Thursday, August 24, 2006

Remembering Maynard

OK, forget everything else I was going to blog about today; I just found out that Maynard has left the building:
Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, known for his soaring high notes and for his hit recording of "Gonna Fly Now," which lent the musical muscle to the "Rocky" movie franchise, has died. He was 78.

Ferguson, who lived in nearby Ojai, died Wednesday night at Community Memorial Hospital of kidney and liver failure due to an abdominal infection, friend and manager Steve Schankman said Thursday.

Ferguson's four daughters, Kim, Lisa, Corby and Wilder, and other family members were at his side when he died, he said.

"Someone just said, `Gabriel, move over to second trumpet,"' Schankman said from his St. Louis office. "He was the last of the greats. That era is closed. There is no Kenton, no Basie, no Ellington, and now, no Ferguson."
I'll have more thoughts later.

LATER: It's hard to believe that Maynard is gone. He was one of the first people I listened to when I became acquainted with jazz in high school, and he was one of those giants that just seemed like they were going to be around forever. Sure, there was this little running joke among some of my friends that going to a Maynard concert these days always meant there was the chance that he might die on stage right then and there, but the last time I saw him, this past February, he was in better shape than I'd seen him in years, which is why his passing comes as such a shock.

I was lucky enough to have seen Maynard perform around seven or eight times (at least that many; I'll have to go back and count). Two of them were during the Blog Era, so I have reviews of those shows, from February 2004 and this past February. The format was often the same; indeed, the schtick was often the same ("Ain't No Sunshine Till She's Gone," anyone?), but it never grew old. The wisdom of playing in high-school auditoriums may have been questioned by some, but the results can't be questioned, becuase the man knew his audience: Young jazz musicians and their parents and teachers. Some may say that jazz will never regain the audience that it had in the Swing Era, but in this particular corner of the world, Maynard was like a rock star...and as a jazz educator, I'll always appreciate it, because we need a strong personality like that in our genre of music. Was it loud? Sure. Was it over-the-top? Sometimes. But the auditorium was always packed, and the audience always left screaming for more and totally fired up about playing jazz on their own instruments. What more could someone in my position ask for?

I don't know what Maynard's wishes were in terms of a ghost band, but I think I'd go see the group that played last spring without hesitation, because they were that good. (This next analogy may be a little off-the-wall, but I think you'll get my point.) I always used to compare seeing Maynard to visiting the dentist, in the best possible way: You know how you go to the dentist, and the dental hygienist does the bulk of the work, and then the dentist usually comes out for a lot less time (and gets way more money), but you still know that he's the boss? In the latter years, Maynard let his trumpet section, especially right-hand man Patrick Hession, do a lot of the heavy lifting on some of the tunes in exchange for some of the glory, but he'd also provide just enough pyrotechnics of his own to let you know that he still "had it." I don't thing anyone ever begrudged him that, because he had given so much to the music for so long that he had earned a little lighter workload. And besides, a really good dental hygienist can make the dentist look great, and Maynard always had nothing short of a top-notch, high-energy band, and it's a tribute to his leadership that several of his former bandmembers (like Wayne Bergeron, Steve Wiest, Gregg and Matt Bissonette, and our jazz camp's own Glenn Kostur, just to name several recent ones) have gone on to illustrious careers of their own.

I was hoping to meet Maynard this past summer; he was a member of my fraternity, and he got a prestigious national award called the American Man of Music award, which brought him to Cleveland for our national convention. Unfortunately, that convention and Jazz Camp overlapped, and my professional obligation had to take priority over my volunteer one. By the time I got to convention, I had missed Maynard by a couple of days (though on the night he got his award, I was here sharing the stage with Jimmy Heath; that wasn't a bad tradeoff, mind you, but I sure wish I could have been in two places at the same time that night). The brothers who got to meet him said that it was a great experience.

Maynard may not have died onstage, but he probably went out in the best possible way--surrounded by his family, just a short time after an evidently amazing stint at the Blue Note and a trip into the studio for what will be his final album of new material. I can't wait to hear it, and I would seriously consider attending the upcoming tribute concert in St. Louis if the logistics work out.

So tonight, let's raise a proverbial glass to a man who did so much for music and music education, while those of us who were lucky enough to have seen him perform will no doubt relive the thrills of every jaw-dropping high note and the energy of it all. And I think the guy in the article is right: Gabriel, it's time to start learning that second trumpet book.

MORE STUFF: The official statement from Maynard's management on his website.

And memories of Maynard from his most recent musical director, UNT alumnus Stockton Helbing.

UPDATE: There's now a Maynard Ferguson Memorial on MySpace.

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