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Ferguson Fuses Teaching, Playing, Touring

January 09, 1986|A. JAMES LISKA

At 10:30 on a Saturday morning, Maynard Ferguson, unlike most jazzmen who considered that hour to be the middle of the night, is wide awake and ready to converse.

His voice sounds much like his trumpet: bright, high-pitched and ebullient. And his conversation is like his music: A strange, albeit pleasantly so, mixture of seeming contradictions in style and content.

"I'm in a bit of a culture shock," he begins, adding that jet lag, too, is a constant fact of life for a man who spends eight months a year away from his Ojai home.

"I went from the south of India to New Year's Eve at the Hyatt Dearborn (Michigan)."

While the New Year's gig is in the typical setting for Ferguson's work, the south of India, where he has been going on sabbatical since the mid-1960s, provides for an inner spiritual calm evidenced only occasionally in his music ("I am playing 'Lush Life' on a muted trumpet now," he laughs).

Bravado is the word most frequently applied to Ferguson's music, which has, since his days in the early '50s with Stan Kenton, incurred the rancorous commentary of many critics. Frequently loud and seldom subtle, Ferguson's hyper-intense band was once characterized by one of his own saxophonists as "sort of a violent band. . . . The whole evening starts out at a high-intensity level and builds."

But Ferguson remains undaunted, his popularity unchallenged. He works "as much as I want to" and he remains one of a handful of non-nostalgia, non-dance big bands able to survive on the road.

Though his band has decreased in number from the traditional 16 in the early '50s to an unheard-of 13 in 1957 to his current 11 pieces, Ferguson creates a larger-than-life jazz, replete with synthesizers, that rarely fails to inspire.

Working with recent graduates of this country's jazz programmed colleges ("I raid 'em all," he says, "North Texas, Eastman, UCLA, Miami, Indiana, Berkeley"), the Canadian-born trumpeter, who opens Friday at Donte's Jazz Supper Club in North Hollywood for three nights, leads a band of youngsters who are never left wanting for solos.

"The up-leveling of music education in jazz has created young musicians who come out like soloists," Ferguson says. "They deserve the (solo) space."

While he gives the space willingly, he thinks the larger format big band is better on the educational front.

"The bigger bands help sustain the jazz spirit," he says, adding that they are better for teaching. "But curbing that boredom--when the fourth tenor got a solo last May--is important on the road."

Each month that Ferguson is touring, he plays six concerts in six cities. Nonetheless, he makes sure his schedule provides for some teaching.

"That's my seva , as we say in the south of India--something you enjoy doing," says Ferguson, a musician trained in the classical tradition at the French conservatory of music in Montreal. "Unfortunately, I can only do one or two clinics a week."

Typical of those educational forays is the one he will do Friday in Anaheim as part of the National Assn. of Jazz Educators convention.

"I take in the whole band and I do something to dazzle the students," he says. "Then I do a rap for 40 minutes and follow it with a Q and A (question-and-answer session), throw it around to the band.

"It needs to be done," Ferguson says, suggesting that the teaching institutions are best suited to keeping jazz alive today.

"I started playing jazz in nightclubs when I was 15," he says. "Today, parents would be arrested for letting their kids do that."

Ferguson's educational activities are not limited to the United States, however. In India, where he is a student of Sathya Sai Baba ("he's not one of those give-me-all-your-money gurus"), the 57-year-old bandleader is a visiting professor of Western music at Sai Baba's University.

"It's funny. When I go there, I dress Indian and all the guys are wearing suits and ties," he says. "The worst thing is getting Western brass instruments to them, but every kid has a Casio (an elementary synthesizer)."

On Ferguson's latest trip to India, he helped celebrate Sai Baba's 60th birthday party with a concert for 250,000 people.

"Like the interest we showed in Indian music with Ravi Shankar, they're interested in Western music," he says.

"I played with this 'big band'--eight percussion, three vina, three violins, a 10-voice choir and a group of children and their parents doing Vedic chants. And then I was supposed to play with these five Indian boys from Christ College who had a rock band. I didn't know what to expect with that," he says, setting up the punch line.

"You know what they played? 'Take Five.'

"Now, that's fusion."

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