Maynard Ferguson, the undisputed high-note king of the trumpet, who toured the world with his bands for 50 years and had a hit record with the theme from “Rocky,” died Wednesday at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Calif., from kidney and liver failure caused by an abdominal infection. He was 78.
A trumpeter of phenomenal range and endurance, Ferguson possessed a dazzling virtuosity that spanned from classical music to jazz, rock, disco and Indian ragas. With an ebullient personality to match his dizzying flights on trumpet, he remained a popular and influential force in music to the end.
Although he didn’t always receive critical acclaim, Ferguson was a perennial favorite of listeners, who admired his daredevil talent and who often discovered jazz through his exuberant, if somewhat exaggerated, music.
He found early fame in the 1950s as the anchor of the bold orchestral sound of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. For three years running, 1950 to 1952, he won the Down Beat magazine poll as the top trumpet player in jazz. After performing in Hollywood studios – his trumpet can be heard in the soundtrack of “The Ten Commandments” and other films – he began leading his own bands in 1956. Between jazz dates, he often appeared as a classical soloist in the 1950s and 1960s with the New York Philharmonic.
One of the few jazz musicians to find success in pop music, Ferguson had a hit in 1971 with his instrumental version of “MacArthur Park.” His album featuring Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” which became familiar as the theme for “Rocky,” reached No. 22 on Billboard’s pop charts in 1977.
Critics often said Ferguson was selling his talent short when he dabbled in formulaic disco music, overblown film scores and heavily amplified jazz-rock. In the past 15 years, as he returned to the straight-ahead jazz of his youth, he found renewed respect and eager audiences awaiting around the world.
Ferguson’s bands became known for more than sheer energy, as he became a leading discoverer of musical talent. Among the musicians who passed through his groups were Al Cohn, Jaki Byard, Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione, Wayne Shorter and Don Menza.
He often vowed that he would never retire, and he was true to his word. Last month, during a run of sold-out performances at New York’s Blue Note jazz club, Ferguson and his Big Bop Nouveau Band slipped away to a studio to record an album that is expected to be released later in the year.