"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, January 28, 2013

Relishing memories of Maynard Ferguson

"How's your embouchure?" Jimmy Stewart asked the young trumpet-playing character standing next to him. I can't remember the movie.
"Embouchure" is a term that circulates among brass players. You somehow press your lips up against a "mouthpiece," get them to "buzz" and make music.
Many brass players probably learn the word "diaphragm" as they take lessons. You have to produce wind to make those lips buzz right. Of course, the instructors who give these lessons seem to get too analytical about this process. It can screw up your head. Just make music, man!
Maynard Ferguson dropped out of high school at age 15. So it's perfectly logical, I guess, that in his long musical touring heyday he played countless college campuses. He and his band visited UMM twice. The first was in the mid-1980s. The second was after 2000 and he was in his performing twilight. Both times this powerful jazz-infused music was at the P.E. Center. It was on the floor now named after James Gremmels.
Maynard left us in 2006. I doubt he's interested in playing the harp up in heaven. But if anyone could incorporate the harp for playing jazz, Maynard could. He crossed boundaries in his career. He defied easy categorization.
Jazz purists and jazz writers were always hesitant about putting him in any pantheon of jazz icons. Yet, when you listen to an album like "Six by Six" (the Maynard Ferguson Sextet), it seems he's right in league with the pure jazz icons of the '50s and '60s. Surely he had a jazz mind equal to anyone's.
But Maynard clearly wanted to "do his own thing." To the extent he got commercial at times, was it due to simply wanting to make more money? Or did he just "dig it?" Or did he just want to see a few more seats filled at his concerts? Touring was his life. Such a lifestyle might have had appeal for young musicians in a bygone time like in the so-called "big band era." Finding excitement was harder back then.
By the time Maynard was done, touring was equated with drudgery to a large degree. A tribute DVD to Maynard captures the road lifestyle. It was a "home movies" approach and it showed with no doubt that Maynard loved getting out and around in the world, seeing any little hamlet that might want to host him. He played at Minnewaska Area High School once.
The last time I saw Maynard was at Dawson High School. Yes, Dawson, MN. It was about a year before his death. Playing Dawson (or Minnewaska) didn't mean he had gone "small time." He didn't have the stature of when he had his Columbia Records contract, naturally. But he still played the most prestigious jazz nightclubs in America's cultural hubs.
The band he had at Dawson was as good as any he ever had. Once again I felt that jolt of a thrill as his name was announced at the start of the concert, and there was Maynard, coming out from the side of the stage with that same genuine twinkle in his eye as always. We never could have predicted back in "the day" that he'd still be performing at this pretty advanced age. But his "embouchure" was just fine.
He played the usual mixture of pure jazz charts (e.g. "Newport Suite") and arrangements of pop tunes ("Rocky"). Members of the Dawson High School jazz band came onstage at concert's end to join the Maynard band on "Rocky" - something I'm sure those young musicians will never forget.
I first became familiar with Maynard Ferguson because of our high school band director. He brought a Ferguson vinyl record to school. Was this a good thing or not? You see, despite Maynard's fame and his status as idol among many, he didn't play the trumpet as would be recommended for young people learning the instrument.
Maynard's "brand" as a musician was to play high notes. If you remembered nothing else about him, that's what would stand out. So our band director played a selection from the record and then anxiously looked at us to gauge our reaction. A trumpet player hearing Maynard for the first time is supposed to practically faint.
Our band director, initials J.W., had a twinkle in his eye. Maynard's notes cascaded upward as the record played. How could you not be enthralled? Well, let me put in this way: Young male trumpet players were definitely enthralled.
Now that I'm older and wiser, and trumpet playing has been behind me for decades, I'm not so sure it's a thrill. What saved Maynard's playing is that he was always trying to play music.
Us young trumpet players who were so giddy learned that our perception wasn't always shared by others, like our parents. To this day, a friend of mine talks about whether a particular Maynard souvenir DVD can be enjoyed in "mixed company." That says it all, as it implies a sort of cult category for Maynard fans. We collected his vinyl records and found it frustrating that his style wasn't embraced by everyone, that his name never quite became a household word.
Critics could be harsh. Critics who were focused on jazz got frustrated by Maynard doing a disco version of the operatic "Pagliacci."
I remember a critic after Maynard's "Hot" album came out, saying Maynard's trumpet sound was "irritating." OK, kudos for frankness. I would attribute the problem on the "Hot" album to less than stellar engineering. Don't underestimate engineering on those albums. Buddy Rich had a longstanding problem with his powerful band not coming through well on albums. A rumor was that Buddy himself would go in the booth and screw things up.
Maynard put out an absolute stream of albums. His career was already very mature when he put out his "breakthrough" album. On it, he departed from the more pure jazz of previous years to lead his band through some very tight arrangements. The album was "M.F. Horn" which later came to be known as "M.F. Horn 1." That's because the albums that followed were called "M.F. Horn 2, 3 and then 4-5."
The "4-5" release was a live recording from a New York City nightclub. Many years later I was discouraged to hear it wasn't really a pure live recording. A cynic can handle such news as with Beyonce at the inauguration. Maynard over-dubbed his part. Great as Maynard was, he couldn't always be counted on to hit the notes with total precision. His "fluffs" in this regard were always easier to take in person (in the audience) than when listening to a recording.
As he grew older, his issues with consistency became a little more pronounced. Like Frank Sinatra, Maynard had some difficulty staying on top of his game in his later years.
I read a fan saying once that when he brought someone to a concert with him, he'd always say "no matter what you think of Maynard tonight, keep in mind he's a legend."
Maynard's long-time fans never got bothered too much by their idol's drop-off from his highest standards. This is probably a tribute to his true greatness. His fans stayed loyal and interested even when his hair had become quite white, post-70 years of age.
Another tribute, one that can be overlooked, I feel, is that even his "worst" albums drew considerable discussion and scrutiny. Would we bother discussing a lesser artist's "worst" recordings? Maynard put out an album called "Ridin' High" when he was floundering in the late 1960s.
For the record, the 1960s were terrible for big bands. Maynard left the USA for a while. He put out "Ridin' High" on sort of an experimental basis as he was heading in a more pop-oriented direction. During his later heyday, that album would be painful to listen to. But fans hardly ignore it today.
Fans have also been known to put down his "Hollywood" album from about 1980. This was his last Columbia album. I always felt the criticism of "Hollywood" was overblown.
I would rate that seminal "M.F. Horn" (or "M.F. Horn 1") as his most solid overall recording. "M.F. Horn 2" which came on its heels had its merits. Not so with the odd "M.F. Horn 3" which seemed to have completely different creative minds behind it. The "3" recording got lost in the dustbin. (The jacket design was nice though.)
"Alive and Well in London" (although that title didn't appear on my jacket) was as solid as any of Maynard's recordings - a bit more commercial than "M.F. Horn."
The "4-5" live release from "Jimmy's" nightclub was just fine, then came a departure in Maynard's career into quite unabashed commercial music. We got "Chameleon," an album I felt was overrated. Then came disco. Our nation was immersed in disco for a while. Maynard was on board fully, first with his "Primal Scream" album (a title you know was coming eventually, using the "scream trumpet" theme).
Maynard's fans had no trouble living with his disco phase. There was still artistry interwoven. The band's powerful sound attracted legions of young people.
The decline of disco corresponded to the decline of Maynard's commercial heyday. He kept right on going, incorporating more pure jazz, "going back to his roots" as it were. He seemed to be happy and fulfilled throughout.
Today we hear that his daughters are trying to organize a new tribute DVD, to be called "Get on the Bus." I hope it's a blast. We can be reminded of Maynard's "embouchure" when it thrilled us all.
Maynard Ferguson RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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