- Nick Drozdoff
How I Landed A Gig On Maynard Ferguson's Band
How I Ended Up On Maynard’s Band – Nick Drozdoff Music – 2nd draft
Let’s start with the beginning of my music career, because my experience on Maynard’s band came very close to that, and the dynamics of how got on his band evolve very directly from that early experience.
I got my BS degree in electrical engineering specializing in communications electronics and electro-acoustics. However, all through college, my devotion to trumpet music kept growing in the background of my life. I played in bands around St. Louis and practiced at least as much as I worked on my studies in EE.
Upon graduation from college I took a job at Motorola in Schaumburg, Illinois, just west of Chicago. I suspended my playing as I was new to the area, but I kept up my practicing. My peers at Motorola had no idea if I was any good or not. Neither did I. I was the butt of some humor as the cops kept coming to my apartment to shut me up when the neighbors complained. I tried my best to use mutes and pillows to quiet things, but I swear someone was listening with a glass to the wall!
Not wanting to get into any more trouble, I discovered that I could break into the Harper Community College Music Building quite easily and I could always find a practice room someone forgot to lock. The janitors didn’t care. They just assumed I was a student. Back then I looked the part!
I should mention that my early trumpet heroes were Rafael Mendez, Doc Severinsen and Clark Terry. I discovered Maynard while in college along with Bill Chase. I have virtually every published Mendez solo in my collection and used to practice them all the time.
One day while at Harper, I was working on the Mendez Scherzo in D minor – really going to town on it. There was a knock on the door and the trumpet teacher from Harper was standing there. She asked who the heck I was. I explained why I was there. She then basically asked if I had any idea of what I was doing – how good I was? Now, before I go on, I fully recognize that I still have a great deal to learn and that I am not the best thing to ever happen to trumpet. However, apparently not everyone was doing what I was doing, since I was doing the Mendez stuff one minute and then uncorking the Maynard Ferguson stuff the next.
She urged me to hook up with the Harper College Big Band, which I did, as a community member. One of the other trumpeters, the late Sam Westphal, became a good friend. He told me I had something to give and urged me to give going pro a chance. He took me down to the Illinois Institute of Technology big band, which I also joined. Finally, we started going to Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub in Palatine, Illinois to hear the Jazz Consortium Big Band (all Northern Illinois University musicians from Ron Modell’s studio – TOP NOTCH players, all!). I started subbing in that band. I also played in a local pick up band led by Bob Marciante – a drummer and Sinatra style crooner.
The director of the IIT big band was Neal Dunlap, a trumpet teacher and science teacher from Vandercook College of Music. Neal saw something in me, and urged me to give going pro a shot. He knew I had a lot of things to learn, but he felt there was a spark there that could be fanned into a flame. I had to learn tunes, styles, how to fake, how to sight read, etc. He helped with all of that.
I shocked my family in late 1978, early 1979 by quitting my job and declaring myself a professional musician.
I promptly went broke! My mom and step-dad were a bit beside themselves but supportive (my mom was a former commercial artist and my father was a concert pianist).
I had to get a day gig, but one that didn’t involve much of a commitment, or so I thought, at the time. I took a job as a general maintenance man at a small nursing facility in Lake Bluff, Illinois, north of Chicago. They allowed me to float my hours and even do a little road time now and then. They also provided me with free housing.
It was a struggle, but in early 1980, I hit on the idea of getting a job at Great America, an amusement park in Gurnee, Illinois. For my audition I walked in and played the Maynard part to Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. They didn’t bother to listen to anything else and told me I could play in any band in the park. I picked the theater orchestra because there was no marching and it was air-conditioned!
About that time I met the woman who was to become my finance and my wife. She was very supportive of my efforts. At that time I hit on an idea of what I wanted to do with my future as a musician. We talked it out at length. I could dedicate myself to trying to become a symphony player, move to New York and give it a go, or become a studio musician in Chicago. The studio work revolved around jingles, a very lucrative line of work for musicians back then. The studio scene seemed like the thing for me – exciting, challenging and professional.
Breaking is was tough though. The socio-political machinations were quite treacherous. I was also unknown – no “street cred,” so to speak. I needed to make a bit more of name for myself, and while I had added the local ballroom circuit to my line of work, that wasn’t enough to get the attention of the producers.
I didn’t believe in the starving artist thing. I believed that, with hard work and dedication, I could earn a good enough living as a trumpeter to support my half of a family situation, particularly in the studios.
To that end, I bought a bunch of books on sales and marketing. I firmly believed that these ideas could be applied directly to getting more work. Many of my trumpeter peers felt I was going off the rails with these ideas, but I would not be deterred.
I developed prospect lists and, with the help of my fiancée, had nice brochures printed for press kits – even hiring a commercial artist to design nice slick packages.
The final piece was to get a demo tape made. I hired composer/arranger and friend, Chris Lay, to write a two-minute version of Besame Muchco in a disco style that covered my skills of aping Mendez and Maynard, complete with a flashy cadenza and nice double high C on the end.
I started doing mailings complete with the demo, but to no avail. I finally realized I was going to have to do some road time to really break the ice.
As a result of a car crash, I was forced to leave the Great America gig just before I got married in July, 1980. I had a lot of difficulty walking, but still managed to get to gigs after the honeymoon. Ardath and I started looking at big bands, and hit on two: Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson. I had heard these were some changes coming in both. I also, thought I could start doing clinics and concerts, like folks like Maynard were doing.
I was getting a little desperate. After getting married, I felt I really had to hold up my half of the agreement that is a marriage. I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want to let ME down. This resulted in a “no shame” promotional vibe.
I had sent a letter to Clark Terry and got a very sweet rejection letter from him. He had just hired someone. I considered Woody’s band, but my friend, Scott Wagstaff had recently gotten that gig, so that was out. Buddy Rich wasn’t even on my radar. I am inherently not particularly confrontational, and I had heard the stories from my friends who came off of his band. This left me with Maynard and the clinic thing.
Well, in December in Chicago, they have the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. At that time, it was held at the Chicago Hilton. Every major musical instrument company had reps and exhibits there. I decided I was going to become a clinician, by hook or crook. I grabbed my horn and a briefcase full of promo kits and demo tapes and went down there and paid to go in for one day.
I went from one exhibit to another and just blatantly grandstanded – Mendez to Maynard – to Doc! I went from Bach, to Getzen, to whomever. By the time I got to the Holton exhibit, I was really rolling. I had picked up and entourage of drooling high school and college high note junkies just aching to see what I would pull at this exhibit. I basically did a full-blown clinic. I think there must have been thirty followers. After I finished up, I went to the guy running the exhibit, Joel Schilling. I asked if he was OK, with this stunt. I offered my apologies for potentially overstepping my bounds.
Joel just laughed and said, “Nick, you can stay here all day if you keep ‘em coming over here like this!” We chatted quite a bit and ostensibly became friends.
I gave Joel a promo kit and demo tape and asked if he would pass it along to the powers that be at Holton to see if I could be added to the clinician roster.
I must have been only a week later that Sandy Sandberg, VP in charge of Artist Relations from Holton invited me up for an interview and factory tour. After the interview, he told me that he couldn’t add me to the roster at that time. I was too unknown. He did say he would pass it along to others, to see if perhaps I could pick up some road time and get the necessary “street cred.”
Again, not a week later, I was sitting in my kitchen of our little two-bedroom hovel in Lake Bluff and the phone rang. It was Stu Ross, then the manager of Maynard Ferguson’s band. I called my new wife over and had her listen in.
Stu told me that Sandberg had sent them the tape and that Maynard himself had listened to it and wanted to offer me a position in his band! Danny Barber had left recently and for one reason or another, the two replacements had not worked out. He dug my playing and wanted me to come on out.
I asked him to give me a few minutes and call him back. I then talked with my wife. We had only been married about 6 months at that time. I knew this was asking a lot of a new wife, but she totally understood what was happening. She told me that I HAD to go! This was my chance to actually earn a real reputation as a serious trumpeter (at that time), certainly more than I could get playing at the Melody Mill with a Mickey Mouse band. I called Stu back and took the gig.
Now, that is the back-story and more detailed account of how I got onto Maynard’s band. There is certainly a great deal more to my career as a musician than that, but it is a start into a long story.
After playing on the band for a while, I was thrilled to come through Chicago and have my wife come meet Maynard at the Center East Auditorium. He was so sweet to her! She was having a great time of it all.
The next night we played the big Rolling Meadows High School Jazz Festival concert – a huge event. Maynard knew Ardath was sitting in the front row. During the intermission, he pulled me aside. “Nick, ah, do you play, uh, Latin music and such?” “Sure, I said! I’ve played a lot of late hour bands on the near west side.” “OK! On Latino Lovewalk, follow my lead.” We started the next set with Latino Lovewalk. During Jeff Kirk’s solo, he turned and pointed to me and beckoned me to the front of the stage. He wanted me to trade solos with him! We both played till we were going to drop. What a thrill for me to have the chance to share this experience with my still new wife! That moment at Rolling Meadows, her new husband got to be a hometown hero for a night.
Now, my music career has evolved and is still evolving. This is just the beginning!
One last thing: Yes, I did have an ulterior motive to getting on a band like Maynard’s – to build a reputation that would allow me to work more! However, Maynard was one of my heroes! I’ll never forget my first gig with him at the Dade County Auditorium in Florida. As a fan, I had heard Blue Birdland from out front many times, but to be PLAYING it with MAYNARD was a thrill for this hayseed from the Midwest beyond description. I am being honest about my total set of motivations, but, the other equally important motive was the simple chance to play with Maynard and be in the section with Stan Mark, Alan Wise and Serge Yow. This was 1981 and it still seems like yesterday. Anyone, ANYONE, who thinks I didn’t LOVE that experience simply doesn’t know or understand me.
And it goes on from there!
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