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Jazz Fans Mourn Famed Trumpeter, Bandleader Maynard Ferguson


Famed jazz trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson died of kidney and liver failure at a hospital in Ventura, California on Wednesday August 23. He was 78 years old. Like the late Dizzy Gillespie, Ferguson was an ambassador of jazz. When he wasn't producing, composing or teaching music, Maynard Ferguson took his bands to countries all over the world. As VOA's Doug Levine reports, Maynard Ferguson was destined for international stardom.

One of Maynard Ferguson's greatest gifts was his unlimited repertoire. He played swing, bebop, funk, rock and classical music. He recorded over 60 albums during a career that began in some of the world's most famous big bands. His ability to hit extremely high notes with such consistency and ease amazed both critics and audiences alike.

Maynard Ferguson was born on May 4, 1928, in Montreal, Canada. He began playing piano and violin at age four. At age nine, he discovered the trumpet. Four years later, he won a scholarship with the French Conservatory of Music, and was invited to perform with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra. As a student in Montreal, he was the leader of a warm-up band for some of the era's best-known orchestras, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie. In a 1996 interview, Ferguson said Dizzy Gillespie was second only to Louis Armstrong as his favorite horn player.

"If any of us were to pick an early hero, let's call it, it would be Louis Armstrong, sure. I think I've heard Wynton Marsalis say that and I think I've heard a lot of the great players say that," he said. "And then of course you start spreading it out and I think we were all influenced by Dizzy Gillespie's playing and his creative harmonic sense."

Maynard Ferguson moved to the United States in 1949. While still in his teens, became a respected soloist in Stan Kenton's Innovations Orchestra. Ferguson made his mark as a bandleader after a successful engagement at a famous New York City nightclub.

"In the beginnings of my American band as a bandleader, I was the guy that was chosen to be the leader of the Birdland Dream Band, which was an all-star band that was put together for three weeks at Birdland for which we recorded two albums," he said. "This is many years ago. And from that, I formed a band and I had 14 weeks out of the year in two-week segments at Birdland, which in the early days was very helpful in holding a band together and getting it known."

For the next 20 years, Maynard Ferguson alternated between the pop and jazz world. In 1977, he landed on the charts with "Gonna Fly Now," the theme song from the hit film Rocky.

Fans young and old were drawn to Ferguson's trumpet virtuosity. Critics said he played higher than any jazz trumpeter in history. Even into his sixties he was hitting notes that musicians half his age only dreamed they could play. Ferguson said he never regretted choosing the life of a jazz trumpeter.

"Even if I had become the world's greatest classical trumpet player, I think I still would never have become a serious musician. I mean it's a fun thing that we do," Ferguson said. " I think it's very fortunate that your favorite toy as a kid becomes what you do in life, you know."

Maynard Ferguson's many bands included such stellar jazz players as Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Bob James, Slide Hampton and Joe Zawinul.

Ferguson was touring the U.S. as recently as July with his Big Bop Nouveau Band. The band had just finished recording a new album. The Ferguson family is planning a memorial concert to take place in St. Louis, Missouri. Past and present band members are expected to attend.

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