"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Childhood idols teach us about being human

Maybe there should be a term for the type of feeling we have when a childhood idol passes away.
A childhood idol occupies a special place. This individual probably has a special talent that makes him/her inspire awe in a way that can't seem to be duplicated. It's an irresistible attraction when that person is at the top of his/her game.
Following this individual becomes a lesson in life's frailties. Gifted though this person might be, we're talking about a human being. Any human being has ups and downs and probably needs "breaks" to enter that special pantheon - a place where there's presumably lots of competition.
When young, we tend to feel our idol transcends mere humanity. And of course we'd readily trade places with such an icon!
Maturity ought to slap us around a bit, but I suspect most parents don't discourage their children from having idols who possess special gifts. We remember our own feeling of awe in our younger years. We likely gained inspiration from a certain artist or athlete. Suspending reality may have only given us a minor hurt.
We figure that children will learn the vicissitudes of life with time. Eventually our idols help in that process. A favorite major league baseball player will get hurt, get traded or "lose a step" as he "gets old" (which means he might be only in his mid-30s).
We should be thankful, in our more pedestrian lives, finding a career that allows us to at least have some long-term continuity. Remember, Republicans might want to raise the retirement age!
Professional athletes today have some long-term financial security. That's not to say a lot of them can't "blow it." They often do, plus they get encumbered with personal problems that make us feel thankful for our pedestrian lot. The prudent pro athletes are truly "set" when that day comes when they can no longer go deep into the hole to field a grounder.
In the back of my mind, I'm not quite over the sadness of when I learned of the death of a childhood musician idol. I remember how I learned of his death. A message awaited me when I came home one evening. I hadn't been aware of any health issue.
The message was from a friend who informed me of the death of Maynard Ferguson. It was in 2006. Ol' Maynard had reached 78 years of age and was still touring with his band. He played in Morris twice, both times at the UMM P.E. Center.
"M.F" (or "The Boss") would have been a dynamite clinician for the UMM jazz festival but never visited in that role. The first-ever UMM jazz fest included clinician Randy Purcell, a trombonist who was an "alumnus" of the Maynard band. That was way back in about 1978.
It's my understanding that Randy, like Maynard, has taken his music to that big auditorium in the sky.
I remember being at the house party reception for that first UMM jazz fest, and talking with Randy about some of the personalities in the Maynard band. They all seemed bigger than life to us young big band aficionados in Morris. And Maynard himself? He seemed like a deity.
I have a hard time discussing Maynard Ferguson in the past tense but it's a reality I must grasp.
Maynard was a trumpet player. As kids we learned he was a jazz trumpet player, but truth be told, we didn't care about the jazz. We might have pretended we did, but we didn't. We were in awe of the brass power that Maynard and his band projected. We loved that band's tight arrangements of popular tunes.
Maynard had a breakthrough album with my generation in about 1971. It was called "M.F. Horn" and it was so much more slick and contemporary sounding than anything he had put out previously.
Make no mistake, his previous stuff was artistically outstanding, like the series of albums he put out for the Roulette label.
Those Roulette albums never could have captivated the boomer youth on a mass scale. We were, shall we say, "persnickety."
The transition from niche jazz artist to popular performer with a mass following was I'm sure difficult. It involved finding that proverbial "new sound."
Music went through all sorts of evolutionary spasms in the 1960s. It was known as a terrible decade for big bands. Maynard whittled down his band to a sextet and then dissolved it in 1969. The years 1969 and 1970 were turbulent in so many ways in the U.S. Maynard wasn't constrained. Like many in jazz he actually left the U.S. He went to India and found a spiritual guru. Then he settled in Manchester, England, where his "new sound" began bubbling up in the form of "jazz-rock fusion."
The jazz of the previous era sounded incredibly dated to us. In hindsight it seems an unfair appraisal. As youth, though, we absolutely insisted on a certain type of rhythmic feel in our music.
Rock n' roll and then rock mesmerized us.
Diehard Maynard fans will remember that "The Boss" put out a transitional album (stylistically) which was actually recorded after his touring band was dissolved (or so I've read). In "the states" it was called "Ridin' High." In England it was called "Freaky." I actually saw the "Freaky" album cover because I spent part of the summer of 1972 in England.
It is a testament to Maynard's greatness that his fans talk seriously about "Ridin' High" because it seemed like a disaster. Today it sounds disjointed and primitive. "Sunny" sounds like it's being played by a run of the mill high school pep band.
Of course we have to look past these rough edges and realize that Maynard was actually exploring a new pop-oriented direction. Eventually that direction bore fruit that probably exceeded everyone's expectations.
Maynard charged out of obscurity, finally, with an album called "M.F. Horn." Young trumpet players everywhere sat mesmerized next to their stereo turntable, wearing out this album with its featured arrangement of "MacArthur park."
At Morris High School, the band director himself (J.W.) helped make sure we were all aware of Maynard. That's ironic because no high school band director in his right mind would want his students attempting to play like Maynard.
Maynard Ferguson wasn't so much a trumpet player as he was an artist and stylist who used the trumpet. His trademark was reaching up to the high notes.
In the early '70s, Maynard didn't so much play jazz as he enthralled crowds of corduroy-wearing boomer youth with high notes that made them cheer like fans at a sports event.
There were jazz solos in these concerts to be sure, and we pretended to eat them up, but we wouldn't have spent a nickel just to hear them. We wanted to hear arrangements of popular songs with powerful brass and Maynard's spellbinding high notes. He was a true idol to so many of us. He met the definition of idol by seeming to step beyond human boundaries.
Maynard put out a series of commercially successful albums in the 1970s. Because it was the 1970s he had to get on board with disco.
Us Maynard fans were surprised when his disco chapter sprouted. We were expecting another album that would be typical of what he was doing, when all of a sudden we got "Primal Scream," the quintessential disco album. Looking back it seemed like a good commercial move. Somehow he was able to sell these disco arrangements in concerts.
I heard him at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis when he was in the prime of his disco popularity. His band played the theme from a new movie called "Star Wars." Drummer Peter Erskine had the disco beat down, even to where he'd bounce in his chair to accentuate that primal rhythm.
Maynard's jazz roots seemed so very distant. But this was another testament to his greatness: his ability to change, to morph, to enter new realms of musical awareness.
Jazz purists often looked down on Maynard's commercial leanings. They would never have put him in a category with, say, Duke Ellington. This always bothered me because if you looked at Maynard's career in its totality, it was obvious he had jazz sensibilities that were second to none.
You can't blame a guy for wanting to sell albums and fill concert seats. Maynard never really broke through commercially anyway, not to where he was really a household name. His most successful single only made it to #28 on "the charts." (That was his cover of "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from "Rocky.")
This ambiguity in his image points to a little tragedy, in my view. Idols always end up projecting tragedy in one way or another. They break beyond human boundaries but they are in fact human.
It makes me angry because here was this uniquely gifted artist who, in the vernacular of the early 1970s, "did his own thing." It was a quality that should bring universal admiration.
My defensiveness is of course based on the fact that Maynard was my childhood idol. Such an individual represents an ideal - something with no readily acknowledged shortcomings or mortal failings of the kind we know surrounds us in our pedestrian-ness. It's an adaptive mechanism. It makes us realize the heights we might climb. But alas we are human.
Maynard toward the end of his career didn't have the sheer physical command of his trumpet he once had. He never lost his zest for touring. He was of a generation that considered a music tour schedule as perhaps the most glamorous lifestyle.
In the last year of his life, I had the pleasure of hearing "M.F." and his band in Dawson, Minnesota. He had no reservations about playing in such an out of the way place. I never dreamt the clock was ticking on his lifespan. I never dreamt the angels were waiting in the wings to take him in.
Eventually we learned that he died of an abdominal infection. "How?" we incessantly asked in the wake of getting the news. It was much like the recent sudden news of Leslie Nielsen's passing. We lost Nielsen to a staph infection. "How?"
Well, God makes certain our days our finite just like the metal ball that bounces around in a pinball machine.
Our idols have human limitations and ultimately a human lifespan. New generations will learn this lesson in the same befuddling way.
Maynard Ferguson, RIP.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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