Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, August 25, 2006

Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson died this week (I’m doing too many RIPs here). He was the kind of jazz musician you aren’t supposed to admit you liked, but for a jazz musician of a certain age (let’s say in one’s 40s), he was unavoidable. Every geeky jazz wannabe listened to his band’s albums, went to the concerts. The problem was that he wasn’t cool or intellectual, not a musician who crafted subtle and sophisticated statements, but a flamboyant showman (Buddy Rich comes to mind as another band leader in this vein). He was the high note player – in big bands there was a tradition for the lead player to be a guy who could nail the really high notes, with someone else on the second chair who could improvise fluent solos. Maynard had an unmistakable upper range sound, he’d just charge right up in the stratosphere, a strident sound like Pavarotti in comparison to other tenors. But his improvisation was pretty pedestrian. And he left most of that to band members anyway.

In the 70s he was everywhere with crossover big band music, playing arrangements of songs like Hey Jude. He dressed in jump suits, and sort of had a William Shatner thing going (fellow Canadian). We knew it was tacky, and made fun of it, but the thing was the music really had some of rock’s energy. I remember seeing the band at Montgomery College and in Hey Jude at the end where they’re repeating the theme over and over, all of the trumpet players went out into the audience and played from behind everyone. It was a simple theatrical trick, but it worked like the action sequences in a movie.

What do they call pot, a gateway drug because it leads you inevitably to smack addiction or some such crap. Well, Maynard’s music could be a gateway. People got into it, and maybe they listened to other stuff. Hearing the stories on him this week I’ve only thought back on his music with the affection that inevitably flows to the things that were part of your growing up.

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