Saturday, April 4, 2015

Link: Allyn Ferguson

Steven Cerra's Jazz Profiles is one of the very best jazz blogs, and I am constantly learning a lot there about musicians I know, and even more about musicians I don't know (yet). Case in point: Today's post about Allyn Ferguson (1924-2010), composer, arranger, and instrumentalist, which draws heavily on a 1999 interview with Ferguson in Gene Lees' Jazzletter. Although not a celebrated name, Ferguson was all over the place in his 60+ years career, leading small ensembles, writing charts for the Count Basie Band and others, composing film scores and television themes (for Barney Miller and Charlie's Angels, prominently).

The interview, aviation buffs take note, spends almost as much time on Ferguson's wacky exploits as an Army pilot during World War II as it does on his music. As a musician, he was perhaps most venturesome during the Fifties, when he led the unusual Chamber Jazz Sextet pictured above. The group had a pronounced classical influence, stemming from Ferguson's time in Paris studying under Nadia Boulanger. (The classical / jazz nexus from the Thirties to the Sixties is everywhere, if you look for it.) They used a number of less common instruments - French horn, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, baritone saxophone. This cut segues from a purely classical opening into a jazzier section:

If you look carefully at the Borderland album cover above, you'll notice the credit "Featuring Kenneth Patchen." Now wait a minute - Patchen was a poet, not a musician. What's he doing there?

Well, Patchen wasn't a father figure to the Beat writers for nothing. (Although he could be a testy father, sometimes disparaging his literary progeny.) Patchen was very interested in new mixtures of the arts, and experimented extensively with spoken poetry and music combinations, working with John Cage and Charles Mingus among others. His collaboration with Ferguson was fruitful and resulted in a number of albums, the details of which can be found here:

The Chamber Jazz Sextet: A Discography

Here is a (pretty funny) sample of Patchen's and Ferguson's work together:

The members of the Chamber Jazz Sextet were naturally an extremely talented and diverse group: trumpeter Robert Wilson was also a nuclear physicist! Perhaps the most intriguing was Modesto Briceno (at the far right on the baritone sax in the photo below):

We had Modesto Briseno in the group, a little kid from San Jose. He was one of the great saxophone players of all time. He played baritone, tenor, and clarinet. He was eighteen years old. Unbelievable. He went with Benny Goodman. Benny used to stand with his mouth open when Modesto played. He missed an off-ramp one night, hit a pole, and killed himself. He was twenty-two.

I haven't been able to confirm that Briceno died at "twenty-two," because biographical information about him seems scant, but he was surely in his 20s. He left a son of the same name who has become a noted jazz trumpeter in his own right.

An interesting side-note that relates to yesterday's post about Stan Getz:

...we went on the road, the sextet and Kenneth Patchen. We were at the Black Hawk in San Francisco, and then we were in Los Angeles, in a club on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly enough, every night when we played I'd see Stan Getz in the back of the audience. Stan was mystified with what we were doing.


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