Walter “Maynard” Ferguson, the jazz trumpeter known for holding extreme high notes and a hit recording of the theme to “Rocky,” died Wednesday in Ventura’s Community Memorial Hospital of kidney and liver failure due to an abdominal infection. He was 78.
Ferguson’s four daughters and other family members were at his side when he died Ferguson died, his manager Steve Schankman said.
The musician routinely hit a double-high-C that was a show stopper throughout his career. Named trumpeter of the year three times by jazz mag Down Beat, Ferguson first gained fame as Stan Kenton’s lead trumpet player before going solo and also writing scores for films such “The Ten Commandments.”
Born and raised in Montreal, he took up the trumpet at 9 after playing the piano and violin. At 11, he soloed with the Canadian Broadcasting Co. Orchestra; at 15, he quit school to be a professional musician.
Ferguson moved to the U.S. five years later and played in big bands, including Jimmy Dorsey’s. After joining Stan Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra in 1950, his upper-register trumpet playing became one of the band’s signature sounds.
In 1956, he formed the first of several of his 13-piece orchestras, working and recording regularly until 1965, when he was forced to scale back to a sextet for live performances. For records, however, he would arrange rock and pop hits for big bands, hitting a commercial apex in 1978 when his version of “Gonna Fly Now” reached No. 22.
His album “Conquistador” sparked a minor resurgence in big bands. His choice of material — themes to “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica,” songs by Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson — won him no jazz fans nor any steady sales. He formed a funk band for a few years and then Big Bop Nouveau, a band he led for 23 years.
Ferguson composed the theme for gameshow “Wheel of Fortune” in 1974 that was used for only one season.
In July, Ferguson and his nine-piece Big Bop Nouveau band performed at the Blue Note Club in Gotham and recorded a new album in Englewood, NJ. It will be released later this year.