My first encounter with Maynard Ferguson occurred in the early years of the 1950’s. Stan Kenton’s lead alto saxophone player was Al Anthony, who was a friend from my hometown of Brockton, Mass. The band was appearing at the Hollywood Palladium.
I managed to squirm my way up to the bandstand, as the crowd was 20 thick in front of the band. Al spotted me, gave me a warm greeting, and said to see him after the set. I was completely in awe of the musicians sitting in front of me, and knew from Downbeat magazine who they were.
Buddy Childers was playing lead trumpet, and sitting on the end between him and the drums, was a baby faced Maynard, barely out of his teens. The story has it that Buddy’s top note was a double “A,” which, of course, wasn’t chopped liver, but Stan was writing so that Buddy would lead the section up to a high “G” or “A” and then Maynard would swoop in leading the band the rest of the way up into the double-double stratosphere. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard in my life, and I think I may have detected a slight look of chagrin on Buddy’s face, but be that as it may. After the set Al introduced me to Maynard, our first meeting.
A while later, still living in Hollywood, I was working in a defense plant while studying with trumpet guru Lou Maggio. Maynard had formed his own band, and was working some club in Hollywood. It was a must see, and although I had very little money, I figured I’d blow it on an expensive night out. The band was superb, Maynard was incredible, and ringside tables held a bevy of celebrities, including, at one table, Howard Hughes and Ava Gardner. I reintroduced myself to Maynard, and although he was very gracious, I knew he didn’t have the slightest idea of who I was.
The years pushed on, I became professional, and — after many road years — settled into New York. My main mentor at that time was trumpeter Clyde Reasinger, and he was playing lead for Maynard at Birdland. In the late afternoon of a day when the whole East Coast was being buried under a major snow blizzard, my phone rang, and it was Clyde calling from Chicago asking if I’d go over to Birdland and cover for him, as he was stranded in Chicago. I said yes, and then, realizing what I was doing, slowly went into shock. In those years at Birdland you started the night with a broadcast, and as I was pulling up the music, Maynard came over and told me to relax and just play. I guess it helped, as I aced the broadcast, probably more from being in shock than from being relaxed. Maynard was using four trumpets back then, and the fourth player was Jimmy Maxwell, who years later reminded me of that evening, and how impressed he’d been. A nice compliment from a wonderful player. Maynard came over, gave me a hug, and finally I realized he’d probably remember me, which he did.
Over the years, we stayed friendly, and I’d chase the band around to listen to it whenever I could. One time at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, I was playing in the theatre with Paul Anka, and Maynard had the band in the ballroom at the end of the pier. After our first show I ran back to hear the band. The broadcast was on, Maynard had called out his most difficult stuff (I specifically remember ‘‘Ole” and “Maria”) and he was missing everything. Maynard spotted me, and invited me down to his dressing room where he showed me his new picture-perfect teeth, all newly capped. I was astounded he would do that, but he seemed comfortable about the situation, and told me he was sure he’d get it all back pretty quickly, but then he leaned over towards me and whispered that he had a cast made of his old mouth, just in case, “But don’t tell the guys.” Sure enough, he improved every night, and by the end of the engagement, it was the old Maynard playing the most difficult things in the book. I remember once asking him about where he felt his breathing bottoming out, and he answered, “In my calves.”
Years later in New York, I was fortunate to have recorded with him when he had been hired as a sideman on a Helen O’Connell album written by Marion Evans. I remember thinking that his lead playing was just as exciting as his soloing.
Well, he’s gone now — he died on Aug. 23 at the age of 78 after being a member of Local 802 for 48 years. One of the major icons in the lives of all of us trumpet players will be talked about and remembered for all time to come. There was never anyone like him, and there never will be.