest sense. His name, MAYNARD FERGUSON, and he was at Wigan in July for concert performances, fronting his Big Bop Noveau Band, and to conduct Master Classes. It's perhaps fair to say that this Canadian star has, throughout his long career, been just as much castigated as congratulated for his extreme exuberance. It's even led to music trade jokes, "Strain-Hard" Ferguson for instance, and even in the very latest edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, editors Morton and Cooke poke some gentle fun in his direction, with their of a CD recorded on the Continent....
"Attention all shipping and sea areas, Dogga, Wight, and Portland, Hurricane Maynard blowing in from Belgium. "
Well, he began his professional career at the tail end of the Swing Era, in big name American Orchestras, but his musical tastes have always been eclectic. He may hail from French Canada, but Iberian trumpet flourishes have, for instance, never presented a problem.
(Cadenza from Macarena, from “DUES”)
CB: Senor Maynard Ferguson, having fun there, with Don Sebesky's arrangement of Macarena. That one recorded in 1972. Well, Maynard's old British pals found him no less ebullient this time 'round at Wigan, and asked him about his connections with the Northwest...
MAYNARD FERGUSON (MF): I have great memories of putting together a band, in Manchester with Ernie Garside, and all that kinda fun thing, and that was the beginning quite a few years here in England.
CB: And where you getting into schools as early as that?
MF: No, we weren't much into the music education thing, in this country at that time, so it was mostly just a performance thing. And then, of course I moved down to Windsor, as CBS London put me under contract. You know, they would call me up, I believe it was the BBC, and would constantly, never say "Oh ,we'd like to have Maynard do a performance on our musical variety show", or whatever, they would say "Yes, we'd like to have Maynard a week from Sunday to play Maria". (Laughs...) And they would would choose your tune, ...Maria is a lovely tune, but at that time it was coming out of my ears...
(Maria, from BIG BOP NOUVEAU”...)
CB: Well, Maynard Ferguson has had applause ringing in from highly aroused concert audiences ringing in his ears for as long as he can remember, but as I said earlier, his mission to Britain this year was two-pronged, to perform yes, but also to pass on enormous experience and his enthusiasm for music to youngsters.
MF: I think if we put a musical instrument, as a replacement thing in the hands of alot of these kids that just love handguns, we'd be much hipper.
CB: The only problem with that is perhaps,that once they're trained, and they've reached certain proficiency, there's no place for them to go and play professionally.
MF: Oh but you see, that's where everyone makes the mistake. Why be a professional? Music is a glorious thing man, and a wonderful part of your education. Nobody rushes to the algebra class with a feeling of joy, "Oh boy, here we go. we're gong to do some algebra". But you're going to play, in even the marching band, because remember those marching bands don't just play Colonel Bogey one more time. There playing contemporary music, when you look at the American Football games, many is the time the half-time is more exciting than the football game, you know, and things of that nature. And money and promotion and put into them. I find things being very healthy right now and the direction's really good.
CB: Yes, I remember seeing a college band rehearsing in the states a couple of years ago when in I was over on holiday, and there must have been three or four hundred of them marching down the football field.
MF: That's what I mean, isn't that great, now you see you take that and you become an attorney, you become a doctor, and that's one of most joyful parts of your life, man. You get mad at the wife and kids, you go in blow a horn for an hour, and you come out and you saved yourself from going to a shrink for an hour.
(Get It To Go, from "Footpath Cafe"....)
MF: What I love about my band is, having a small big band is very important from the viewpoint that we travel, we work all the time, we perform all the time. I do not go into the studio with an unrehearsed band., with a creative idea. Even when I do a studio album, as a producer now I'm talking, because I have that advantage, we play until we love it. And then, then we go into the studio and record it, you know, which is a tremendous advantage.
CB: How many pieces then, altogether?
MF: Okay, there's two saxophones, one trombone, three trumpets, not counting me, and piano, bass, and drums, electric keyboards if we want them, either form of bass if we want...
(Get It To Go continues....)
CB: Trumpet players, listening to this nationally, they want to know what sort of shape the Ferguson chops are in at this moment.
MF: Oh, well I'll tell you what, now that I'm older, I'm one of the greater mime artists, I have three young bulls in the back, and they play all the high notes and I make sure my white coat looks nice. And (laughs) it's all over folks (laughs)...
CB: We don't believe that for a moment.
MF: Actually, I'm in fine shape with that, I think trumpet players do a little better than football players when it comes to longevity. And, but I take of my health a lot better than I used to, when I'm home I wake up and I do 100 laps of the pool, that's for your air, and your airstream. I don't want you to think I've become a celibate monk or anything, but I watch my health, yeah.
CB: Do you think top-note trumpet men, lead trumpet men, are they a swash-buckling race by nature, are you born as personalities or are there any introverted top-men?
MF: I tell you what, I think there is a certain amount of that, because to be a lead player, you have confidence, and when you miss you have to know how to say "Next Case", you know when those annoying third alto players turn around and look at you because you missed, (Laughs), and when they miss there's nobody to turn around, because they're in the front row. But that's price you pay for being the lead trumpet, or whatever, you know, If you look at my two lead trumpet players, both meat eating really strong trumpet players, then you look at a Taylor Haskins, who is a pure vegetarian, and absolute vegetarian, and he plays all those beautiful lines, he has a real harmonic sense, that's really quite beautiful. And I always enjoy having one trumpet player on the band that plays totally unlike myself (laughs), and then I have two others that play alot like myself, you know. That's because we want that power and stamina, as well as the artistic part of it. But I do know what you mean. being a lead trumpet player, you have to play with faith and confidence, and you commit yourself..
CB: Have you ever, sort of thought about how much of it, the ability to play really up there, you're are known for that, as well as other things of course, but that ability, how much of it is physiological, and how much of it is mental?
MF: Oh, alot of it is mental. Remember that I was in the Kiwanis boys band playing all those double and triple tonguing solos in the parks, from the age of nine on, great encouragement from my family, so therefore... I was the mascot of the Black Watch Regimental Band wearing kilts doing all the marches and all that kind of stuff. And when I had my first band when I was 16, I was one of those kids that looked about 13 when I was 16, and we got away with murder. Another words, if you played something, and missed the high note at the end, everybody said "Isn't that adorable, you almost made it" . Don't try that at the age of 22, "What's the matter with that cat? he really blew that, He's Terrible". And that's part of our human nature, that we forgive children, and we become unforgiving as we get older, I guess. Whoops, I'll have to think about that.
CB: When you were a kid, you not only played trumpet, I've noticed you played a lot of instruments. Do you still use valve trombone. french horn, the euphonium?
MF: Well, I tell you what, I played soprano saxophone last night, at the moment that's one of my doubles, plus the flugelhorn. And I'm starting to get back, I had a little tooth problem with the larger mouthpieces, and that’s since been solved, so I have not been playing my superbone, which I'm about to get back on to now. But the soprano, I use because it works so great in the fusion of Indian music with jazz.
CB: Well, you've always had a very eclectic view of things. You were into a jazz-rock thing, and what about 1990's pop music, any view on that.
MF: Well, the pop music thing, I always liked to be influenced by it. Take for instance the "High Voltage" band that I had for a while there. Which I think made Leonard Feather throw up, as I recall. But, I was very much into, being interested in all computerized electronics that are so much a part of the music of today. And the first year of doing hat, because you're almost taking a studio out on the road with you as far as the electric tricks you can do and all of the electric artistic things you can do, as well. I really had fun for the first year with it. The second year, I really started getting bored, and there was one night when Matt Wallace was the other horn, THE other horn player, and a huge acoustic and electronic rhythm section on stage, and I turned around and started conducting and I couldn't believe what I just done because the only guy I was conducting was Matt Wallace. that's when I knew I was getting bored without the horn sections, and the part of the band that people could say that's where my roots were, and all those kind of book language things, but also it might be the truth. But whatever it was, I thought I needed that as a producer, to have that knowledge of the electric game and what it can do, and what it can't do was very important to know. And, something about...Chick Corea and I once had a conversation about that. We went up to the double B flat concert, in a duet we did together. And he said “See, that's what I mean”. And I said “What are you talking about", this was in the playback, of course. And he was talking about that there was intensity in the left side, which is where we had whatever he was playing, electronic keyboard at the time. And of course me, the struggle to play this same phrase acoustically, on a wind instrument, and you could feel that heat and the energy on the right channel, and you just felt somebody pressing a button on the left. But out of that comes a strong influence, I don't put down that kind of thong at all, and that statement I just made is not political. I gets so that everybody is saying they like any and all music. I totally dislike bad music.(laughs)
CB: Is there likely to be a Maynard Ferguson Rap record?
MF: Highly unlikely...
(King Kan, from High Voltage 2)
CB: A taste there of Maynard Ferguson's High Voltage band in the late 1980's, that very involvement with electric fusion music that made jazz critic, the late Leonard Feather throw up, to quote Maynard's own words.
But even if Maynard does assault the notes he finds at the top of the range, and I always think of it as an Alpine or even Himalayan approach, nevertheless, he's a much maligned man, insofar as there are several examples on record of a more reflective non-ferocious Ferguson. Like this 1972 version of Come Rain or Come Shine, arranged for him by his fellow Canadian, the valve trombonist, Rob McConnell...
(Come Rain, or Come Shine from "The Blues Roar")
CB: Only momentary mountaineering on that Maynard Ferguson version of Come Rain, or Come Shine, and on saxophone there, Maynard's old colleague Willie Maiden.
Well the Ferguson professional trumpet playing career has recently passed the Golden Anniversary mark. And it's been an impressive journey since those school days in the province of Quebec...
MF: My father was one of the school principles that was interested in music education. When nobody thought much of it they said, "Well, we'll have a choir, and he said NO, NO....And so he was one of the first guys to bring instrument teaching into the school system in Canada, particularly in the predominantly French province of Quebec, where I'm come from. So when it all started, it was so new, that nobody thought, "What are we going to do with all the instruments in summertime when school is closed." So my brother and I, owned 138 very nice instruments in the basement of our home, because my dad said "Oh, I'll just put them in my basement", not knowing they would become my favorite toys, and the same thing with my brother. So, we would just go down and play with the toys. But when I was a young child, the thing I noticed looking at all musicians, with a child's mind, what do you look for? You look for the people that are having the most fun. And the people that seemed to be having the most fun are jazz musicians.
CB: I felt exactly the same way. You mentioned your childhood and your parents, what did they think about jazz ?
MF: Oh, well they were terribly disappointed at first. My mother was sure I'd become the next Heifitz or Isaac Stern. Because from the age of four it was piano and violin, and I had shown something or other on the violin, see. And Fox Movietone was there with some old clips showing music education in the schools, and I'm five years of age and I'm playing the violin. Then came the magic of just hearing a trumpet. I heard a trumpet at a church social, one of rare times I think I was at a church social. But when I was nine years of age and I turned to my dad and said Hey get me one of those. There was such enthusiasm by my brother and I. Before that I knew I would become the world's greatest Ice Hockey Player.
MF: My brother still to this day, plays hockey in the senior league in New York City. He's a retired professor of Psychology from NYU and all that.
CB: Of course, we had quite a lot of swing bands still around when you were a teenager, what were you listening to then ?
MF: Oh yeah, my Mom and Dad, you see, were big band freaks. Canadians, especially Canadians that are school teachers and principles, my mother was a teacher my father, a principle. So it started with them, we would go old Dorchard Beach, Maine, and that were alot of Canadians went on vacations, only our vacations were longer. And so once a week they would have, like say Tommy Dorsey, and then the next week it would be Jimmy Dorsey, then it would be Harry James, then, and so I heard then all at that age, then by the time I was sixteen I was the warm-up band. Once a month they would bring Basie, Ellington, Kenton, Woody Herman. All of them I was the warm-up band, including Dizzy Gillespie's great big band, gong back to 1949 I guess, oh no '46. And so, I really had all those offers from the United States. A matter of fact, the choice that I had to make about leaving Canada was whether to go with Stan Kenton in the United States or Ted Heath. That a difficult choice because I really had a tremendous admiration for the Ted Heath Orchestra.
CB: I've always been intrigued by bandleader Charlie Barnet. I'm told he was the most flamboyant character in the world. You actually worked for him.
MF: Oh yeah, and that was an incredible trumpet section. Doc Severisen and myself were on that band and so everyone comes up either Doc or me and says, “Wow, what a great lead trumpet player you were with Charlie Barnet's band!” We were the fourth and fifth trumpet, man. And we both had our solo spots, also Rolf Erickson, a matter of fact Ferguson, Severisen and Erickson were a corny old group called the "Three Sons", we used to call ourselves the "Three Sons". All three of us were third, fourth and fifth, it was Ray Wetzel who was the lead trumpet player, and Johnny Howell was the relief lead trumpet player. We were the guys who went down and showed off and played solos and stuff. Ray Wetzel, if he didn't like the way we played the parts after the gig, such as gig like last night that went on, two long shows, the band would be folding up and the trumpets would be having a rehearsal at 2 AM. A lot of discipline there, and that doesn't get mentioned. It's to much fun for a writer I guess, and for a reader, maybe to here about all the fun things.
Charlie Barnet was one of the wildest guys ever to have a band. he came out of very wealthy family, and who totally disliked, as the story goes, his choice of lifestyles, and of course he was a great fan of Ellington, and Ellington's music. He was a wonderful guy. Just a great guy. Always made sure the boys were happy, always did funny things to make them laugh .
Seeing he's gone now, I can tell you one of things he used to do, other things I can't say on the program, he used to drive his Cadillac Convertible all the time. He'd get in front of the band bus, and then he'd shoot every road sign. Right? (laughs) Just to make the boys laugh. And the band manager in the bus, in those days you had no communication where you could pick him up, tell him to stop, get in front of him. He was totally a wild man. Very harmless, and that is very dangerous, what he was doing. But however, like you said, of all of them he the most...I think that's a great word for him flamboyant He was a great dresser, he dressed beautifully, his choice of musicians, like that trumpet section, was like me going to school.
(“All the Things You Are”, with Charlie Barnet...)
CB: All The Things You Are, a Dennis Farnham arrangement written for the Charlie Barnet Orchestra of 1949, and written especially to spotlight the flair and exuberance of a 21 year old Maynard Ferguson. Well, that was a performance that thrilled many jazz fans, but enraged Jerome Kerns' widow, and the composer's publishers, Chappell and Co. Capitol Records, in fact, withdrew the disk fro the catalog after receiving their complaints. But just four months after that record date, Ferguson was on his way to sunny California, to join another flamboyant leader.
MF: It easy for me, January the 1st, 1950, I joined the Kenton Band, and leaving...and Barnet folded his band, so it wasn't even us leaving Barnet, Barnet left us. And he retired for about a year and then came back.
CB: That was the Kenton Innovations Orchestra, and you were very much the star of that.
MF: Yeah, well I suppose I did a lot of solo work on that one.
CB: Can you look back with the greatest of pleasure and fondness on that period ?
MF: Oh, very much so. Stan was so wonderful to me, because he had first heard me with my own band in Montreal, warming up for the Stan Kenton Concert, and had made the offer to feature me with his band if I ever broke up my Canadian band and came to the United States, and he talked to my mother and father, because I was a teenager then, of course. And, so by the time I was 21 there I was. I remember walking into the El Capitan Theater a day late to rehearsals for the innovations thing, because there was this tremendous blizzard. I'd gone home to Montreal, and had to come by train. In those days they canceled the flights when you got that kind of stuff. So, I walked into the El Captian theater, it was 90 degrees, this was in Hollywood, I had the fur coat over one arm, the fur hat and the boots, and somehow one large suitcase and my horn. I came walking down the center aisle, and peels of laughter from everywhere. I just looked absolutely ridiculous, you know. So the first thing Kenton ever said to me when I joined the band was "Ferguson, where the hell have you been?!" And I can remember him saying it. And I was looking up at a 40 piece orchestra with an empty chair. So I kept up my jazz image buy showing up late. (laughs..)
CB: But you also won some DownBeat polls.
MF: Oh yeah, and that caused a lot of stuff. And the Maynard Ferguson thing, which Shorty Rogers wrote, on the Stan Kenton Presents Album, I guess that's what got me the international reputation. So I learned a lot while I was on the Kenton Band.
(“Maynard Ferguson”, from "Stan Kenton Presents")
CB: That's the neck that still swells out to a 24 inch collar size when Maynard Ferguson's trumpet climbs towards the clouds, and I bet the the august halls of Cornell University never fully recovered from that brassy mugging in 1951, when Maynard set about that feature named after him by it's composer Shorty Rogers, and another Kenton trumpet man.
MF: Stan was really a wonderful guy, and I try to be the same way in certain ways. For instance, he got me my first recording contract with Capitol Records because that's who he was with, and I said, “Well Stan you'll play piano with me, right?" and he said “No, no you don't this is your thing." So, the first things I ever did were on Capitol, and I think it was Take The "A" Train, that was a Shorty Rogers arrangement, too, now that I come to think of it. I did a certain amount of things with Capitol, and of course for Amercy, but that was long after I left the Kenton band. And I always had it in mind...and then came Paramount studios. And it was at Paramount that I was born, maybe to be a successful studio musician, but I disliked it totally, and they had a quota system that you couldn't play in Jazz Clubs if you were making all that money as an under contract yearly recipient of all kinds of money and benefits from Paramount Studios and stuff like that. They paid me very well. And all that kind of thing. I would play three and a half hours a week. Over the years I was at Paramount, that's how much I played. I was not born to practice in the backroom. You know, I'm a performer, and I enjoy performing live, I enjoy the studio thing. The studio thing is number two, but performing live is my favorite. Whether I was a vaudevillian in my former life I don't know, but I enjoy playing live for people.
CB: Well, currently surrounded every night by star graduates of American College Music programs, men decades younger than himself, seems to keep Maynard's enthusiasm and energy topped up. He told me he was optimist, that a recording contract with the Concord label was about to be finalized, one that would involve producing young talent as well as playing.
And after Wigan Pier, where would the road take him and his Big Bop Nouveau Band next, I wondered ?
MF: This is the end of a long tour, and I shall hit the swimming pool. Tomorrow nights the end of the tour, and on the 30th of August we play at the Poncheterrain, which is an incredible hotel in Detroit, and it overlooks Canada, incidentally, because it's a rooftop thing, a huge beautiful thing. It's a festival. And we'll play there and we'll start up touring again. So we have a month that we'll take off before we really go back at it hard, and then with the new album out, of course there'll alot of international things. There's talk about playing Germany, there really on to us to do a tour of Germany in October. And of course the American things.
CB: And South Africa in early next year.
MF: Oh yeah, Ernie and his friends have put together a tour of South Africa for the band and so there's so very exciting things, yes.
CB: Where is home base for you?
MF: Ojai, California. That's spelled O-J-A-I. It's an Indian word, which one tribe calls it "Little Nest", and another tribe calls it "Thundering Herd" or something. But its a beautiful valley, right near Santa Barbara, and I've been there for twenty years, and we have lovely things like floods, fires and earthquakes, and all those things just to keep the squares away.
CB: I was going to ask you, finally, what you do as a relaxation hobby away from music, but perhaps you're busy with all those things.
MF: Well the producing, I think is in very much in there, and then I enjoy, I have a very happy home life, and I have daughters that do extra work in movies and things like that. I have four daughters, and they're all doing real good right now ?
MF: Yes, two of them are very musical, the other one is married and living in Florida, and I have my first grandchild, Erica. So, I'm not an unhappy man when I'm off the road. I think that's really important. If you can keep a balance, when you're not playing. Friday, the horn goes in the case, and it'll stay there for two weeks, then I'll love practicing. But, for me...remember we're involved in a part of music that has to do with with improv, and I think putting it away, and turning away and listening to a lot other people and being influenced by a lot of other people is a very healthy thing to do.
CB: Well, you're looking incredibly fit, and sun-tanned and we wish you happy and safe journey back home to California. Thanks for talking with us.
MF: I've enjoyed talking with you, thank you.
(Break the Ice, from "Footpath Cafe".....fade out)
Special thanks to Maynard fan Hal at GeoJazzer@aol.com for this transcription.