May 24, 2024

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Maynard Ferguson came to prominence playing in Stan Kenton’s orchestra, before forming his own band: Video

04.05. – Happy Birthday !!! Walter “Maynard” Ferguson was a Canadian-born jazz trumpet player and bandleader. He came to prominence playing in Stan Kenton’s orchestra, before forming his own band in 1957.

He was noted for being able to play accurately in a remarkably high register, and for his bands, which served as stepping stones for up-and-coming talent.

Early life and education

Ferguson was born in Verdun, Quebec (now part of Montreal). Encouraged by his mother and father (both musicians), Maynard was playing piano and violin by the age of four. At nine years old, he heard a cornet for the first time in his local church and asked his parents to purchase him one. At age 13, Ferguson first soloed as a child prodigy with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra and was heard frequently on the CBC, notably featured on a Serenade for Trumpet in Jazz written for him by Morris Davis. Ferguson won a scholarship to the French Conservatory of Music where he studied from 1943 through 1948 with Bernard Baker.

Ferguson dropped out of Montreal High School at age 15 to more actively pursue a music career, performing in dance bands led by Stan Wood, Roland David, and Johnny Holmes. While trumpet was his primary instrument, Ferguson also performed on other brass and reed instruments. Ferguson later took over the dance band formed by his brother Percy, playing dates in the Montreal area and serving as an opening act for touring bands from the United States. During this period, Ferguson came to the attention of numerous American band leaders and began receiving offers to come to the United States.

Ferguson moved to the United States in 1949 and initially played with the bands of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet. The Barnet band was notable for a trumpet section that also included Doc Severinsen, Ray Wetzel, Johnny Howell, and Rolf Erickson. Ferguson was featured on a notoriously flamboyant Barnet recording of Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are that enraged Kern’s widow and was subsequently withdrawn from sale. When Barnet temporarily retired in 1949 and disbanded his orchestra, Ferguson was free to accept an offer to join Stan Kenton’s newly formed Innovations Orchestra.

Kenton and Hollywood

Stan Kenton had a longstanding offer to Ferguson but had temporarily disbanded when Ferguson moved to the United States. Kenton’s bands were notable for their bombastic brass sections and Ferguson was a natural fit. In 1950, Kenton formed the Innovations Orchestra, a 40-piece jazz concert orchestra with strings, and with the folding of the Barnet band, Ferguson was available for the first rehearsal on January 1, 1950. While the Innovations Orchestra was not commercially successful, it made a number of remarkable recordings, including Maynard Ferguson, one of a series of pieces named after featured soloists.

When Kenton returned to a more practical 19-piece jazz band, Ferguson continued with him. Contrary to the natural assumption, Ferguson was not Kenton’s lead trumpet player, but played the fifth chair with numerous solo features. Notable recordings from this period that feature Ferguson include Invention for Guitar and TrumpetWhat’s New and The Hot Canary.

In 1953, Ferguson left Kenton to become a first-call session player for Paramount Pictures. Ferguson appeared on 46 soundtracks including The Ten Commandments. Ferguson still recorded jazz during this period, but his Paramount contract prevented him from playing jazz clubs. While he enjoyed the regular paycheck, Ferguson was very unhappy with the lack of live performance opportunities and left Paramount in 1956.

The Birdland Dream Band

In 1956, Ferguson was tapped to lead the Birdland Dream Band, a 14-piece big band formed by Morris Levy as an “All-star” lineup to play at Levy’s Birdland jazz club in New York City. While the name “Birdland Dream Band” was short-lived and is represented by only two albums, this band became the core of Ferguson’s performing band for the next nine years. The band included, at various times, such players as Slide Hampton, Don Ellis, Don Sebesky, Willie Maiden, John Bunch, Joe Zawinul, Joe Farrell, Jaki Byard, Lanny Morgan, Rufus Jones, Bill Berry, and Don Menza. Arrangers included Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, and Marty Paich.

As big bands declined in popularity and economic viability in the 1960s, Ferguson’s band performed more infrequently. Ferguson began to feel musically stifled and sensed a resistance to change among American jazz audiences. According to a Down Beat interview, he was quoted as saying that if the band did not play Maria or Ole, the fans went home disappointed. Ferguson began performing with a sextet before finally officially disbanding his big band in 1967.

India and England

Following the path taken by many important jazz artists in the 1960s, Ferguson left the United States in 1968. Needing a period of spiritual exploration, Ferguson initially moved with his family to India and taught at the Krishnamurtl-based Rhishi Valley School near Madras. In 1969, he relocated to Manchester, England, manufacturing personally designed trumpets and mouthpieces and performing with a variety of ensembles in Europe.

In 1969 Ferguson signed with CBS Records in England and formed a big band with British musicians that performed in the newly popular jazz/rock fusion style. The band’s repertoire included original compositions as well a pop and rock songs rearranged into a big band format with electronic amplification. This British band’s output is represented by the four MF Horn albums that included very popular arrangements of the pop songs MacArthur Park and Hey Jude.

Return to the U.S.

Ferguson’s new band made its North American debut in 1971. With a revived career, Ferguson relocated to New York in 1973 and gradually replaced his sidemen with American performers while reducing the band size to 12 (four trumpets, two trombones, three saxophones and three rhythm plus Maynard). The quintessential recording of this period is the album Live at Jimmys, recorded in 1973 in New York. Ferguson latched on to the burgeoning jazz education movement by recruiting talented musicians from colleges with jazz programs (notably Berklee College of Music, North Texas State University and the University of Miami) and targeting young audiences with performances and master classes in high schools. This practical and strategic move helped him develop a strong following that would sustain him for the remainder of his career.

In 1976, Ferguson began working with producer Bob James on a series of commercially successful albums that were complex studio productions featuring large groups of session musicians, including strings, vocalists and star guest soloists. The first of these albums was Primal Scream, featuring Chick Corea, Mark Colby, and Steve Gadd. The second, Conquistidor in 1977, resulted in a top-10 pop single, Gonna Fly Now (from the movie Rocky), a rare accomplishment for a jazz musician in the 1970s. Aside from an exciting Jay Chattaway arrangement and dense Bob James production, the single was also helped by the fact that it was released prior to the official soundtrack album of the hit movie. Ferguson maintained a hectic touring schedule during this period, with well-attended concerts that featured concert lighting and heavy amplification.

Ferguson continued with this musical model for the remainder of the 1970s, receiving considerable acclaim from audiences but often tepid response from jazz purists who decried his commercialism and questioned his taste. Ferguson reportedly also began to experience great frustration with Columbia over being unable to use his working band on recording projects and having difficulty including even a single jazz number on some albums. Ferguson’s contract with Columbia Records expired after the 1982 release of the Hollywoodalbum, produced by Stanley Clarke.

Ferguson recorded three big band albums with smaller labels in the mid ’80s before forming a more economical fusion septet, High Voltage, in 1986. This ensemble, which featured multi-reed player Dennis DiBlasio as the only other horn player, recorded two albums and received mixed reviews. The format was ultimately unsatisfying to Ferguson, who had grown up in big bands and developed a performing style most appropriate to that structure.

Big Bop Nouveau

In 1988, Ferguson returned both to a large band format and to mainstream jazz with the formation of Big Bop Nouveau, a nine-piece band featuring three trumpets, one trombone, two reeds and a three-piece rhythm section. The band’s repertoire included original jazz compositions and modern arrangements of jazz standards, with occasional pieces from his 70s book and the Birdland Dream Band. This format proved to be successful with audiences and critics and Ferguson toured nine months a year with Big Bop Nouveau for the remainder of his life. This band recorded extensively, including albums backing vocalists Dianne Shurr and Michael Feinstein.

Although in later years Ferguson did lose some of the range and phenominal accuracy of his youth, he remained an exciting performer into his late 70s. Just days after completing a weeklong run at New York’s Blue Note and recording a studio album in New Jersey, Ferguson developed an abdominal infection that resulted in kidney and liver failure. Ferguson died on the evening of August 23, 2006 at the Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, California.


Maynard Ferguson was one of a handful of virtuoso musician/bandleaders to survive the end of the big band era and the rise of rock and roll. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to the musical trends that evolved from the 1940’s through the 2000’s. Ferguson’s albums show an evolution from big band swing, bebop, cool jazz, Latin, jazz/rock, fusion with classical and operatic influences.

While not the first trumpeter to play in the extreme upper register, Ferguson had a unique ability to play high notes with full, rich tone, power, and musicality. While regarded by some as showboating, Ferguson’s phrasing and vibrato have been extremely influential on generations of trumpet players. With interviewers Ferguson shared that he was able to command the upper registers of the trumpet not so much with his ‘lip’, but more with the breath control he had discovered as a youngster playing the instrument while growing up in Montreal. Ferguson attributed the longevity of his demanding bravura trumpet technique through his later years to the spiritual and yoga studies he pursued while in India.

While Ferguson’s range was his most obvious attribute, his personal charisma was also a significant factor in his success. Through his devotion to music education in America, Ferguson was able to impart the spirit of his jazz playing and technique to scores of amateur and professional trumpeters during the many Master Classes held throughout his long career.

Ferguson popularized and enhanced two unique instruments – a trumpet with both traditional valves (played with the left hand rather than the right) and a trombone-style slide called the ‘Firebird’ as well as a trombone with both a slide and valves called ‘Superbone.’ Ferguson regularly incorporated Indian instruments and influences in albums and concerts.

Personal Life

While Ferguson’s life had its ups and downs, Ferguson was fortunate to have evaded the destructive behaviors that bedeviled so many other artists of his generation. In the mid 1970s, Ferguson resettled to Ojai, California, where he lived to the end of his life. Ferguson’s first marriage was to singer / actress Kay Brown in 1951. Maynard second marriage to Flo Ferguson lasted until her death on February 27, 2005. Ferguson had four daughters: Kim, Lisa, Corby, and Wilder. Kim Ferguson is married to Maynard’s former road manager, Jim Exon. Wilder Ferguson is married to pianist (and former Big Bop Nouveau member) Christian Jacob. At the time of his death, Ferguson had a granddaugher, Erica.

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