One Cool Cat Checks Out

MF Horn1MF Horn2Maynard Ferguson died Thursday night at the age of 78 (Aug. 23, 2006). I’ve read several good obituaries tonight and I encourage anyone to read them. (Here’s a list.) I’m just going to tell you my story of Maynard and me.

The year was 1972; I was in 8th grade at Woodward Elementary and I had been playing trumpet for about one year. In those days it was predetermined that I would go off to Cleveland High School which was a mile up the road. That’s what my dad did, that’s what I would do. Well, during this era up at Cleveland there was a band director named Ed Levinski and he had developed a group of young trumpet players that were simply fantastic. (Many of them went on to become pros. Jim Manley, Frank Goessler, Steve Heitmann) Well, our family was friends with the Goessler’s and one night my dad said we’re going up to see a show at Cleveland. A trumpet player named Maynard Ferguson. Of course I’d never heard of him, but I was thrilled to be getting a look at the high school and I was planning on joining the band when I got there.

What a thrill that night was. The excitement on stage was overwhelming. I’d been open to many musical forms, but this kind of energy I assumed was the sole property of the rock bands. It was convincing. At the end of the show he invited all the boy wonder trumpet players up on stage with him. (Later I’d learn that they’d spent the whole day with him.) The song was Hey Jude and at the end of the song, both Maynard’s and the young trumpet players came out into the audience to improvise a very energetic, rock-style ending.

A year passed. I’m now in high school and sure enough Maynard is coming back. Let me tell you, I was excited. It turns out that he did this a lot. He traveled the country going to high schools, holding classes during the day and performing at night. It turns out that my story from the previous year could be told by countless others. Anyway, the day finally came as I sat waiting in the band room for the band’s arrival.

Then, he walked in.

Strutting and smiling and wearing a full-length multi-colored mink coat. That is one cool cat. This little south-sider had just met Hollywood and I thought it was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Right behind Maynard was his first trumpet player, likewise wearing a full-length mink coat. I thought to myself, “sure…I would too.”

There would be a total of four times I had the pleasure of seeing and meeting Maynard Ferguson thanks to his commitment to young musicians’ education. I would get to spend the day with him and his trumpet section three of those years. I would have the honor to perform for him while he sat and listened to our little band carefully and give us helpful criticism.

As one of the obits I read tonight said, people will talk about how he should be remembered for his high notes or his energy on stage or covering of the pop-rock hits…but what he really should be remembered for is how many thousands of young lives he touched. How many young musicians he was nice to up to the point where we actually felt as if we knew him personally. I know I’m not alone tonight in feeling like I’ve lost an old friend.

Paraphrasing his manager: “Move over Gabriel, the first trumpet player’s here.”

The pictures at the top are of two of my most cherished memories: two record albums I listened to over and over again.