Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Boss

I first heard Maynard Ferguson play in person in 1972 at Springdale (PA) High School. Maynard and his band gave a clinic before the concert for local high school musicians, who hung on every word like Moses listening to the burning bush. The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago, when his band shared a gig with Glenelg (MD) High School’s excellent jazz band. In between were more good times than I can recite here, even though I think I can remember every one, given a little time to think about it.

I remember sitting in line at 5:00 one cold morning in February, 1974 so I’d have enough gas to get to the Holiday Inn in Blawnox, PA. Maynard did three shows that night, even played baritone sax (well) on one number while Bruce Johnstone soloed on bass clarinet.

Ron Melani and I got stuck in traffic and were almost late for the gig at the Grand Ballroom of the Duquesne University Student Union. The students wrecked the joint every time Duquesne graduate Randy Purcell soloed. Maynard made sure it was often.

The whole trumpet section came down front to play the opening to “Be-Bop Buffet” up an octave at the Moonshadow bar in Atlanta; Maynard closed with a scary cadenza on “Pagliacci.”

Another Holiday Inn, this one in New Kensington, PA, where Maynard signed my copy of MF Horn between sets before heading off to his room to practice.

And my favorite: the Casino Theater in Vandergrift, PA, February, 2002. I drove the Sole Heir up from Maryland to see the gig with my parents. I didn’t expect much, but thought it might be cool thirty years from now if she could say she’d seen Maynard live, since she’d taken up the horn that year. The old man blew the walls down. Even better was the look of shock and discovery on the Sole Heir’s face as she became baptized into the Church of Maynard. Most parents spent their whole lives looking for ways to bond with their children; I spent fifteen bucks. Thank you, Maynard.

That’s not all I have to thank him for. Maynard Ferguson was one of the two people most responsible for me trying to make a career out of music. My lack of success is not held against him; far from it. I went places, met people, and did things I would never have done otherwise, in part because Maynard (and Doc Severinsen) got a high school kid so jazzed about his instrument.

I’m not here to get maudlin and start whining like John Lennon or Elvis died again. What I’ll remember most about Maynard, more than the shock at hearing him play unimaginable things (even though I’d heard him do something similar just a few weeks before), was the fun. More than the fun I had; the fun he had. No one ever had a better time at their work than Maynard Ferguson. He was still touring eight months a year at age seventy-eight. His last musical act was to record a new CD just a couple of weeks before taking ill for the last time.

Maynard played first trumpet on the soundtrack of The Ten Commandments. (In a trumpeter’s irony, Herb Alpert played drums.) I saw it noted somewhere on the web that Gabriel has now been bumped down to second trumpet.

Maynard was a big deal before I was born, so as far as I’m concerned, he’s always been there. His passing severs one more connection to my youth. (Careful now, you’re teetering on the edge of the Great Maudlin Swamp.) The good news is, thanks to recordings, I can pull up any phase of his career to keep me company: the early years, when he did things I still shake my head at; his middle years, when he set the hook so deep in me during my teens and early twenties; and most recently, when I can listen to a man in his sixties and seventies play and not feel bad over the erosion of his skills, mainly because it’s obvious he didn’t, and there’s still so much left.

What I think most of when I listen to Maynard is how much fun it must have been to be able to do what he did every night. Not just playing for a living; I did that for a while. I mean to know that every night he might do something that would amaze not just the audience, but the guys on the bandstand. The looks that were exchanged when Maynard would catch an eye on a night when he was really feeling it and give an expression as if to say, “listen to this.”

Fun’s fun; there’s a lot more to being a pro. Check out a video on YouTube and see the concentration on his face, the physical effort. James Brown is called The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, but no one ever left more of himself on a stage than Maynard did every night. A showman to the end, his last recording will be released after his death; for Maynard, there’s always one more show.

(For another, even better, take, read David Von Drehle's tribute from Saturday’s Washington Post.)

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