Maynard Ferguson's Horn Screamed With Vulgar Passion

Maynard Ferguson's preference was high notes, and his performances were high-octane.
Maynard Ferguson's preference was high notes, and his performances were high-octane. (By Joe Gill -- Easton Express-times Via Associated Press)
By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

Is there something vulgar about a man in a bright jumpsuit, a long scarf around his massive neck, screeching out a tragic opera theme on a highly amplified trumpet?

This seems clear to me now, in retrospect. I guess Maynard Ferguson's foot-stomping, groin-thrusting, ear-splitting, glass-shattering musical style was not always in the very best of taste. Hearing him play in a school gymnasium was not, I admit, as exquisite an experience as hearing Roy Hargrove at the Village Vanguard. Give the Jazz Purists their due: You were right, my smug and urbane betters; Maynard was a vulgar passion. Now please go back to your cork-lined rooms with the custom-engineered acoustic baffles, the better to hear each tuneless squeak and skronk of your vintage Ornette Coleman recordings.

Maynard Ferguson, who died Wednesday night in California after a 60-year career in and around jazz, is worth appreciating today precisely because of the glorious vulgarity of his style. To be vulgar, according to my dictionary, is to be of the common people. Applied to an artist, the word implies excessive showmanship, glitz, kitsch and -- from Chaucer to the present day -- a preference for the hormonal over the cerebral.

This was Ferguson in a gig bag. Though his talent was enormous -- the legendary first trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Adolph "Bud" Herseth, once called Ferguson "the greatest brass player in this part of the century" -- Maynard never courted an elite audience. Instead, he distilled his superhuman trumpet virtuosity into a very specific, excessive, showy, glitzy, oh-so-hormonal artistic achievement. He soared, screeched, trilled and exulted in a register so high even most professional horn players have rarely, if ever, played there. Ferguson didn't invent so-called "scream trumpet"; Cat Anderson was pealing far above Duke Ellington's band years before Ferguson broke through with Stan Kenton. But Ferguson took the stunt and made it a main event.

I, for one, loved him, as the neighbors learned each time I cranked the stereo. For a time in the late '70s, I was a registered member of the Ferguson fan club; I bought every album I could find; I traveled to any concert within 100 miles. In those days, out on the Great Plains, lots of guys wore yellow gimme caps with a big MF embroidered on the patch, compliments of the Massey Ferguson tractor company. A pal and I had identical caps made, but under the big MF it said "Maynard" instead of "Massey."

He gave us a huge laugh when we handed the caps to him for his autograph the next time he passed through Denver.

I was a high school boy at the time. This fact is not incidental. In the blogs and tribute pages devoted to memories of Maynard Ferguson yesterday, the two near-constants were adolescence and masculinity. Ferguson lit up thousands of young horn players, most of them boys, with pride and excitement. In a world often divided between jocks and band nerds, Ferguson crossed over, because he approached his music almost as an athletic event. On stage, he strained, sweated, heaved and roared. He nailed the upper registers like Shaq nailing a dunk or Lawrence Taylor nailing a running back -- and the audience reaction was exactly the same: the guttural shout, the leap to their feet, the fists in the air. We cheered Maynard as a gladiator, a combat soldier, a prize fighter, a circus strongman -- choose your masculine archetype.

Ferguson's tight, blasting bands were a training ground for generations of fine jazz musicians, from Wayne Shorter to Don Menza to Chick Corea, and he was generous in allowing them to show off in blistering solos. But the architecture of the classic Ferguson charts was as simple as a teenage boy: The music started loud, pounded steadily, gathered intensity, rose to a climax and exploded as Maynard pegged another seemingly impossible triple-C. The formula was applied to tunes as diverse as "Hey, Jude," Leoncavallo's famous aria from "Pagliacci," and the theme from "Battlestar Galactica." Results were mixed from a musical standpoint, but the trumpeter always triumphed.

That's why he was the hero of the horn sections. When Ferguson reached the peak of his fame in the mid-1970s -- thanks to a hit recording of the theme from "Rocky" -- the world was full of manly guys whanging electric guitars and thrashing drums. But jazz? Our friends the Purists had just about drained the last drop of juice from the great American art form. In place of the old jump, stomp and jive, the Purists seemed to offer little but heroin chic, prissy intellectualism and monkish devotion to old 78s.

Maynard Ferguson did his best to blow some hormones back into the band room. Along the way, he turned a fair number of us on to the more subtle achievements of more refined musicians. For that, we forgive all the reverb and rayon, all the electronics, even the lamentable disco phase.

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