Most musicians can only dream of having a long and respected career like that of late jazz great Maynard Ferguson.
His talent on the trumpet (among many other instruments) kept him consistently gigging across North America and Europe for six decades between his professional debut in the 1950s and his death in 2006. It also found the musician – dubbed “King of the High C” for his prowess playing expressively in a high register – squaring off against the brightest lights on the contemporary jazz circuit and beyond.
Ferguson was also one of the few musicians able to successfully transcend from the Big Band era of the 1950s to embrace modern jazz and rock, while being taken seriously in both genres. Ferguson’s double-digit discography boasts Big Band, swing to bebop, cool jazz, Latin, jazz/rock, fusion with classical and operatic influences. That same discography also reads like a jazz who’s who, with appearances alongside everyone from Dinah Washington to Tito Puente to Stanley Clarke.
Add to that his devotion to music education, which allowed Ferguson to assist and inspire young musicians during the many Master Classes held throughout his long career.
Born in Quebec in 1928, Ferguson spent the tail-end of the Big Band era in Canada before making a name for himself in the U.S. in the late ‘ 40s and ’50s with bands led by such notables as Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton, with whom he won three consecutive Downbeat Magazine Readers’ Polls. Noted for his soaring, double-high C range on the trumpet, Ferguson never allowed nostalgia to get in the way of staying in touch with current musical tastes.
After a move to England in 1967 – where, among other things, he served as band leader on British TV presenter Simon Dee’s variety show – Ferguson toured North America extensively in the early ’70s, ultimately becoming a hit with high school and college audiences playing flashy, jazz/rock arrangements of contemporary hits.
The highlights quickly piled up. In 1976, Ferguson performed a solo trumpet piece as part of the closing ceremonies for the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Around this time, he began working with producer Bob James on a series of landmark albums that would win widespread commercial and critical acclaim while padding his resume with marquee collaborations alongside Chick Corea, Steve Gadd and Bobby Militello.
Ferguson also scored a huge mainstream hit with the song, “Gonna Fly Now,” written by Bill Conti and used as a theme to the smash movie Rocky. All the while, Ferguson maintained a hectic globetrotting tour schedule, with sold out shows across the planet.
And yet he saved the best for last. Starting in the ’90s, Ferguson began touring the world with his Big Bop Nouveau ensemble. Originally composed of four trumpets, two trombones and four saxophones and a rhythm section (plus Ferguson), it was later reduced to what has become known as the “pocket Big Band” format, consisting of three trumpets, two saxophones, trombone and rhythm section. In addition to the sprawling concert schedule – touring an average of nine months a year – Big Bop Nouveau recorded extensively including albums with vocalists Diane Schuur and Michael Feinstein.
A position in the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame complements Ferguson’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.