Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ferguson, Maynard (Walter)

Trumpeter Maynard Ferguson played with exceptional power, and was the first to conquer the "screech" range above high C with clear and concise intonation. In tribute to his outstanding 60-year career, he was awarded his home country’s highest civilian honor, The Order of Canada in 2005.

Born on May 4, 1928 in Verdun, Quebec – a suburb of Montreal – Walter Maynard Ferguson first studied piano and violin, prompted by his mother, a violinist with the Ottawa Symphony who also helped establish a music curriculum for the Montreal school system. His father, a high school principal, stored musical instruments in the basement, where Maynard and his brother Percy would sit and play duets on everything from oboes to clarinets.

At age 9, Maynard asked his parents to buy him a cornet. He then enrolled in Montreal's French music conservatory, and by 11 he was performing with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) orchestra.

He attended Montreal High School and performed in his high school’s dance band, billed “Percy Ferguson and the Montreal Victory Serenaders, featuring Oscar Peterson.” His brother Percy played reeds, and the preternaturally gifted Oscar Peterson of course played piano. As high school chums, Peterson would tease Maynard who had to go outside in the cold to play bugle during the school’s raising of the flag. Maynard quit high school at age 15.

While still in high school, Maynard also played in the band at the Chez Maurice Ballroom, led by French Canadian tenor saxophonist Roland David. Ferguson was lead trumpeter by the time he turned 16. He also played in bands led by saxophonist Stan Wood and trumpeter Johnny Holmes, at the same time studying at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Montréal under Bernard “Benny” Baker, who later taught trumpet to Doc Severinsen.

In the mid 1940s Ferguson became a popular player on Canadian radio for his playing of conservative jazz-trumpet concertos, which led to him leading his own band performing in Montreal and Toronto. It wasn’t long before his ability to play “octaves higher” came to the attention of U.S. bandleaders.

Ferguson arrived in the U.S. in 1948. At age 20, he made his debut with Boyd Raeburn's band, and also played with Jimmy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet. He also performed on woodwind and brass as a solo act in New York's Café Society. After Barnet retired his band in 1949, Ferguson was free to accept Stan Kenton’s longstanding invitation to be a member of his band, signing on to Kenton’s newly formed “Innovations Orchestra.” Ferguson actually joined the 40-piece band at fifth trumpet; a slot reserved for the featured trumpet soloist and debuted with the band on the Ed Sullivan Show. Though unsuccessful commercially, Kenton’s experimental jazz orchestra recorded the album, Stan Kenton, the Innovations Orchestra, which included Ferguson’s first feature recording, entitled simply “Maynard Ferguson.”

In 1950, Kenton talked Capitol Records into producing an LP featuring Ferguson, Maynard Ferguson Wow! The Formative Years. The recording demonstrated the trumpeter's equal mastery of the lower register. A good example of Ferguson’s developing style can be heard on “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet” and "Frank Speaking"from the album New Concepts of Artistry and Rhythm, which was recorded after Kenton scaled down to his original 19 member band in 1952. At Kenton’s side from 1950 to 1953, Ferguson received “Best Trumpeter” awards in Down Beat Magazine’s Jazz Poll for three years in a row.

Ferguson was lured away from Kenton in late 1953, signing a contract to be a first-call player with Paramount Pictures. During the next three years his horn was heard on 46 movie soundtracks, including The Ten Commandments. Though his contract forbade him from playing live, it did allow him to record his first albums as leader, including Stratospheric in 1954, and Around the Horn in 1955. He left Paramount in 1956, but hung out in Hollywood long enough to record the Live at Peacock Lane albums. "What Is Thing Called Love," from August of 1954, captures Ferguson pitting his wits against trumpet giants Clark Terry and Clifford Brown in an informal jam session setting.

Within months, Ferguson was recruited to lead The Birdland Dream Band. With only 14 members, the band was small in comparison to other jazz orchestras of the mid 1950s, but it was packed with up-and-coming stars handpicked by Ferguson, and performed exclusively at Morris Levy’s Birdland jazz club in New York City. The band made two recordings in its short tenure, with brassy arrangements by tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Ernie Wilkins, valve trombonist Bobby Brookmeyer and others. Though short lived, the Birdland band distinguished Ferguson as a front man with strong stage presence. He would remain a bandleader for the rest of his life.

The Maynard Ferguson Band centered on its tight yet blaring brass section. By scaling down to 13 members, Ferguson was able to reduce overhead, while concentrating on simplified arrangements of tunes such as Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," from a live recording at Birdland for Roulette, that were all about sound. 1n 1959, the band was voted as the number one “New Star” in the big band division in the International Critic’s Poll conducted by Down Beat Magazine. During the band’s heyday, Ferguson often starred as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. Yet in an era of declining jazz popularity, Ferguson disbanded 1965 and went on to perform in a sextet, ending this stage of his career in North America with a concert in his home city of Montreal at Expo 67.

Ferguson arrived in India in 1968. The move was considered a period of enlightenment, as Ferguson enrolled his five children at the Rishi Valley School near Madras based in the philosophy of J. Krishnamurti. Yet India at the time was filled with westerners at the foot of gurus like Ferguson’s mentor, Sathya Sai Baba. The country was also the epicenter of the budding New Age Movement that spawned entrepreneurs as well as devotees, and new music.

By 1969, Ferguson was in Manchester, England, and within weeks he was touring Europe with his new band, Top Brass, and manufacturing trumpets and mouthpieces from his home. Ferguson had recruited the best British jazz musicians, and soon CBS Records was knocking at his door. With an electric amplifier strapped to his mouthpiece, he hammered home jazz arrangements of rock hits, including “Hey Jude” and “Macarthur Park,” and produced the first of the popular MF Horn series of albums.

The brand of jazz-fusion Ferguson developed during this period became his ticket back to the U.S. in 1971. Ferguson toured the country for several years mostly appearing at high school and college venues, where he and his band held jazz clinic for students. These concerts also generated funds for jazz education programs, which Ferguson often tapped for new band talent. He and his horn section taught yoga breathing to young brass players, something he attributed to his power and endurance.

Ferguson performed I Pagliacci at the close of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a personal career highlight in his home city. In 1978 he won a Grammy® for the album Conquistador, which included Bill Conti's hit tune “Gonna Fly Now” from the film Rocky. Sylvester Stallone attended the original recording session, and can be heard at the beginning of the tune hitting a punching bag in rhythm.

Constantly reinventing his music Ferguson was able to tour for the rest of his life. In the mid 1980’s he scaled down to a septet. In 1988 he formed Big Band Nouveau, with a playbook that included mainstream jazz as well as pop arrangements. Though lacking critical, acclaim the band’s repertoire was successful enough to keep them touring nine months a year.

In addition to playing trumpet with his numerous bands, Ferguson played flugelhorn valve and bass trombone, baritone and French horn, and soprano saxophone. He also invented two hybrid brass instruments, a trumpet and trombone with combined slide and valve mechanisms.

He had a full, bold sound with a range that no one else has yet to achieve and inspired countless brass players, keeping his form of jazz alive and kicking during an era of waning jazz popularity.

In 2006, after a sold-out engagement at the Blue Note, Ferguson came down with an abdominal infection. He died of kidney and liver failure in Ventura, California on August 23, 2006. He was 78.

Married to his second wife of over 50 years, Floralu, and he fathered five children.

Select Discography

Maynard Ferguson / Jazz Masters 52, Verve, 1952

Live at Peacock Lane, Fresh Sound, 1956

Live at Peacock Lane Hollywood, Jazz Hour, 1957

Screamin’ Blues, Mainstream, 1965

MF Horn 4 & 5 Live at Jimmy’s, CBS / Columbia 1973

Chameleon, CBS, 1974

Conquistador, Columbia, 1977

Contributor: Dave Krikorian