Maynard Ferguson | The Canadian Encyclopedia

article

Maynard Ferguson

Ferguson went to the US in 1948 and worked in turn in the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet until 1950. It was during his term 1950-3 with Stan Kenton that he first received great public acclaim, winning the Down Beat readers' polls for trumpet in 1950-2.

Ferguson, Maynard

 (Walter) Maynard Ferguson. Trumpeter, flugelhornist, valve trombonist, bandleader, b Verdun (part of Montreal) 4 May 1928, d Ventura, Cal, 23 Aug 2006. As a child Ferguson studied piano and violin (his mother was a violinist); he played the latter instrument in a Fox-Movietone short. Taking up the trumpet at nine, he was a member in his teens of dance bands led by Stan Wood (saxophonist), Roland David, and Johnny Holmes (Ferguson's older brother Percy, a baritone saxophonist, also played for Holmes); and studied 1943-8 at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal with Bernard (Benny) Baker. Ferguson was heard frequently on CBC radio and on one occasion played a Serenade for Trumpet in Jazz written for him by Morris Davis. While leading his own band in the Montreal area and in Toronto during the mid-1940s Ferguson came to the attention of US bandleaders. As Paul Bley recalled (Montreal Gazette, 28 Oct 1978), 'Maynard would always open the show, and he played three octaves higher on trumpet than anyone else... you ought to have seen the jaws drop on the visiting musicians.'

Ferguson went to the US in 1948 and worked in turn in the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet until 1950. It was during his term 1950-3 with Stan Kenton that he first received great public acclaim, winning the Down Beat readers' polls for trumpet in 1950-2. He made his first records under his own name in 1950, for Capitol, leading the Kenton band of the day.

After playing 1953-6 in Hollywood studio orchestras for 46 film soundtracks under contract to Paramount and recording with small groups (his own and others), he formed the Birdland Dreamland Band to perform at the New York jazz club Birdland. This was the first of several 'small' big bands (12 or 13 musicians) with which Ferguson toured until 1965, appearing at festivals and in clubs and concerts. He then turned briefly to a still smaller ensemble, although he performed and recorded at Expo 67 with a big band and a sextet, both comprising Montreal musicians. Well-known US instrumentalists who were at one time members of a Ferguson band include Chick Corea and Chuck Mangione.

Late 1960s - 70s

Ferguson spent a year in India studying meditation and lecturing on music, then moved in 1968 to England. It was with a 17-piece English band, which combined the orchestral conventions of jazz and the rhythmic vigour of rock, that he regained and even surpassed his former popularity. The band toured Europe, and made its North American debut in 1971; its recording of MacArthur Park was popular early in the decade. With New York as his home base after 1973, Ferguson gradually replaced the English musicians with young US players, reducing the band again to 13. He also played solo trumpet in the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. His recording of Gonna Fly Now, the theme from the film Rocky, was a major hit single (by the standard for pop intrumentals) 1977-8 and earned one of his three Grammy nominations; it was followed by a second lesser hit in 1978, the theme from the movie Battlestar Galactica. His album Conquistador exceeded 500,000 in US sales.

1980s - 2000s
In the mid-1980s, by which time Ferguson had moved to Ojai, Cal, he reduced his band still further and in 1987 introduced High Voltage, a fusion septet. By 1990, however, he was leading a more traditionally-based nonet, the Big Bop Nouveau Band; he led this band through 2006. Ferguson's extensive touring itinerary, which found him on the road 8 months of every 12 through the 1990s and later, included performances as far afield as Japan and Australia.

Canadian Performances
Although based for several decades outside Canada, Ferguson made many Canadian appearances. He performed on such CBC TV shows as 'Parade' and 'In the Mood' and, with his band, played at the Stratford Festival (1958), in many concert halls (Massey Hall, Place des Arts, National Arts Centre, etc), at Canadian Stage Band Festival (MusicFest Canada), regularly during the early 1980s at Ontario Place, and in 1982 and 1990 at the Festival international de jazz de Montréal (FIJM). Several Canadians have been members of his bands - eg, the singer Anne Marie Moss, the tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, and the trombonists Rob McConnell and Phil Gray. Kenny Wheeler composed and arranged for Ferguson's English band.

Critical Reception
While Ferguson's dramatic virtuosity in the extreme upper registers of the trumpet (extending with ease to double high C) and the bravado and invariably au courant style of his band took his popularity beyond the jazz world, they also brought him a certain amount of critical disdain. The FIJM aside, the Ferguson band was rarely heard at the Canadian jazz festivals that flourished in the 1980s. However, he did appear at the 1999 Ottawa International Jazz Festival, as well as at Toronto Downtown Jazz in 2002. His tendency towards exhibitionism - his grandstanding high notes and his use for many years of an aria from I Pagliacci as an encore - led to his dismissal in some quarters as a mere showman; some reviewers remarked on a lack of shading or subtlety in his interpretations. However, much of his work in the small-group context revealed a mature improviser whose high-note facility became a well-integrated aspect of an expressive and lyrical style. A natural leader, Ferguson showed the ability to form and mould an ensemble of young musicians, and to infuse it with his own considerable energy and enthusiasm.

Ferguson was accorded many honours: induction into Down Beat's Hall of Fame (1992) and the Juno Hall of Fame (1997); the FIJM Prix Oscar-Peterson (1999), and appointment to the Order of Canada (2003). A biography, MF Horn: Maynard Ferguson's Life in Music, appeared in 1997. New Jersey's Rowan University Institute of Jazz Studies bears his name.

Designer of Instruments
In addition to trumpet and flugelhorn, Ferguson played valve trombone, bass trombone, baritone horn, french horn, and soprano saxophone with his band, as well as two hybrid brass instruments - the Firebird (a combination slide and valve trumpet) and the Superbone (a combination slide and valve trombone) - which he designed for the US company Holton-Leblanc.

Writings

Maynard Ferguson, 'My early days in music,' Coda, Jun 1959

"Wanna play high notes? How to keep from losing your footing," Down Beat, July 1993

Further Reading

Challenge yourself - take the CC Quiz!

The Canadian Encyclopedia is a project of Historica Canada, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization devoted to teaching Canadians more about our shared country.  We also produce the Heritage Minutes and other programs. If you believe all Canadians should have access to free, impartial, fact-checked, regularly updated information about Canada’s history and culture in both official languages, please consider donating today. All donations above $3 will receive a tax receipt.

Book a Speaker