Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Maynard My Way - Part 1

Maynard Ferguson was active in the world of Jazz for over a half century. During most of this period, he could usually be found leading various big bands with whom he regularly explored the stratospheric regions of the trumpet’s range. This is a man who could play controlled, full tones [not just squeaks] on the instrument up to a double high C – often!

Concerning his early mastery of these high notes, Gene Lees, for many years Maynard’s neighbor in Ojai, CA, commented in Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz: “… he equates it with the once unattainable four minute mile and says with a laugh, ‘Now I’ve got two or three kids in my band who can play that high.’” [p. 88]

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I have always had great respect for Maynard’s talents, both as a musician and as a businessman in the world of Jazz. Despite some rocky financial times in the mid-1960s, overall he was successful enough at the latter so that in his case being a Jazz businessman wasn’t a contradiction in terms.
Through listening to recordings and viewing films, I was able to review his career with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and with the Paramount Pictures studio orchestra which took place from about 1950 – 1955.

I am also somewhat familiar with the spiritual hiatus he took to India in the late 1960’s which would revitalize him to continue his career, first with a band based in England in the early 1970’s, and then at the end of that decade with what would ultimately become his Big Bop Nouveau band which he led until his death on August 23, 2006.

To my ears, however, one of the great highpoints in Maynard’s career and the period I enjoy the most was the eight years or so he fronted various versions of The Birdland Dream Band, beginning in 1956 and ending in 1964.

Strictly speaking, there were only three recordings issued under that rubric: Birdland Dream Band, Vol. 1 [RCA 74321581102], Birdland Dream Band Vol. 2 [RCA 74321580572] and Live at Peacock Lane [Fresh Sound FSCD 1016].

I’m taking a certain poetic license with these terms “Birdland Dream Band” to include in this period the Roulette albums – A Message from Newport [52012; on CD as Blue Note CDP 793 2722] and A Message from Birdland [52027; on CD as Blue Note CDP 97447], as well as, The New Sounds of Maynard Ferguson and His Orchestra 1964 [Fresh Sound FSCD 2010, a reissue of Cameo LP’s 1040 and 1066, The New Sound of Maynard Ferguson and Come Blow Your Horn].

Another primary reason for focusing on this particular period in Maynard’s career is that is affords the editors of Jazzprofiles with an opportunity to insert as the conclusion to this feature, Bret Primack’s excellently crafted "One Night at Birdland – A Reconstruction" which is excerpted from the insert notes of the now out-of-print Mosaic The Complete Roulette Recordings of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra MD 10-156]. 

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All of Bret’s insert notes for this Mosaic set are extremely informative and detailed, but this treatment for what was to be issued as the Roulette LP A Message from Birdland is particularly insightful and entertaining about both the recording and the setting in which it was made.

By way of background, with close friend tenor saxophonist Willie Maiden as his partner, Maynard used the steady studio gig at Paramount as a means of bankrolling a library of big band arrangements. Both were twenty-six years old in 1955 when they began building a library with arrangements that could be adapted to different set ups for the traditional big band. Funding some arrangements was one thing, but they lacked the necessary financing to put together a band to actually play them.

Until, that is, “Fate” in the form of Maynard’s friend, drummer Sid Bulkin, intervened. As Primack tells it in his Mosaic insert notes:

“… Sid Bulkin met with Birdland owner Morris Levy and Vik Records A&R man Jack Lewis. Levy and Lewis were looking for someone to briefly front a Birdland Dream Band, and Bulkin successfully served as Maynard’s intermediary.”
When Ferguson went to New York in 1956 to meet with Levy and Lewis, his big band book consisted of arrangements by Jazz’s best: Manny Albam, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Willie Maiden, Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich and Ernie Wilkins. Once in New York, he would add charts by Al Cohn.

With a book like this, it’s no wonder that Levy and Lewis agreed to put up the money for a Birdland Dream Band that was to initially include:

Trumpets: Maynard [and valve trombone], Al DeRisi, Nick Travis and Joe Ferrante
Trombones: Jimmy Cleveland, Sonny Russo [or Eddie Bert]
Alto Sax: Herb Geller
Tenor Sax: Al Cohn and Budd Johnson
Baritone Sax: Ernie Wilkins
Piano: Hank Jones; Bass: Milt Hinton; Drums: Jimmy Campbell [or Don Lamond]
The band opened at Birdland on August 30, 1956 for an engagement that ran until September 25th. This Birdland “Dream Band” would produce Volumes 1 and 2 that were originally issued on Vik and later reissued on Bluebird/RCA as noted above.

From the opening refrains of Jimmy Giuffre’s Blue Birdland [which was to remain Maynard’s theme song throughout his career], to the closely harmonized lines of Bob Brookmeyer’s Still Water Stomp [with Maynard on valve trombone and a sound to pre-sage the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and Johnny Mandel’s unison trumpets on Little Girl Kimbi [which Neal Hefti no doubt related to “girl talk”], the band plays in the spirited manner that was to become Maynard’s trademark for over 50 years.
With Mel Lewis on drums, Richie Kamuca on tenor and charts like Bill Holman’s Goodbye Mr. Chops, Johnny Mandel’s Groover Wailin’ and Marty Paich’s haunting Early Hours [featuring Richie], one could be excused if while listening to Maynard Ferguson and his Dreamband Orchestra ’56: Live at Peacock Lane the band sounds like a precursor to the Terry Gibbs Big band that came into existence three years later.

Jordi Pujol, owner and producer of Fresh Sound Records, explains the background to the gig and the recording date this way:

“Following the immediate and tremendous impact made by the new Ferguson [Birdland Dream] band, he was contracted to play over the Christmas holiday at Pete Vescio’s ‘Peacock’ Lane venue in Los Angeles, and for which job Maynard put together another all-star band. The very well-known recording engineer, the late Wally Heider, came to the club one night and recorded this superb concert performance. …. [Ferguson] once said: ‘my conception of an ensemble is that everybody must really be enjoying what they are doing and be happy on the band.”
The band Maynard put together for the Peacock Lane gig consisted of:

Trumpets – Maynard [and valve trombone], Tom Slaney [lead], Ed Leddy, Joe Burnett
Trombones - Bob Fitzpatrick, Bob Burgess
Alto Sax – Herb Geller
Tenor Sax – Richie Kamuca, Nino Tempo
Baritone Sax – Willie Maiden
Piano – Paul Moer; Bass – Red Kelly; Drums – Mel Lewis

With the promise of steady employment at Birdland, Maynard returned to New York in 1957 to put together a working band. He obviously couldn’t afford to keep the studio musicians who made up the original New York Birdland Dream Band on the payroll so he opted instead for young talent based around a three trumpet, two trombones, four saxes, and three rhythm configuration.

For this first working band – the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra – Maynard made two key additions that not only resulted in a exceptional trombone tandem, but also brought forth some sterling, new arrangements to go with the previously assembled charts. When Don Sebesky [lead trombone] and Slide Hampton [valve trombone] came on the band, they along with Willie Maiden wrote compositions that took the band in a fiery and vigorous new direction. Or as Duke Ellington always maintained, sooner or later, the tone and tenor of a band will begin to reflect the personality of it’s leader. The writing of Maiden, Sebesky, and Hampton insured that this would become a sooner rather than a later proposition as far as Maynard's band was concerned.

And although, I have written this piece chronologically to this point, in terms of my personal listening experience, I first encountered the band through its blistering and blazing 1958 Roulette LP – A Message from Newport – and then worked my way back to the earlier Vik/RCA recordings. After I heard this recording for the first time, it took a few hours to catch my breath and regain my composure from all of the excitement it generated in me.

The music on this LP is spine-tinglingly full of thrills and excitement. If you like upper register, unison trumpet section work with vibrato shakes, trills and squeals, then you need look no further than this album. Maynard’s high note playing, aided and abetted by the other trumpeters and arrangements that serve to launch him into the stratosphere, has never sounded more scintillating, let alone more musical.
Or as Down Beat [10/1/1959] reported:

“The band’s strengths included it’s raw, almost primitive power of ensemble when it roars; the always impressive use of dynamics; Maynard’s brilliant horn work; the writing by members of the band; and a feeling that Maynard can best describe only as ‘esprit de corps.’

“About the only adverse comment steadily made by the Ferguson band is that it opened like a jackhammer and belted, without letup, through the remainder of the set. Yet Maynard’s band is built on excitement, on the exhilarating sound of the trumpet, on the ability of the band to rocket through furious tempos, and on the ensemble’s ability to build to a crescendo like a juggernaut rolling downhill.”

The full roster for the electrifying band on this highly recommended LP included:

Trumpets: Maynard [and valve trombone], Bill Chase, Clyde Reasinger, Tom Slaney
Trombones: Don Sebesky, Slide Hampton
Alto Sax: Jimmy Ford
Tenor Saxes: Carmen Leggio, Willie Maiden
Baritone Saxes: Jay Cameron
Piano: John Bunch; Bass: Jimmy Rowser; Drums: Jake Hanna

With the exception of the opening track, And We Listened, which was composed and arranged by Bob Friedman, who was an instructor at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, the album is a showcase for the new arranging troika of Hampton, Maiden and Sebesky.

Dom Cerulli was the Associate Editor of Down Beat when he concluded his liner notes to the album with this assessment of Maynard at this point in his career:

“Somehow, through personnel changes and depression times for big bands, Maynard has managed to keep his band together and working [this would continue as a prophetic statement for almost 50 years from this writing!].

He is an enthusiastic, hard-working band leader on-stage and off. He has retained that technical mastery of his horn which made him famous ,but has added to it nearly a decade of experience, growth and ability as a jazz man. He can now move audiences by what he plays as well as how he plays.”

……. To be continued with a review of the Roulette LP A Message from Birdland, Bret Primack’s essay, "A Night at Birdland – A Reconstruction," and some closing comments centered around Maynard’s 1964 band and his temporary hiatus from the scene shortly thereafter.

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