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Friday, August 25th, 2006

We somehow knew that Maynard Ferguson’s appearance last month at the Philadelphia jazz club, Zanzibar Blue, would represent the last time we would see and hear this giant. Sadly, we didn’t make it there, and word has now come that Maynard Ferguson has passed away at the age of 78 of kidney and liver failure resulting from an abdominal infection. 

He was the last one. The last of a breed. The last, big-band bus road warrior, constantly traveling the highways to perform at high schools, colleges, clinics, clubs and jazz festivals. The big band era, such as it was, is now officially over. 

Maynard was among the very, very few who played this music called jazz who managed to appeal to those who may not have liked jazz before or since. The list, which will not include artists of the Kenny G. era, is a short one, and includes Krupa, Rich, Ramsey Lewis, Brubeck, Cannonball, Eddie Harris, Kenton and Goodman. In many cases, jazz critics past and present never forgave many of these artists for having hit records or for having appeal beyond three record reviewers who sit in a dark room. 

His 1978 hit recording of the theme from the movie, “Rocky,” entitled “Gonna Fly Now,” was a top ten seller and a Grammy nominee in 1978. It also represented the end of any serious, critical claim Maynard ever received. Then again, the critics never liked him, even in the days when his double high C’s dominated the Stan Kenton band of over 50 years ago. Critical comment through the years, which also applied to Maynard’s wonderful band of the late 1950s and early 1960s, included statements like: “He’s not playing jazz.” “He can’t play jazz.” He’s too loud.” “The band plays too loud.” “The band plays too fast.” “He’s just a modern day Harry James.” “He’s just a modern day Al Hirt.” “He’s just a modern day Doc Severinson.” “He plays too much rock.” “What is this electric nonsense?” 

For the past several years, he has been virtually ignored by the polls, and the jazz and music press, despite his substantial contributions to jazz education and that he was the last big band leader to be on the road regularly. Also not acknowledged was the fact that Ferguson’s bands through the years served as an undergraduate university and training ground for dozens of future jazz stars. This list, starting from the old days, includes players like Willie Maiden, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Ford, Lanny Morgan, Rufus Jones, Don Sebesky, Joe Zawinul, Jaki Byard, Don Menza, Frankie Dunlop, Carmen Leggio, Bill Watrous, Chick Corea (who subbed for Jaki Byard at Birdland!), Mike Abene, Ronnie McClure, Peter Erskine, Greg Bisonnette, Dennis DiBlasio and countless others. 

I was lucky enough to see the famed late 1950s/early 1960s band at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1961. I learned to play drums by playing along to “At the Sound of the Trumpet” and “Frame For the Blues,” two Maynard tunes regularly played by Philadelphia radio personality and Ferguson booster Sid Mark. I saw the English band, the rock bands, and the bop band. Maynard was always moving, always inspiring, always the focal point of whatever was going on, no matter what musical style was being played. His playing, particularly his high note leads, made me feel as if I were on a roller-coaster, going down the first hill. I’m told he still had “it,” even at the age of 78. 

Maynard’s long time manager, Steve Schankman, could only say, “Someone just said, ‘Gabriel, over to second trumpet.’” Cornball? Maybe. But true. Kenton knew that Maynard had “it,” very early on. “Maynard,” he said. “Someday you’ll be king.” 

He was. And for much more than a day. 

In another recent and probable passing, this one corporate, word has come that Tower Records has declared bankruptcy. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have visited Tower in recent months and saw the chain’s once mighty stock dwindle and dwindle to no more than that of a rack jobbers’ at K-Mart. At its height, Tower had a superb selection of domestic and imported jazz CDs, a wonderful magazine section, and a great stock of jazz-oriented videos and DVDs. 

Certainly, most buying has moved online these days, but there was just something about having the chance to peruse, to relax, to browse through the selections, and to perhaps read some of the linear notes, that is missing from the online experience. However, no retailer could compete, in terms of stock, with an online retailer. It is indeed possible, sad to say, that the days of “record stores” of any size may be numbered. 

Potential buyers who haven’t visited great, great sites like and even, in a pinch,, will be very pleasantly surprised at what they have to offer and their superb service. 

As the newsreel said, “Time…marches on.” But why didn’t they ask me first?