Maynard Ferguson, RIP

We yield to the floor to our friend Seth Leibsohn. Seth writes:

Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006) died yesterday. His name is familiar to every trumpet player and everyone who used to play trumpet–like me. Probably 90 percent of those who, as kids, grew up playing trumpet in band class, and tried to emulate a great trumpet player, tried to emulate Maynard. There was nobody like him in the business–his sound was unique in its virtuosity of power.

He was not the best high note player, and did not play higher than any other trumpet player (lesser knowns like Cat Anderson, Bud Brisbois, Maurice Andre and a handful of others could actually reach higher), but he made the high notes popular and could play them with more gusto and amazement than any other player. He made players want to reach the upper registers, and he could sustain the notes longer and with more pizzazz and gusto than anyone else. He made the form of the upper register popular, and he did it in jazz, pop, and fusion.

He started with the Stan Kenton band in the 50s and broke out into a solo career in the 60s with album after album that trumpet players collected unlike any other popular trumpet virtuoso (no trumpet players would trade, collect, and debate the various albums of, say, Al Hirt, Doc Severinson, or Herb Alpert the way they did with Maynard). To go to a concert of his was a breathtaking experience. You simply could not take your eyes of Maynard–his charisma and showmanship was magnetic.

I’d seen him in concert four times in the 80s, my parents always happy to take me again after they saw him the first time with me–he appealed to all ages. He always opened with Birdland, he’d often close with Hey Jude, playing from within the audience. Sadly, I could never play like he could and out of frustration, hung it all up (the way I’m told some golf players give up when they are unable to play the way the great ones they try to emulate play).

But then, a few months ago, I was playing on the Internet and decided to see what people were still saying about Maynard, went to his Website and found out he–at age 78–was playing a gig at a small nightclub here in DC. I jumped at the opportunity, knowing it would be part nostalgia and part “good-bye” from me. I dragged my wife to the show, where about 100 of us crowded into Blues Alley to hear him for the 10 pm show. Maynard, bless him, still kept a very young band of musicians around him and each time they soloed he would state their name, where they were from, and where they went to school (education of young musicians was important to him–he always seemed to imply that it was important to go to school and I remembered he did that with his band members in the 80s too. Most of his venues, in fact, were high school auditoriums). He didn’t play much that night, but when he did, you could hear the old flame. And I was glad I got to say goodbye to a hero.

This morning I woke up to an email from an old trumpet teacher of mine who first introduced me to Maynard. His email simply stated, “You were one of the last to hear him, Seth.” I’m really glad I did, and I hope more musicians will be inspired by him, if even for a short spell. He was that good. To get just an idea of his abilities, you can see and hear him in the mid-1970s right here, doing what nobody else has done with the gusto and reach before or since.

Maynard Ferguson, RIP.

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