The Profit of Jazz
Most musicians are more comfortable talking about music than merchandising--but not Al Ferguson. When discussing Fascinating Rhythm, a group whose name he likes so much that he's had it trademarked, the Denver-based Ferguson often sounds more like the head of an advertising firm than a creative artist.
"My objective with this group, and I've said it to the guys, is not to have a cosmic jazz experience," he confesses. "What I'm trying to do is have a pleasing jazz interpretation of some really great music. So, in other words, there is some emphasis on the commercial aspect of this. I want to sell records. I want to sell CDs. I want to appeal to the widest possible audience and not be pegged as just another part of the jazz subculture."
Ferguson comes by his concentration on business naturally: He's made far more money as an entrepreneur during his 51 years than he has as a performer. He came to Colorado from his native Illinois in 1966, earning a degree in library science from the University of Denver a few years later. After graduation, he worked in a wide variety of jobs, including librarian, political organizer, press secretary for Democratic members of the state legislature and leader of a popular dance band, Champagne. (If you've never heard of the group, you probably weren't invited to parties hosted by A-list Denver socialites during the Seventies and Eighties.) But Ferguson's true claim to fame involves Ferguson-Wimmer, a company that he and his wife, Ruth Wimmer, founded in 1984. The firm designed numerous black-and-white toys for infants, but its biggest smash was unquestionably the Infant Stim-Mobile, a geometrically striking device that practically every American child born since the mid-Eighties once had hanging over his crib. The couple sold their prosperous venture to a larger outfit in 1995, enabling Ferguson to enjoy a financially stable early retirement.
Given these facts, it would be easy to conclude that Fascinating Rhythm is little more than Ferguson's hobby. But in conversation, he insists that he's serious about both the band and its debut CD, Fascinating Rhythm--Volume 1. The disc's subtitle--A Tribute to the Musical Genius of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers--graphically spells out the type of material contained therein and offers indications about how Ferguson plans to promote the band. "These three composers essentially dominated American popular music for four decades--from 1925, approximately, to 1965, let's say. That's a very deep well of material," he points out. "Now, you might ask, why not Jerome Kern, Ellington or Harold Arlen, too? Well, once you start to do that, it's not just a deep well anymore; it's bottomless. You then begin to lose focus as a group and begin to sound like everybody else. And it's my intent to bring focus to this effort--to create an identity for Fascinating Rhythm that people can hang their hats on. But I also want to clarify the business relationship for the buyer of our product. I want people to know exactly what we do and how we do it, so there is never any confusion."
To avoid misunderstandings, then, you should know that the combo is made up of violinist Daniel Flick, bassist Tom Virtue, guitarist Ed Stephen and Ferguson on guitar and vocals. All these players are accomplished: Flick is best known for his work with the classically oriented Columbine String Quartet, while Virtue and Stephen have fine reputations among musicians on the high-society circuit. Together they make a lovely sound that, in Ferguson's mind, is unique enough to help differentiate Fascinating Rhythm from other notables in the jazz field. "We've gotten rid of the usual piano and drums," he notes. "To me, the drums, especially, kind of set up a wall of sound that is so typical of most jazz groups. It gets too loud, and I always felt like I was at the mercy of the drummer. What we do gives an almost acoustic sound. All the voices are really clear, and I find it very refreshing."
This quality is undercut to some degree by Ferguson himself. He is a fine guitarist, and his diverse, inventive arrangements add an important touch to the chestnuts he's chosen to survey. His vocals are another matter; they detract from the simple, understated beauty of the unit's instrumentation. But such criticism glances off Ferguson. After all, he knows precisely what he wants to present and the way he wants to present it.
"A good example is our Porgy & Bess medley," he notes. "Rather than play fourteen choruses of 'Summertime,' with everyone taking a solo on the same changes, I put together three songs, three key changes, three tempo changes and three time changes. And to me, both as a player and a listener, that's more interesting. I'm just not interested in boring people. And I think that's what too many jazz players do, frankly.
"This is not cutting-edge, avant-garde music," he admits. "But that's not the idea of it. Once you get past that and get a certain amount of experience, you realize that there isn't really new music or old music. There's just good music and not-so-good music."
Despite this comment, Ferguson displays a touch of snobbery when it comes to discussing songwriting produced after the heydays of Porter, Rodgers and Gershwin. "The other night we were rehearsing the tune 'Let's Do It'--you know, 'Birds do it/Bees do it/Even educated fleas do it/Let's do it/Let's fall in love.' For me, this is somewhat of an example of the decline of popular music over the last thirty years. Because the Beatles' idea of expressing this concept was, 'Why don't we do it in the road?' And Cole Porter found a hundred ways, in the course of four stanzas, to say 'Let's do it.' And they're wonderful. They're literate, intelligent, funny, clever, and I'd much rather be doing that than singing 'Let's do it in the road.'"
There's little chance that Ferguson will be doing the latter anytime soon. He's already written arrangements for another CD based on its predecessor's formula, and he plans to release an all-Gershwin recording in 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. "At that point," he announces, "I think we'll have a body of work that would be hard for any distributor or label to say no to." He adds, "I'm sort of one of the most persistent people I know--relentlessly so. I realize that success is very difficult. But all I can say is that I've been successful marketing other ideas, so I have the confidence that I can do this as long as I remain interested and engaged in the music and it's fun on that level."
As for listeners who feel that music tends to suffer when its makers pay too much attention to the bottom line, Ferguson responds, "I don't want to be all things to all people. When you do that, you have to play a little bit of everything to make everybody happy, and that's not where I'm at. I'm interested in doing what I want to do, and then if somebody wants to buy our product with that understanding, then we're in business. If they don't, then they need to go somewhere else.