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Maynard Ferguson Is Dead

Throughout his 50+ year career he used his musical gifts to help draw together small communities all across America. Call that Tocquevillean.
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Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson died last night, at age 78. His manager Steve Schankman said about Maynard's passing: "Someone just said, 'Gabriel, move over to second trumpet.' He was the last of the greats. That era is closed. There is no Kenton, no Basie, no Ellington, and now, no Ferguson."

Why should there be a tribute to a jazz trumpeter on a website devoted mostly to political commentary? Here's one possible answer. But I simply must confess that Maynard was one of my heroes, and not merely because he could blow a mean trumpet. He wasn't simply a charismatic stage performer, though he certainly was that. Rather, throughout his 50+ year career he used his musical gifts to help draw together small communities all across America. Call that Tocquevillean.

Hitting that beat perfectly, Schankman explained: "He will be remembered for his soaring high notes, he'll be remembered as Stan Kenton's lead trumpet player and he'll be remembered for movie soundtracks like 'The Ten Commandments.' But what they should remember him for is his work as an educator. He played for students, visiting high schools, to raise money for instruments and music programs. And he left them with an inspiring remark."

That's exactly right, that's exactly how I remember him. Maynard took his big band into high school auditoria and out-of-the-way venues all across this country, year in year out, and he spent a great deal of time conducting teaching clinics with junior high and high school kids. He made jazz dynamic and palpable. His trumpet was a wake-up call for nothing less than life itself.

Way back in 1994 I gave a speech called, "What Teaching at Pomona College Means to Me" (published here), and I began that talk by talking about Maynard. Like Schankman, I want to pay tribute to Maynard's lifelong contributions to small-town America, and in that spirit I offer the following excerpt from "What Teaching at Pomona College Means to Me":

...We all keep secrets. One of mine is that if I were to be somebody else in life, I would be a trumpet player. Playing the trumpet is a primal experience, human lips pressed next to cold brass, no need for a quivering reed in-between, and somehow flesh and metal together produce a sound at the other end that is clear, clarion, bold, the call that heralds angels. Playing the trumpet combines aesthetics with athleticism. It is the height of macho. Chops, cheeks, breath control, tight stomach, tight butt, erect posture, flexed biceps, spit. And now I will tell you a dirty little secret. One of my favorite trumpet players is a guy named Maynard Ferguson. I was once a member of the Maynard Ferguson fan club. This is a dirty secret because Maynard would never be the choice of self-respecting jazz aficionados, and I'm afraid that naming him as one of my guilty pleasures will probably discredit me among my music colleagues here. Most trumpet players start out in a low register and work up to higher notes; good ones go only so far upwards, because they don't want to blow out their lips straining for higher notes. Maynard was born a freak of nature. He is known as a screech trumpeter. He started out on high notes and worked his way down. He played lead trumpet in Stan Kenton's big band in the fifties, so he's not exactly a musical slouch, but he was never known for his subtlety and sophistication, either. In the last twenty five years he's had his own band, produced his own records, and every, every Maynard song features Maynard working up to and eventually hitting a high G above triple C. When he gets there, it is a sonic spectacle to behold. The audience roars in approval, and Maynard milks the applause for all it is worth. Usually Maynard appears in concerts in an orange full-body jump suit with a scarf around his neck, and he jumps to center stage displaying an innovation that he introduced into the musical world which he calls the pelvic thrust. When Maynard hits his high note, simultaneously he arches his back and juts out his pelvis, presenting it to the audience as a visual gift of sorts. Maynard is a man's man. A Maynard Ferguson record will feature screech renditions of songs such as the theme from Shaft, the theme from Rocky, and of course, Hey Jude. Maynard surrounds himself with bright young musicians right out of school who tour with him for a year and then leave, maybe out of embarrassment. Just before I left Boston for Pomona four years ago, I had the once in a lifetime pleasure of hearing Maynard play with a full band accompaniment in a little bar, Johnny D's in Somerville. Maynard was about to take his band out on the road, and he wanted to try out some material in a small venue before he hit the concert scene. I told my friends about this rare opportunity, and we all stood about five feet away from Maynard as he thrust his pelvis at us and blasted away. I lost part of my hearing that night, but I also thought I saw God around the second chorus from the theme from Star Trek. Glory, glory Hallelujah. Maynard Ferguson--he has a great name, a perfect name for celebrity, like Shaquille O'Neill. Maynard holds clinics in high schools all across this country, and every drum and bugle corps member in every small town shows up, they buy his mouthpieces and records, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for keeping together many music programs in America for the last twenty five years. Maynard is a living idol in some small town circles, even if he isn't a household name in Hollywood. Yes, there's a part of me that would like to be Maynard, a flamboyant good guy screech trumpeter.

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