Maynard Ferguson Tribute Set

Jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson shown here performing in concert, along with his band, The Big Bop Nouveau Band, in Easton, Pa., on, Feb. 12, 2005.
AP Photo, Easton Express-Times/Joe Gill
When dozens of musicians gather in St. Louis next month for a concert paying tribute to jazz legend Maynard Ferguson, the question is: Who will hit the high note?

The trumpeter known for screaming power in the high octaves — he could reach a double-high-C — died in Ventura, Calif., on Aug. 23 due to kidney and liver failure stemming from an abdominal infection. He was 78.

On Sept. 20, Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band and many alumni from previous Ferguson bands will perform a tribute concert at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. Proceeds will go to the Maynard Ferguson Music Scholarship at Missouri-St. Louis.

St. Louis "was kind of his home away from home," said Steve Schankman of St. Louis, Ferguson's friend and longtime manager. The musician often played at Touhill, including a performance marking his 75th birthday.

The concert will be dedicated to Ferguson's 65-year career. About 20 musicians are confirmed so far, and up to 35 are expected to participate, Schankman said. The event will include video tributes and speeches from some of the musicians who began their careers in Ferguson's band.

"They loved him," Schankman said. "Maynard was all about featuring his musicians."

Ferguson was born in Montreal and started his career at age 11 when he performed as a featured soloist with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Orchestra. He played with many of the Big Band greats — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Dorsey and Stan Kenton — before starting his own band in 1945 at age 17.

He recorded more than 60 albums, developing a large following in the 1960s and 1970s with rearranged big-band versions of popular songs like the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and James Taylor's "Country Road." His version of the Rocky theme, "Gonna Fly Now," was a top-10 pop hit in 1978 and earned Ferguson one of his three Grammy nominations.

As recently as July, Ferguson performed at sold-out shows at the Blue Note Club in New York. During that time, he and the Big Bop Nouveau band also recorded his last album, which will be released later this year.

Schankman, who also plays trumpet, performed with Ferguson on July 23 "and he was in fine form." A couple of weeks later, Ferguson became ill. He was hospitalized only three days before he died, Schankman said.

"He went out on top," Schankman said. "He didn't go out with his horn in the closet."