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Maynard Ferguson, 78; Trumpeter, Big Band Leader Achieved Pop Success

Times Staff Writer

Maynard Ferguson, the big band leader and trumpeter whose screaming, high-register solos and pop-tinged arrangements thrilled his fans and sometimes appalled his critics, died Thursday. He was 78.

Ferguson died of kidney and liver failure, brought on by an abdominal infection, at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, said Steve Schankman, his manager.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 30, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Maynard Ferguson obituary: The obituary of jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson in Friday’s California section said he died Thursday. He died Aug. 23.

An active musician, Ferguson recorded 60 albums in his long career and generally played about 150 annual engagements up until last year, Schankman said.

He had a weeklong run at the Blue Note in New York City last month, which he followed up by recording a new album with his Big Bop Nouveau band. He was due to begin a tour of Japan with the band in mid-September.

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He started experiencing health problems on his return to his home in Ojai, Schankman said, and was hospitalized as his condition deteriorated.

Schankman said he spoke to Ferguson by phone on Monday and the musician told him, “Don’t cancel anything ... we are going to beat this.”

Ferguson was nominated for a Grammy award in 1978 for his soaring recording of Bill Conti’s composition “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the film “Rocky.” The song, on Ferguson’s album “Conquistador,” was one of his few chart-hitting recordings. It reached No. 22 on the pop album charts in 1977.

He also made commercially appealing recordings of the Jimmy Webb tune “MacArthur Park” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

His success with pop tunes was unusual for a player who cut his teeth on the classic jazz ensemble: the big band.

Ferguson was born May 4, 1928, in a suburb of Montreal. A child prodigy, Ferguson was playing violin and piano at age 4. At 13, he was soloing with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Orchestra. By 16, he was playing trumpet and leading a dance band that featured a young pianist named Oscar Peterson.

His band was often the opening act for visiting American big bands, including those led by Count Basie and Stan Kenton. The Americans were impressed with Ferguson’s trumpet.

“I got a lot of offers to go out on the road,” Ferguson told The Times some years ago. “Kenton told me I had a place as a featured trumpet player any time I wanted it.”

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By 1949, Ferguson had moved across the border, but Kenton was taking a break from touring and recording. So Ferguson made his U.S. debut in saxophonist Boyd Raeburn’s big band. He also played in Jimmy Dorsey’s band and Charlie Barnet’s band before Kenton went back to work in 1950 with Ferguson in the trumpet section.

From 1950 to 1953, Ferguson was arguably the hottest trumpeter in jazz. His screaming, high-register trumpet was the cornerstone of Kenton’s noted brass section. His dramatic style is featured on the tune “Maynard Ferguson,” written by Ferguson, Kenton and Shorty Rogers and featured on the now-classic album “Stan Kenton Presents.”

Ferguson was taking individual honors as well as being named best trumpeter in Down Beat magazine’s annual poll for three consecutive years starting in 1950.

After leaving Kenton in 1953, he set out for Hollywood and got a job with Paramount Pictures playing on soundtracks. But he quickly found that work unsatisfying and returned to jazz. He led the Birdland Dreamband in New York and then formed what would be one in a series of 13-piece touring bands known for their biting brass sections.

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His bands also would be known as great training grounds for some noted players. Over the years, his alumni would include saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who were founding members of Weather Report; pianist Chick Corea, trumpeter Chuck Mangione and arrangers such as Don Sebesky and Don Menza.

By 1967, however, big bands took a sharp dip in popularity and Ferguson disbanded his group.

His life took some sharp turns as well.

He moved his family to India on a spiritual quest and then lived in England. He began forming bands that used more pop-oriented material. This paved the way for his success in the 1970s with the theme from “Rocky.”

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And though this formula proved commercially viable over the next two decades, it often didn’t play well with critics, who faulted the lack of subtlety in his playing and some dubious material.

Reviewing a 1979 performance at the Roxy, critic Leonard Feather wrote that “Ferguson’s audiences, seeking the ultimate in pyrotechnical displays by a trumpeter with chops of steel, need look no further. On the other hand, music lovers searching for taste, dynamic contrast and sensitivity will have to look elsewhere.”

Critics had a generally more sympathetic view of his later ensembles, notably the Big Bop Noveau band, which focused on straight-ahead jazz.

The spiritual quest Ferguson started in India in the 1960s led him to move his family to Ojai, then the base of operations for the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti.

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Ferguson was also a noted jazz teacher at the high school and college levels.

He is survived by his daughters Kim, Lisa, Corby and Wilder.

A memorial service, to be held in St. Louis, is being planned for mid-September. Memorial contributions may be made to the Maynard Ferguson Scholarship Fund at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.


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