For me, A Message from Birdland is Maynard Ferguson and his ‘smaller’ [2 less trombones; one less saxophone] big band at its best. Bret Primack’s construct of a night at the club in which to frame a review of the album is a wonderful blending of both fiction and music criticism so rather than compete with it I thought perhaps it would be wiser to just serve up the best “as is.” Please keep in mind that Bret’s piece is [C] Copyright protected. All rights reserved.
“Descending the stairs to the jammed basement nitery, Ferguson acknowledges the greetings of the racially mixed throng, primed for an evening of high‑octane musical invigoration. At the first level down, patrons queue up before a tiny cage purchasing tickets for entry.
Down another flight and Maynard comes waist to face with Pee Wee Marquette, a uniformed midget who doubles as Maitre d' and MC.
"Maynard the Fox, Maynard the Fox," the manikin shrieks, his stentorian falsetto audible all the way to Brooklyn.
"Hello Pee Wee." Recoiling, Ferguson reaches for his wallet and scans the bar. Having played Birdland for sixteen weeks out of the last fifty‑two, Ferguson is no stranger to Pee Wee's shtick. In a pint‑sized act of extortion, Mr. Marquette, dubbed half a motherfucker by Lester Young, requires each performing musician to fork over a monetary taste. The penalty for disobedience is sobering: an elbow to the testicles if Pee Wee is working the door, and even worse, mispronunciation of one's name from the bandstand.
Everyone who plays Birdland knows there is nothing worse than a microphone in the hands of this mad dwarf juiced out of his nut. Accordingly, Pee Wee once announced Ferguson's former ensemble, called the Birdland Dream Band, as the Birdland Bird Band.
"Now baba, you know what Gene Krupa laid on me. Buddy Rich too."
From the bar, the sardonically elegant percussionist Philly Joe Jones, no stranger to scams, flashes Maynard his trademark toothy grin. As with most musicians who have graced Birdland's notorious stage, Philly Joe is a frequent guest at the dark, smoky boite de nuit. Earlier in the week, he sat in, taking the drum kit from Frankie Dunlop and swinging the Ferguson orchestra madly.
Remembering that Stan Kenton's orchestra works Birdland frequently, Ferguson asks Pee Wee, "How much did Stan give you?"
Entering the jazz consciousness as part of Kenton's Innovations Orchestra, Ferguson understands Stan's revulsion for the small‑time chiselers and tawdry hustlers who inhabit the Jazz business, but Pee Wee's antics are chump change compared to the fiendish agents, callous club owners, tone deaf producers, egotistical critics, and miscellaneous leeches jazz musicians habitually encounter.
Pee Wee's parasitic supplications are stalled by the tumultuous arrival of an obese cannonball, bolting down the stairs as if the sky is falling. Producer Teddy Reig has arrived, to shepherd tonight's performance onto a long playing record. Ferguson glances at his watch and concludes that Ramsey Lewis has five minutes until break time. Is it possible for Reig, an insatiable gourmand, to consume his customary Birdland burger deluxe before Ferguson's first set begins? Soon Reig journeys backstage, a Titanic passenger in search of a lifeboat. Astonishingly, his hefty presence causes barely a ripple in this cabaret, where picturesque oddballs are the bill de faire.
Attentive to the music, the table crowd eats and drinks heartily, a mix of devotees, tourists, celebrities and assorted denizens of the wee small hours. Like Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis, Jr. and his blond Swedish wife, some ambassador, or perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Nine‑to‑Five, out for a night on the town that won't cost their first male born.
Riding the final crest of the bebop wave, Birdland is the hang, a musical oasis for accomplished improvisers where the finest jazz on planet Earth is presented with a minimum of pretense. The club's let‑it‑all‑hang‑out ambiance encourages musicians to stretch the boundaries with spirited audience encouragement. Live radio broadcasts from the club, hosted by Symphony Sid, compound the excitement. Who can forget the night eighteen‑year‑old Lee Morgan', crackling trumpet break with Dizzy's big band on A NIGHT IN TUNISIA left the audience thunderstruck. Or the final reunion of Bird, Dizzy and Bud Powell just a few months before Parker's untimely demise. Not surprisingly. the cats have been coming down to check out the band all week. To Maynard's left, at the bar, Tadd Dameron is hanging with Philly Joe, not far from Georgie Auld and Terry Gibbs. Miles came by last night and stayed for two sets, noting new pianist's Joe Zawinul's chops and Slide Hampton’s perspicacious arrangements.
In front of the bar, several rows of bleacher‑style benches house underage patrons and anyone wising to luxuriate Birdland's liberal admission policy. The inhabitants of the bullpen, or peanut gallery, pay only the admission fee, and then stay the night sans further disbursement.
As Maynard walks through the club, instant recognition – his career is ascending.
In this year's Down Beat reader's poll, he occupies the third trumpet position behind Dizzy and Miles. And in the big band category, the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, only on the boards for two years, is right up there with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Maynard’s high wire upper register trumpet act, which he works without a net, never falls to wow an audience.
Respect for the musicians in this subterranean tabernacle runs from high to hero worship, still some noisemakers produce a cacophonic murmur, thankfully overshadowed by the paid proceedings. One table of these regular, includes a group of Hebraic racketeers, fixated on horses and mathematical speculation. Their reputed financial interest in Birdland has spawned rumors that mob money governs owner Morris Levy. But Levy, a one‑man business cash machine who also owns Roulette Records, files his own marching orders.
Nevertheless, conjecture abounds regarding the murder of Birdland bouncer Irving Levy, Morris's brother. Last January, the younger Levy tried to hush an addled patron, who promptly pulled out a pistol and shot him. The thug thought his honor had been impugned when Irving seemed to cast a wary eye on his wife, a part time prostitute. Fortunately, the ill‑starred episode had little or no impact on Birdland itself.
To the right of the stage, through a pair of swinging doors, Maynard is greeted by Birdland manager Oscar Goodstein. Sitting at a cash register inspecting the night’s take, Goodstein smiles, but is obviously engrossed in matters of greater import. Reportedly a minority partner in the club, Goodstein is a former attorney who venerates celebrities. Each night, before the music begins, he dines with his wife and two young daughters at the club.
Along with Birdland kingpin Morris Levy, he genuinely enjoys jazz. But unlike Levy, whose persona is that of a Brooklyn street fighter, Goodstein conducts business with a pretense of nicety. Goodstein can also be generous, sometimes lending money to musicians and letting them pay as they play, up to a certain dollar amount. But it takes a tight‑fisted taskmaster to run a successful Jazz carnival so to most musicians, Oscar Goodstein is but another in a long line of irksome club owners.
Meticulously eluding the tangle of microphone wires leading to a temporary engineering outpost set up to document the evening's festivities, Maynard greets a uniformed man working the service bar, and then stumbles upon his orchestra. Only numbering twelve, they are nevertheless too many for the dressing room so the group is scattered about the backstage area. Some use the time to woodshed. Ramsey Lewis is playing TICK TACK, his first set closer, but away from the stage, muted brass players disturb no one. Trumpeter Don Ellis uses every waking moment practicing scales. Clyde Reasinger, new to the lead trumpet book, is working on his upper register, although his previous attempts to mimic Maynard's supernatural reach have proved futile.
Willie Maiden, with earphone and portable radio, chain smokes while monitoring the progress of his beloved Yankees. Although in a pensive moment, he will admit to certain fascination with the first place standing of the newly relocated Los Angeles Dodgers. He is, after all, a baseball fan.
Hunched in a corner, Slide Hampton, trombone on lap, sketches out the lead trombone part for an arrangement based on the works of Chopin he's titled MY MAN CHOPIN. Bassist Jimmy Rowser sits nearby, bemused by Hampton's ability to work without a score.
Regal in red sport coats, band members receive Ferguson enthusiastically, their
relationship obviously not mired in the prototypical leader/sideman groove. Although most are in their twenties, the musicians have backgrounds as diverse as Vienna, Detroit and Houston, but are united by an enduring devotion to the music. The baleful working conditions ‑ ungodly hours, austere travel and sub‑average remuneration ‑ are quickly forgotten once the music begins; the experience of playing in a blazing big band akin to a prolonged orgasm with the hottest chick in town.
At the sound of sustained applause and Pee Wee's introduction of Lewis's trio, the orchestra wanders through the swinging doors and onto the bandstand. While juggling his alto and tenor saxophones, Carmine Leggio acknowledges to baritone saxophonist John Lanni that tonight is indeed, “my last gig with the band." The Westchester‑based sax‑man looks to go with Woody's band in a few weeks.
The Birdland gig is also trombonist/arranger Don Sebesky’s swan song. The Kenton band awaits although Sebesky will regularly contribute charts to the Ferguson’s book. It's not often that an up‑and‑coming arranger has the opportunity to ply his craft without creative limitations.
As the band takes the stage, Ferguson gingerly places his mammoth silver Conn Constellation trumpet onto the bar while drinking a glass of water. His valve trombone and baritone horn are already in place on the bandstand. The debonair, nattily attired thirty‑one‑year‑old has been blowing audiences away for the past seventeen years, yet he never falls to feel the anticipation just before he plays. Thanks to the band's bustling schedule, he has avoided the daily practice regimen the trumpet mandates. Clutching his horn, he blows some air through to push out the saliva.
With Willie Maiden's downbeat, the band breaks into BLUE BIRDLAND, the Jimmy Giuffre composition that serves as Maynard's theme. After the first few bars. Pee Wee grabs the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real treat in store for you tonight here at Birdland. a man who plays a lot of trumpet. That's right, the young man with the horn, the only and one, everybody put your hands together for Maynardddd Ferguson and his Birdland Dream Band. Maynard the Fox! Maynard the Fox!" As Ferguson walks on, his trumpet screams the out chorus of the chorus an octave above the trumpet section. The audience is mesmerized, Maynard's upper register, a dazzling gift from God.
Only trumpet players comprehend the monumental obstacles Ferguson conquers every time he soars into the stratosphere. The heart of the difficulty lies in the physical properties of the instrument itself. A musically sound upper register requires superhuman strength and coordination. Lips must vibrate expeditiously, a reservoir of air must be routed through the horn unremittingly, and the placement of the lips on the mouthpiece must be precise.
The theme ends to excited applause with the audience eager for the impending fireworks. Not missing a beat, Ferguson announces “This is OLEO,” and Joe Zawinul’s fleet piano initiates the Sonny Rollins composition. A version of the song performed at Birdland earlier in the year, when the Ferguson orchestra played opposite the Miles Davis Sextet, featuring Cannonball and Coltrane, inspired Slide Hampton to fashion this perfectly crafted, seamless tapestry of harmony, texture and melody.
The visceral potency and brute strength of the orchestra are indelible. In front of the trumpets, saxophonist Carmen Leggio feels as if a vibrating power plant is ripping through him. Along with the orchestra itself, the audience is devoured by Frankie Dunlop's steamroller percussion. Dunlop not only swings the band hard, but adds enthusiastic, richly‑shaded accents and flourishes. The brass plays so loud that Dunlop practically drives his foot into the bass drum, socking the rhythms out in perfect synchronization with the brass section, topped by Ferguson's penetrating trumpet. The effect is staggering.
Because of Birdland’s low ceiling, the sound is tighter, more compact, more intimate than any other club. With no echo, no real ambiance to the sound, the impact is immediate. The band's power nails patrons to their seats.
Slide Hampton plays a trombone solo and quickly demonstrates that his improvisational prowess is on a par with his arranging facility. He's followed by twenty‑five year‑old Jerry Tyree, who played with Hampton back in Indianapolis along with the Montgomery Brothers, and his jazz solos seem to improve by the set.
A recent Jazz For Moderns tour included the Ferguson orchestra, Dave Brubeck's quartet and Sonny Rollins's trio. Rather than ride the band bus, Tyree chauffeured Rollins's newly acquired Cadillac so that the leviathan tenor man could practice while traveling. Obviously motivated from listening to Rollins's exercises, Tyree began wood-shedding exuberantly shortly thereafter.
In keeping with the orchestra's family ambiance, Hampton's Brooklyn brownstone houses not only his own kin and saxophonists Charles Davis and Eric Dolphy, but also band members Tyree and Josef Zawinul. The Maynard Ferguson Orchestra is Austrian Zawinul's first American gig and his comping and solos have made an immediate impression. Although he was a hero in his native Vienna, Zawinul was compelled nevertheless to assure Ferguson that he could "sving my ass off" when he auditioned for the band. Zawinul's roots, deep in Tatum and Powell, along with his rousing facility, mark him as a serious prospect.
Jimmy Ford takes the next solo, a passionate cry of existence. His searing alto saxophone rides above the band, a whirlwind of emotional intensity. Then Ferguson steps to bat and drives it all home, soaring to a lusty climax. With Dunlop’s propulsion, a truly thermonuclear dynamic, the band is wound tight, ready to explode.
On the heels Of OLEO'S balls‑to‑the‑wall climax, a welcome bit of balladry appears with Benny Golson's STARFIRE. On display here, the orchestra's more soothing side, as delineated by Ferguson's middle register. The quest for provocative arrangements has led Ferguson to saxophonist/composer Benny Golson. The former Jazz Messenger has a distinctive touch, and his ballads never fail to glisten like jewels in the moonlight.
Just as the audience regains composure. Ferguson introduces THE MARK OF JAZZ, another Slide Hampton incendiary device. Named for the Philadelphia DJ Sid Mark, one of the band’s most vocal supporters, the tune is an unstoppable juggernaut. Jimmy Ford's Incandescent alto swiftly builds the intensity. Composer/arranger Hampton’s trombone adds fuel to the fire, along with Ferguson's towering trumpet, Bowser's ambulating bass and Dunlop's kinetic percussion.
The emotional fervor surrounding performances by the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra is built on electrifying solos, Dunlop's propulsive percussion and sharply etched section work. The band's breakneck tempos and intricate arrangements mandate symbiotic instrumental blending in each ensemble passage. Accordingly, every instrumental grouping within the orchestra is a living, breathing, entity. When the brass section plays, they attack notes together with measured impact, ending notes in unison, precisely. This is the essence of the music, its fountainhead. What makes it more than just some musicians reading charts. They don't just play the notes, they play music, utilizing good sound, dynamics and intonation. The difference is immediately palatable.
TO cool things down, Ferguson calls for another Benny Golson original, NIGHT LIFE, a medium tempo minor blues which features Hampton, Tyree and Zawinul once again. This tune is actually FIVE SPOT AFTER DARK named after the great Greenwich Village club. On a live Birdland session for Roulette Records, that title would never fly. Philadelphian Golson is best known for his work with Art Blakey’s indestructible quintet, and the composition has the feel that is one of the Ferguson orchestra's hallmark,.
For dramatic effect, the Victor Young standard STELLA BY STARLIGHT, is unrivaled. Inspired by the grand‑scale arrangements that Bill Holman and Bill Russo created for the the Kenton orchestra, Slide Hampton's chart is guaranteed to convert the most fervent big band skeptic. With shifting tempos and double‑barreled solos by Hampton, Ford, Ferguson and Dunlop, the chart climaxes in frenetic riffs followed by long pauses, the last six notes spanning five octaves. Lest patrons risk over‑ excitement, the management retains a tank of oxygen near the bandstand. A licensed physician is also on call.
The ensuing ballad, LONELY TIME, is a moving feature for the emotive tenor saxophone of Willie Maiden. West Coast arranger Marty Paich, who has contributed several charts to the band's book, has a way of using dynamics to bring out the more pastel shades of the band's personality. The backbone of the orchestra, Maiden's tenor echoes the liquid emotion of Lester Young, another effective contrast to the more demonstrative aspects of the Ferguson experience. This composition was known as VELVET in the Birdland Dream Band book.
But Maiden’s original BACK IN THE SATELLITE AGAIN quickly relaunches the band. At under three minutes, this breath-taking vehicle for the breakneck solos of Ford, Ferguson and Dunlop, mirrors the space race the dominates the headlines. With the cold war in a lock, public enemy number one, Nikita Khrushchev has challenged American technological superiority by launching the first man‑made satellite, much to the dismay of America's rocket scientists, but it is a matter of public record that there is no Russian equivalent of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra.
Willie Maiden’s second original of the evening is THREE MORE FOXES, a trumpet joust for Jerry Tyree, Don Ellis and Maynard. Cutting contests have long been a staple of jazz performances, but this arrangement is more of a spring-board for individual capabilities than instrumental rivalry. Although Ferguson is the principal soloist, leader and architect of the orchestra, he is intent on using the band as showcase for individual talent. Recognizing his particular trumpet niche, he is not threatened when other trumpeters solo and impress the audience with their acumen, as is the case with the foxes Tyree and Ellis.
The closer, SEA ISLE STOMP, is a Don Sebesky original written for a favorite performance venue on the Jersey shore. Twenty‑year‑old Sebesky takes the first solo, followed by the impassioned tenor of Carmen Leggio. With tonight his concluding engagement, and in mourning over the recent death of best friend, Holmes Junebug Lindsay, Leggio's solos have an extra bite, catalyzed by the emotional turmoil that envelops him.
Finally. the band strikes up BLUE BIRDLAND and Pee Wee offers his concluding pronouncements, fueled by demon rum and a fat money clip. With the clock set to strike four, the few dozen remaining listeners contemplate climbing the stairs for a pre‑dawn rendezvous with reality.
In conclusion, Maynard picks up his horn and hangs over double high C, a source of bemusement for trumpeter Jerry Tyree, who tells section mate Don Ellis, "that motherfucker is poppin' off those high notes like we're just getting started.”
After the final chord, the band packs up to more enthusiastic applause. The Maynard Ferguson Orchestra goes back on the road this weekend, for a couple of college dance dates hundreds of miles apart, then more clubs, concerts and other postal zones along their perpetual caravan.
A dazed but satiated audience slowly files out. Some even express the inclination
for another set, if Ferguson's chops can stand it. Back on the street, they linger in front of the club, basking in the afterglow of the performance. The sun will arrive soon, but most in attendance are too up to sleep. Maynard's music the antithesis of a lullaby. And so they scatter to coffee shops, after hours clubs and long rides home.
Yet Birdland is not long for Broadway. Within four years, audiences will dwindle to the point of invisibility. In fact, jazz will just about disappear from midtown Manhattan altogether. The coming invasion of youthful musical superfluity, spearheaded by Chubby Checker and a bundle of bands from Britain, will focus the music industry on other, more lucrative forms of expression. Outside the mass market area, jazz will be relegated to highbrow status, like its classical cousin. Birdland's next incarnation will be the short-lived Lloyd Price's Turntable. In a twist of fate, Slide Hampton will become Lloyd Price’s musical director and lead Price’s band at the club. Not long after the Turntable takes its final spin, the site will be occupied by a succession of discotheques and girly bars.
In 1977, the club will be gussied up for a farewell flutter in celebration of a newly-released live Birdland recording on the Columbia label involving Charlie Parker. The night survivors will reconvene to recall a time and place where the joy of creation and the ardor of camaraderie had not yet been pulverized by ego and the almighty dollar.
Today, jazz clubs in midtown Manhattan are as extant as bread in a Chinese restaurant. 52nd Street is skyscrapered, save the 21 Club. The buildings on Broadway remain, with new tenants. Ed Sullivan passed away long ago and his theater now houses David Letterman’s TV Show. Aping Steve Allen, Letterman likes to focus a street camera on Broadway’s most bizarre attractions, notably a strip joint called Flashdancers.
The [Birdland] striped canopy that once stood there is no more. In keeping with our present predicament, a walk down the hallowed stairway today leads only to pleasures of the flesh. However, the music played by the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra on that fateful June night in 1959 survives!”
- Bret Primack, June 1992
Maynard eventually issued 14 albums during his approximately six year stint with Roulette Records between 1958-1964, although the actual recording that was underwritten by the label would end in March, 1962.
During this period, a host of excellent players would replace or join with the original members of the 12-piece band including Chet Ferretti, Rick Keifer, and Rolf Ericsson, Bill Berry, Dusko Goykovich, and Don Rader [tp], Bill Byers, Ray Winslow, Kenny Rupp [tb], Lanny Morgan, Don Menza, Joe Farrell, Ronnie Cuber, Frank Hittner [saxes, Mike Abene, Jaki Byard [p], Gene Cherico, John Neeves, Linc Millman [b], Stu Martin, Rufus Jones [d].
The arrangers adding charts to the book was broadened to include Mike Abene, Jaki Byard, Benny Golson, Tom McIntosh, Don Menza, Bill Mathieu, and Don Rader.
With the help of DJ Sid Mark, Maynard recorded two tremendous LP’s for the Cameo-Parkway Label in 1964 which have been subsequently been collected an issued on Fresh Sound as The New Sounds of Maynard Ferguson and his Orchestra, 1964 [FSCD 2010], but these were to be a fitting swan song for this exciting period in Maynard’s career.
Soon thereafter, the “Dream" became for Maynard and the band a nightmare of financial issues with the IRS, problems booking the band, and a period of deep, personal despair the caused he and his family to seek refuge abroad.
Of course, many of us who have followed Maynard career over the years since this time know that the story ends well and that Maynard became a living example of the adversity adage: “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”
And while, I’m happy for Maynard and respectful of all of his musical achievements throughout the years, I can never forget the excitement that the music of the Birdland Dream Band generated in me “when the world was young.”