IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson dies at 78

Musician found mainstream success on ‘Gonna Fly Now’ solo in 'Rocky'
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, known for his soaring high notes and for his recording of “Gonna Fly Now,” a hit version of the theme from the “Rocky” movies, has died. He was 78.

Ferguson, who lived in nearby Ojai, died Wednesday night at Community Memorial Hospital of kidney and liver failure due to an abdominal infection, friend and manager Steve Schankman said Thursday.

Ferguson’s four daughters, Kim, Lisa, Corby and Wilder, and other family members were at his side when he died, he said.

“Someone just said, ‘Gabriel, move over to second trumpet,”’ Schankman said from his St. Louis office. “He was the last of the greats. That era is closed. There is no Kenton, no Basie, no Ellington, and now, no Ferguson.”

Born into a musical family in Montreal, Ferguson began playing the piano and violin at age 4, took up the trumpet at 9 and soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra at 11, then quit school at 15 to pursue a career in music.

The next year he was leading his own dance band, the first of a number of big bands and smaller ensembles he eventually fronted in a career that produced more than 60 albums and three Grammy nominations.

Three-time 'trumpeter of the year'Ferguson, also a much admired teacher, became identified with ear-piercing power and dizzying high notes that he was still able to play with precision. He was named Down Beat magazine’s “trumpeter of the year” three times.

“My instrument is a thing of pleasure, and I play it only because I enjoy it,” he once said. “The most important thing is doing what feels right for me.”

The trumpeter — who stood just 5 feet 9 — credited yoga with enabling him to harness the full capacity of his lungs and routinely hit a double-high-C.

“He will be remembered for his soaring high notes, he’ll be remembered as Stan Kenton’s lead trumpet player and he’ll be remembered for movie soundtracks like ‘The Ten Commandments,”’ Schankman said. “But what they should remember him for is his work as an educator.

“He played for students, visiting high schools, to raise money for instruments and music programs. And he left them with an inspiring remark.”

As with many esteemed jazz players, mainstream success largely eluded Ferguson. But he scored a Top-10 hit with his cover of “Gonna Fly Now,” and the single spawned a gold album and a Grammy nomination in 1978.

“I knew it was going to be a hit,” he once said of the Bill Conti composition. “Sylvester Stallone was in the studio when we recorded it,” punching a speed bag to the rhythm of the song.

“If you listen very close to the original recording, you can hear in the mix the sound of him hitting the small bag,” Ferguson said.

Big band manFerguson moved to the U.S. at age 20, playing in big bands — including Jimmy Dorsey’s — and performing solo in New York City cafes. He then joined Stan Kenton’s orchestra, where his shrieking, upper-register trumpet formed the backbone of the group’s extensive brass section.

In 1956 he formed the first of several 13-piece orchestras known for the crisp vigor of their horns. They helped launch the careers of such jazz notables as Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione, Bob James, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul.

As the popularity of jazz declined in the 1960s, Ferguson was forced to scale down his big band, touring less frequently and favoring a smaller sextet instead.

He moved his family to India, where he absorbed Eastern music and philosophy, then to England. He later moved back to the U.S., settling in California.

But he returned almost yearly to India.

“I go to teach, but I always end up learning more,” he said.

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, he created a musical niche by rearranging pop and rock songs — “MacArthur Park” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” for example — for big bands.

Meanwhile, “Conquistador,” the album that included “Gonna Fly Now,” reached No. 22 on Billboard’s charts and helped rekindle the public’s interest in big bands.

Born in Montreal on May 4, 1928, Ferguson said his most important musical influences were Louis Armstrong and his mother, a violinist with the Ottawa Symphony and later a school administrator.

He remembered being about 9 when he fell in love with the horn.

“I went to a church in Montreal, sort of like a Sunday school get-together,” and had a chance to put a cornet to his lips, he told the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times in 2003.

“It was my first time playing the instrument,” Ferguson said. “My parents were really surprised when I said, ‘I have got to get me one of these.’

“I remember having the feeling after I played it that the trumpet was the instrument for me.”

Schankman said a memorial service will be held later in St. Louis.