MAYNARD: THE SHARP AND THE FLAT OF IT



Barry Melton, co-founder of and guitarist with Country Joe and the Fish, said that Rochefort en Accords (Rochefort in Harmony) was a better music festival than Woodstock or Monterey (both of which he played).

Some 35 years later, it is clear that he remains an enthusiastic music maker and listener. His feet were tapping, and there were grinning guitarists singing and strumming all over town during the entire festival, which took place during the last weekend of August.

It could not be called a “major" festival. The audiences were in the hundreds, and, for the musicians, the good hang was obviously more important than the money. Rochefort en Accords, which described itself as “unexpected and unpredictable," was both out of time and out of place.

Out of place, because it was an Anglo/American festival of folk, blues, and country music sung by English-language singer/songwriters in a small provincial port on the Atlantic coast of France (the locals seemed to love it).

Out of time because the program was dominated by veterans such as Melton who had made their names many years ago – Peter Rowan, guitarist with the bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, the Rowan Brothers, and the Jerry Garcia band; Keith Christmas, guitarist on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;" Ronnie Caryl, guitarist with Phil Collins and Flaming Youth.

There were no horn players. Guitarists play in sharp keys, which are easier on guitars. Sharp keys begin to grate and prickle after three days, and I was feeling wired. There was also a dire lack of chords reflecting anything more advanced than harmony 101.

The clash of musical cultures within me was driven home when I heard in Rochefort that Maynard Ferguson had died a few days earlier in California. (The few guitar players I mentioned it to had never heard of Maynard Ferguson.) I was in his jazz band in 1959 and 1960, and I remembered how I used to love sitting in the middle of all those fat and fancy jazz chords played by brass and reed instruments in the funkier flat jazz keys.

It was a while ago, and I had not seen him since, so I was surprised to be so moved by his passing.
The absence of black performers in Rochefort led me to recall how color-blind he had been. When a chair became vacant, he would just hire the next guy that came along who could play. There were no quotas. A racially integrated band in those days was rare.

Most of the arrangements were by Slide Hampton, whom I replaced in the trombone section. They were good arrangements, the players were good, and we liked Ferguson for his color-blindness. Along with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, he was a rare bandleader who was also a virtuoso on his instrument. At the same time, he was not afraid to hire soloists who were better than he was; and he gave them the space to play.

Frankie Dunlop, who later played with Thelonious Monk, was the drummer. Ferguson [ital] really [ital] liked drum solos. During my time with the band, his soloists included tenormen Wayne Shorter and Joe Farrell (later with Chick Corea), the trumpeter Don Ellis (composer of the music for “The French Connection"), and the grotesquely underrated Jaki Byard on piano.

Ferguson’s fatal flaw was his majestic high register. Although he could play a soulful blues if he felt like it, most of the time he leaned on high notes, which (like drum solos) always got applause. He was like a home-run hitter who considered a single a failure. He could play triple high C’s with ease, and he moved around fast up there without cheating by swallowing notes. Unlike other high-note trumpeters (Cat Anderson with Duke Ellington for example), he also had a fat low register.

All those high notes required a big band to fill-in the mid-range - a combo would have been insufficient, a big band was actually a part of his instrument. But it was still all treble, as though somebody forgot to turn the woofer on. Somebody said that Ferguson’s trumpet “screamed with passionate vulgarity," and back in the brass section, we used to say: “If Maynard had taste he’d be a genius."

Although the shouting, the glitz, the kitsch, and the banality (the themes from “Rocky" and “Battlestar Galactica") could be embarrassing, Ferguson just loved to lead a big band, he was very good at it, and his body language communicated enthusiasm, and playing with him was fun. He was probably the best boss I ever had. Along with Count Basie and Harry James, we were one of the best big bands still working at the end of the big band era.

One weekend, I drove one of the cars through a blizzard from New York to a one-nighter in Cincinnati and back. The following Monday, I collected two checks – $35 for playing and $109 for driving. Actually, not that much has changed. During the Rochefort en Accords festival, a guitar player pointed out, not at all unhappily, that musicians are paid in inverse proportion to their enjoyment of their work.