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Trumpeter Instrumental in Helping Local Schools

Veteran jazzman Maynard Ferguson hits another high note with his support for campus music programs.


Among jazz trumpeters, Maynard Ferguson belongs to the exuberant, heroic school, often going fearlessly for the vein-challenging high notes. He approaches the big-band tradition with solid values and cheeky humor rather than cerebral twists. He was the one, after all, who scored with big-band versions of "MacArthur Park" and the "Rocky" theme in the '70s.

His bands over the last three decades have included a list of stellar players--including Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Don Ellis, Bob James, Peter Erskine and Greg Bissonette--who have gone on to impressive careers.

A couple of other things to note about Maynard Ferguson: His interest in the teachings of late Eastern philosopher Krishnamurti led him to move his family to Ojai (site of the Krishnamurti Foundation) several years ago, and he's a believer in supporting local school music programs. Those factors explain his appearance Friday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, where his group Big Bop Nouveau will play to benefit the Newbury Park High School music program.

In a sense, the 67-year-old Ferguson never left school. "I've been very involved in the whole music education process in the schools," he said.

Energetic and congenial, Ferguson spoke on the phone last week from Bountiful, Utah, on the last leg of a two-month tour. Just after playing in Thousand Oaks, the band will record its next album at Santa Barbara's Sound Design, where Ferguson has found a happy studio environment, in close proximity to home. "That helps a lot, because I enjoy being at home, as much as I enjoy what I do in life," he said. "I'm a big I-love-Ojai person."

Of course, to say that Ferguson lives in Ojai is a partial truth. By his accounting, he spends eight months on the road, and his new recording contract with Concord Records is raising his visibility.

Ferguson's first album for Concord, "These Cats Can Swing," is a representative sampling of mostly swing and pop tunes. But it also includes an unorthodox Ferguson original, "Sweet Baba Suite (Bai Rav)," which blends jazz and Indian sonorities, with a nod to his interest in Eastern spirituality.

"When I go to India, like I do every year, I do some teaching, and so many students at the school who are fine Indian musicians have great curiosity about our music. I go over there not just as a spiritual trip, but also as a teacher and also as a pupil."


Another unusual track on the latest album is the satirical "He Can't Swing," which pokes fun at jazz musicians who spend more time worrying about fashion than music.

The tune was written years ago with Willie Maiden, then a tenor saxophonist and composer-arranger in Ferguson's band. "He and I sat around one day talking about how some of the young musicians get on that wrong path of wanting to look and act hip, and they spend more time working on that than learning to play. Yet we treat it with humor, of course." Ferguson sings the tune but harbors no delusions about giving up his trumpet. "I don't think I'll ever rival Pavarotti," he said.

As a veteran bandleader, Ferguson has had many a young musician under his wing and keeps his ears open for new recruits to replace those who, inevitably, move on. "I'm very proud of the personnel right now. Tom Garling is a wonderful trombonist who doubles on guitar occasionally. Some guys stay with me for a long time, like Matt Wallace, a fine sax player and a great singer who has been with me for about eight years now.

"It's very much like having a ball club. I think I'm the Tommy Lasorda of the band. We're built the same," he said, laughing. "I'm very friendly with all the music and jazz educators. They'll call me sometimes and say, 'Have I got a kid for you.' Or sometimes, just like in sports, they'll say, 'In another year, this kid is going to be really ready for you.' "

In his travels and his work as a soloist with school big bands, Ferguson comes into contact with young players. He was elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame as well as the International Assn. of Jazz Educators Hall of Fame, in honor of his dedication to working with students.

Playing to support school music programs is something that Ferguson is passionate about. "The last four administrations have done a good job of cutting down money for the arts. We all get to complain about that--even if I am Canadian," said the Montreal-born Ferguson.

"I've always approved of the teaching of instrumental music in the school system. Very few students say, 'Oh boy, I'm on my way to calculus class. What a thrill.' If you can find at least one thing that will turn your kids on to going to school, that's great. The band programs do that.

"I know plenty of doctors and lawyers who are very wealthy, but you can buy them for $2 to play their horn on a Saturday night because they love doing it. That's part of the magic of the whole thing."

The same magic still has Ferguson in its spell.

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