On of the clearest memories that I have from childhood was a night at the fairgrounds.
It was early in my seventh-grade year, and I had decided I wanted to be in the band. I had also decided on the clarinet for my axe. I’m not sure why, but it probably reminded me of a spaceship that I imagined out of one of the science fiction books I was reading at the time. To my young mind, that was a good enough reason to pick an instrument.
Dad dutifully bought me a clarinet, but asked me if I’d ever considered a trumpet? I probably wasn’t even sure what a trumpet was, having only been introduced to the cornet. They were similar? No, it was the clarinet for me. Dad was supportive, but said that I should keep my schedule open for Sunday night.
He and I probably picked up the requisite Happy Meal on the way to Robart’s Arena in Sarasota on Sunday evening. We arrived early and made our way to the front row, stage right. The risers and the drum kit were being assembled, and we occasionally heard the instruments warming up back stage. Once or twice, the growing audience quieted upon hearing a singular trumpet rise above the others, both in volume and octave. I remember feeling my eyes widen and my mouth drop. Dad just smiled knowingly.
The concert that followed was probably a good three hours, at least. Maynard Ferguson and his band of young athletes ran the musical equivalent of a marathon for us that evening. The man himself played trumpet and valve trombone with superhuman intensity on every song, from “Gonna Fly Now” to “MacArthur Park.” It was as if Gabriel himself had descended on Sarasota that evening to give us all a little sound of Heaven. When he wasn’t playing, he jiggled around stage waving his arms at the band and laughing. In the front row, the energy was palpable: I’m betting my hair was standing a little higher by the end.
Maynard Ferguson was inspiring; Dad knew he would be. I dropped that clarinet faster than tempo of “Birdland.” I was playing my first trumpet soon after, following my father who was also a trumpeter as a young man. While I only played the trumpet through my first year in college — about seven years total — Maynard and Dad instilled a respect for great musicians in this young boy. And I was pretty good at times, too. Maynard taught me to aim high. I knew while I stood in front of the band at football games, Dad was smiling at me like he smiled that night at Robart’s. Thanks, Dad. My best experiences through high school were through the mouthpiece of my horn.
Maynard Ferguson died on Saturday. He was 78. Somehow, I know he’s still flying high, probably giving Gabriel a run for his money.