Friday, August 25, 2006

Maynard Ferguson: Gonna Fly Now

I’m part of the TV generation – the part that grew up with three networks, when the antenna worked right, that remembers when PBS was new and daring and exciting. One consequence is that I’m one who prefers to work with some noise in the background. So, when I’m out in the back yard working in the garden, I have the radio on. When it’s not NPR, it’s one of the local classic rock stations. They regularly tell me they are playing “the music of my life;” and at least in an historical sense they are.

The irony of that is that I’m hearing a lot of songs that were current then that I never knew. You see, as a teenager I was already out of step. When others were listening to the last of the psychedelic rockers or the first of the power rockers, those ancestors of metal, I was listening to jazz. More specifically, I was listening to Maynard Ferguson. There were a couple of other stratospheric trumpet players who were also out there. I recognized and appreciated the genius and uniqueness of Dizzy Gillespie. I knew Doc Severinsen was great. There was another one-hit wonder whose arpeggios I still hear but whose name has long been lost. But my daily fare, my vinyl staple, was Maynard Ferguson.

I played brass myself: I had started on the trumpet and had moved on to the french horn, and so I felt a certain identification with Maynard. Others admired athletes who showed skills they might aspire to but never really believe they could reach; I looked at Maynard.

My best friend in those days was also a trumpet player. We would listen together. His father was a producer of industrial films and regional commercials, and he had a sound studio on his home. It was the first set up I knew that had tower speakers, using the internal column to really enhance the bass. We used to go into the studio, and while one of us held his head between the speakers the other would put on Maynard, playing one of those waterfall arpeggios at full volume. It altered my consciousness. My vices in those days were alcohol and women. It was the music that gave me a psychedelic experience.

I remember when Maynard came and played in my high school auditorium. Now, don’t underestimate that: at the time it was, at least in its acoustics, really one of the best places in my city and region to play and hear music. My band and orchestra director, himself a jazz trombonist, even got to jam with them. He held his own, and for us who loved him it was no small matter of pride. It was a nice group of folks that evening, who knew what they were hearing: a sparkling mix of jazz and rock by a stellar performer.

Yeah, like so many, as I aged my tastes widened, and to some extent drifted. I really do appreciate more now than then the “guitar gods” of my youth. I continue to be out of phase, and usually somewhere chronologically behind, most of the folks around me. And it’s possible that I romanticize a bit a bright spot in what I remember as a somewhat depressed adolescence (and that may be redundant). But Maynard Ferguson is a bright memory. His was indeed a stratospheric sound, hardly matched in its own time, and not matched since. I can only imagine now the challenge to Gabriel for first chair in the trumpet section.

Maynard Ferguson, RIP.

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