Monday, August 28, 2006

Gonna Fly Now

I played a Bach 180 series ‘Stradivarius’ trumpet in high school and college. It was an excellent horn. Medium large bore (.467, if I’m not mistaken). Nice, full tone, quick response, designed primarily for concert and orchestra, but could hold its own in a jazz band.

My mother made me buy it. It’s not the horn I wanted.

I had a Shulke 3C mouthpiece. It was a medium cup, really, the perfect mouthpiece for my embouchure.

I hated it.

I wanted a Holton ST308, with a Jet-Tone MF3 Mouthpiece.

Because that’s what Maynard played.

When I was growing up, there were two people that I considered heroes whose mannerisms I tried to copy.

In baseball, it was Roberto Clemente.

In music, it was Maynard Ferguson.

In baseball, I stood way back in the batters’ box, almost on the back line. My bat stood straight up, tip never wavering, my hands almost touching my right shoulder. I would step into the pitch, with a level, inside-out swing.

Too bad I kept missing the ball.

I had somewhat more success imitating Maynard. And he was easy to imitate.

He held his horn like a gun—his left thumb was placed correctly, but rather than inseting the pinky finger into the third valve slide and resting the other three lightly under the upper tubing, he would wrap the valves between thumb and index finger, and hold the valves like a handle.

And before he would cut loose with another amazing, above-the-stanza solo, he would point the bell of his horn straight up, as if funneling the music of the heavens into it. And he would bring it down, down, down, until it was almost resting on his chest, but arch his back so that it would still be pointing straight out into the audience. The higher he played, the lower he dipped. If he hadn't been a trumpet player, he could have been an excellent limbo dancer.

So that’s the way I played. Hell, that’s the way we all played. At least, that’s the way we all stood. None of us played like Maynard. No one played like Maynard, except Maynard.

And no, he wasn’t really a big name in music. He was sort of big band, sort of jazz, all Maynard. But what he did few could do. My father told me about seeing Maynard near the beginnig of his career, with Stan Kenton’s band. He told me about a review he read in the paper in Pittsburgh.

“The reviewer said Ferguson was an exceptional lead trumpet player,” my dad said, “but then he went on to say that the way he played, he’d blow his lips out in a few years.”

That review was back in the 1950’s. Dad told me this in 1975.

And he toured. And toured. And toured. In fact, ‘touring with Maynard’ was sort of a rite of passage for untold hundreds of musicians for the last thirty years or so.

No, he wasn’t the best technican. There’s others who could play in his range. Bill Chase, Lin Biviano, Allen Vizzutti, Doc Severnson—all could be considered his peers, or even superior in their playing.

But they couldn’t capture my attention like Maynard.

His ‘biggest hit’—if it could be called that—w as his cover of ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ Bill Conti’s theme from the movie ‘Rocky.’ Conti’s version hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1977. Maynard’s version, released at just about the same time, made the top 30, and it was better. But it wasn’t even his best work. His versions of 'MaArthur Park,' and 'Chameleon' show much more of what he was capable of, both as a musician and band, leader, as do his covers of ‘Birdland’ and ‘Stella by Starlight,’ and so many others.

Maynard was still playing as late as July, when he was at the Blue Note in NYC. The last time I saw him was I think back in 1990, when he was playing a festival nearby. He wasn’t bending back the way he used to, but he still had the style, and the chops, he always had.

And even though I haven't really listened to his music for thirty years, I’ll miss him.



Blogger Dark Lady said...

I did not understand a good part of what you have written and though I have heard of Maynard Ferguson I am not really familar with his life or his work, but you have written this post with such skill and passion and respect that I know want to know more about Mr. Ferguson.
Thank you.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Loving your lyrical style in that post man.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Guy Wonders said...

And I will echo the previous comments - a very well written and stylish post. Although I knew Maynard Ferguson was a musician, I didn't know that he was a fellow Canadian (from Montreal). Apparently, he was awarded the Order of Canada for his life's work (I'm not sure what the American equivalent would be, but it's like the British OBE).

Anyway, nicely done and thanks for helping me to pay attention.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Åsa said...

What a nice tribute!

11:15 AM  
Blogger Kattt9 said...

I saw Maynard in concert in the early 80's. I was sitting high up in the balcony and he pointed the bell of his trumpet right at me! I couldn't believe it when 14 and 15-year old kids were screaming in the middle of his solos - Maynard was about 55 then.

1:30 AM  

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