Paul Ferguson is one of the busiest and most talented jazz artists in Northeast Ohio. Most people know him as the boyish-looking lead trombonist with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra since 1988, and as a member of a variety of jazz groups in Greater Cleveland. But, many do not realize that Ferguson toured with the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras, serves as the director of Jazz Studies at Case Western Reserve University, is a very active composer and arranger whose works have been performed and recorded by some of the biggest names in jazz, and, in his spare time, is the principle trombonist with the Canton Symphony Orchestra.
When he was first introduced to music, at a very young age, it was classical music. "My mom had a great love of music," says Ferguson. "She used to take us in the living room and turn on `Brahms Fourth.’ We’d all fall asleep and she would carry us up to bed."
Ferguson was born in Sandusky in 1961, lived in New Jersey when he was four and five, and grew up in Perry Heights between Massilon and Canton. When he was eight, his mother introduced him to live classical music.
"She took me to see George Szell conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom," he recalled. "It was the only time that Szell conducted at Blossom. This was in July of 1969. He conducted `Brahms Fourth."
But, unlike most excellent musicians, Ferguson did not learn to play at a very early age. In fact, he didn’t start playing until he was 15 years old. "I sang in choir in junior high school. I thought, `Well, this is fun, but it isn’t that much of a challenge because you have a dozen other people singing along in the same part with you.’ So I thought, `Those guys in band, how do they ever do it? Everyone has to play their own instrument? I thought they were really something. So, in ninth grade, I finally decided to take up an instrument."
At first, he played the baritone horn, but quickly realized that wasn’t much of a jazz instrument and switched to trombone. He says, "My parents had a Duke Ellington record, Ellington at Newport, and a couple of Sammy Davis records where he sings with Buddy Rich and Count Basie. I just loved those records. I’d pick up the trombone and try to play along with those and it was a lot of fun."
He was soon playing with high school groups and taking private lessons. Ferguson was also listening to the recordings of trombonist J.J. Johnson. He says, "I transcribed a couple of albums’ worth of J.J.’s stuff, especially the album J.J. in Person."
After graduating from Perry High School, Ferguson enrolled at the University of Akron and became a key member of Roland Paolucci’s outstanding University of Akron Jazz Ensemble. After getting his bachelor’s degree at Akron, Ferguson, then 22, decided to go out on the road.
"My first real gig," says Ferguson, "was actually a legit gig with a group called the American Wind Symphony. I traveled with them for the summer of 1983."
The following summer, Ferguson was selected to play with the touring Glenn Miller ghost band. "I filled in for the summer of ‘84, the summer of ‘85 and part of the summer of ‘86," remembered the trombonist. "It allowed me to get to know a lot of different musicians. It was just a great summer job for me. The timing was perfect. The money was not great, but better than I would have done had I been home. That was really a great experience because I was playing lead trombone every night."
But, Ferguson recalls, "The Miller band is a little bit trying because there are so many hits you have to play every night -- `In the Mood,’ `String of Pearls’ and `Moonlight Serenade.’ In a two-hour concert, you wouldn’t have room for much else than the big hits. But, the gigs I really enjoyed were the four-hour dances. We’d get a little bit deeper into the book and play a lot more charts by Bill Finegan and Billy May. Those are really a pleasure."
After his first summer of touring with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Ferguson went to the Eastman School of Music to get his master’s degree. One of six studying music writing under former Cleveland area jazz pianist jazz Bill Dobbins, was a now well-known big band leader, Maria Schneider..
"She’s one day older than me," says Ferguson. "We were very good friends there, helping each other out, staying up late, eating pizza and coping parts for each other and stuff like that. It was a manic situation in a way, working very, very hard."
One of the concerts Ferguson wrote arrangements for at Eastman featured native Cleveland trombonist Jiggs Whigham, who had played lead trombone with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1960s and later moved to Germany to play and teach. "Just three days before Jiggs was coming in," says Ferguson, "I hadn’t written anything. Somehow, something just wasn’t just clicking. So, I’ll never forget, going to bed on a Thursday night and just set to drift off to sleep. I heard this little figure. I scribbled it down. I wrote the chart the next day. It’s called `Buckeye Blues’ and Jiggs has played it all over the world. He even recorded it with Mel Lewis."
After getting his masters degree, Ferguson toured for two years with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
When he came to Cleveland in 1988, he became the Director of Jazz Studies at Case Western Reserve University, joined the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, and was selected to be the principle trombonist with the Canton Symphony.
But, he continued to write for Jiggs Whigham, and during the summer of 1996, Ferguson went to Berlin to record with Whigham’s Berlin Radio Orchestra. "I thought it would be Jiggs’ album, featuring him," says Ferguson. "But, it turned out to be nine of my compositions, three or four of which featured Jiggs and several of which featured Claudio Roditti."
For composer, arranger, jazz and concert trombonist, and teacher Paul Ferguson it was one of many high points in his brief musical career.
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Copyright 1997 Joe Mosbrook
You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).