Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
I was born James Warner Ferguson in Jefferson City, Missouri on December 10, 1950, the third child of James Austin and Fern Webb Ferguson. My father had been a high-school music teacher for much of the previous two decades, but by the time I was born, he had gone into church music. Before my second birthday, my family moved to South Carolina, where Dad took a music position in a large metropolitan church. I began singing in the childrens' choir when I was four years old. (Since Dad was in charge of the music program, I didn't miss many rehearsals.) When I got a little older, my parents started me on piano lessons with the church organist, but even though I continued the piano lessons into my teens, I was always more interested in singing.
In my junior year of high school, I began studying voice with a teacher at the University of South Carolina. Then, during my senior year, I bought a string bass. The impetus for that purchase was the score of a youth musical being performed at church. It called for a bass in the rhythm section, and though Dad had never wanted me in popular music because of the stereotyped performer's lifestyle, he let me play for the youth choir. I continued my voice study at Carolina, and after I graduated from high school, I entered the School of Music with a major in voice. It wasn't until after my freshman year that I started my first formal bass lessons.
I kept switching from program to program, always staying in the School of Music, but finding it difficult to lock into a musical direction. Then George Naff, a graduate student and jazz pianist, took me into a practice room and told me to play on every beat. He said not to worry -- I'd soon be playing the right notes. It wasn't long before I began to get calls from older musicians who wanted a real bass, even if the player was less than experienced. Guitarist Terry Rosen, formerly with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Nancy Wilson, was one who was willing to help me tackle the learning curve in exchange for having the sound of the string bass in his group; trumpeter Johnny Helms, a Woody Herman and Clark Terry alumnus, was another major influence and help. These two musicians are most responsible for my on-the-job jazz training.
During my junior year, I received a tip from the musicians' union that the New Christy Minstrels were auditioning. They were looking for a high-voiced male singer who could sing solos and play string bass. I knew the job would give me a clearer view of what the business was like, and take me to cities where I could regularly hear major jazz artists. I auditioned over the phone and got the job. With some logistical help from my professors, I left school three weeks early and reported for rehearsals. The group's first gig was New Year's week at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach, opening for Milton Berle.
While in Los Angeles for rehearsals, I was taken to Dante's jazz club for my birthday. There I heard a new group called Supersax, and I was invited by the bassist, Buddy Clark, to hear the sax section record tracks for their first album, Supersax Plays Bird, at Capitol Records the following evening. This was a huge ear-opener for me. During another stay in L.A., I went by myself to Diamante's to hear the Bill Evans Trio, with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. It was the late set; I had dinner and listened. The audience was very small -- only three people, including me. That's the quietest I've eaten in my entire life. The trio played as though the place had been packed. I've never quite gotten over it.
Having acquired a new sense of direction and being very homesick after six months on the road, I headed back to school. I began to work steadily with Helms and Rosen in a variety of playing situations. Still, there wasn't an actual degree program that fit my needs, so I simply took courses for self-improvement, continuing my voice and bass lessons and playing with the local symphony orchestra on the side.
My old friend Loonis McGlohon was responsible for introducing me to another Challenge/A-Records artist. Bill Kirchner, saxophonist-composer-arranger-producer, and Grammy-winning jazz historian, has offered a wealth of valuable advice and direction since I first sent him a copy of my rough mixes. He is solely responsible for bringing me to the attention of Anne de Jong and Challenge Records in Holland. Working with Challenge has been a wonderful experience for me thus far, and I look forward to a long relationship.
Bassist Chuck Israels came through Columbia with the National Jazz Ensemble in 1978. Chuck was conducting and arranging for the NJE, and Steve Gilmore was the bassist. When I asked Steve about private bass lessons, he told me I should try to get to New York and study with Michael Moore; Chuck invited me to call him and visit if I was able to make the trip. Then one day, out of nowhere, I got called to play bass for a new musical about rural life in South Carolina called On Green Pond. It was in production at the South Carolina Arts Commission in advance preparation for a move to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Though I have often been blessed with certain events coming at just the right times in my life, this one was still a surprise.
I called Chuck when I got to New York and learned that Red Mitchell had just returned to the United States after living in Sweden for the past dozen years. Chuck was having him over for dinner, and he told me that I should come, too. It was a lovely gesture from such an established player, and one that I have not forgotten. That evening was the start of a long and influential friendship with Red. I sublet Chuck's apartment the following summer, spending many nights in an unofficial graduate school at Bradley's and Knickerbocker restaurants in Manhattan. These establishments featured duos, and the bassists were always name players; Bradley Cunningham featured Red on many occasions with a variety of pianists and guitarists. Red introduced me to Sam Jones and Rufus Reid at Bradley's. He also invited me to a recording session with Tommy Flanagan at Penthouse Studios. He always had words of encouragement and helpful advice for me.
During my extended summer in New York, Chuck encouraged me to spend some weeks at the Eastman School of Music during their summer jazz arrangers' workshop. Raymond Wright and Bill Dobbins were very kind to me and allowed me to be involved with the workshop as a singer. I was also able to work a bit while in Rochester, playing bass with Barry Kiener, Joe Locke, Bill Dobbins and Lee Musiker, among others. Eastman's instrument curator hired me to repair some of the schools string basses, and I ended up staying into the fall semester.
Arriving home after so many great experiences, I felt energized to pursue new goals. I re-enrolled at South Carolina and finished an undergraduate degree. Then I enrolled in graduate school and finished a Master of Music in Jazz Studies degree with an emphasis in jazz performance. My fiancee, Toni Fominaya, was scheduled to finish her undergraduate degree in music education at the same time, so we got married a month into that final school year. During those last years in South Carolina, a young saxophonist named Chris Potter began sitting in with the groups I was playing with. His dad would bring him to the gigs, since he was not yet into double digits. He could already really play, and we all knew we would hear a lot of him in the coming years.
We moved to Nashville upon graduation in August of 1981. I have been fortunate to play and/or record with a variety of musicians and recording artists while living there. Surprisingly, I have played with some jazz artists in Nashville that I probably wouldn't have gotten called to work with had I been in New York or Los Angeles, including Teddy Wilson, Kenny Burrell, Lenny Breau, Cal Collins, Phineas Newborn Jr., Jimmy Raney, Martin Taylor, the Hi-Los, Jay McShann, Conte Candoli, Gene Bertoncini, Attila Zoller, Steve Allen and Marian McPartland. I did many gigs with Mose Allison at Nashville's famous songwriter hangout, the Bluebird Cafe. I've been on recordings with Stephane Grappelli, Al Jarreau and Lenny Breau that were done in Nashville; in addition, I've done television work as a group singer behind Joe Williams and Teresa Brewer.
In the mid-'80s, Johnny Helms, one of my important mentors, launched a jazz festival in collaboration with longtime Columbia, South Carolina restaurateur Veron Melonas. Artists rarely brought their regular bands to the Main Street Jazz Festival; instead, several name players were hired to cover each instrument, and a three-day jam session ensued. The players were grouped differently from set to set and from night to night. The musical-chairs atmosphere was refreshing, and the lack of rehearsal was more than made up for by the resulting spontaneity. Johnny called me back to South Carolina to join in the fun a few years into the festival's history. There I played with Clark Terry, Red Rodney, Nat Adderly, Jimmy Heath, Tommy Newsom, Lew Tabackin, Arnie Lawrence, Chris Potter, Ira Sullivan, Eddie Daniels, Nick Brignola, Bill Watrous, Urbie Green, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Charlie Byrd, Mundell Lowe, Derek Smith, Ross Tompkins, Don Thompson, Ed Soph, Harold Jones, Bernard Purdie, Louie Bellson, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, and Johnny Frigo.
In 1990, I took a road gig with pop/country artist Crystal Gayle. The travel has allowed me to maintain many friendships that would have been difficult to cultivate with only the phone or an occasional letter as options. I still work Crystal's road shows and do many of her record dates as singer, vocal arranger and bassist. Crystal features me in her show singing with her on some of her well-known duet recordings with Eddie Rabbitt and Gary Morris. She has also recently been featuring me on Henry Mancini's Charade, which I recorded for my new CD, Not Just Another Pretty Bass.
In picking the players for Not Just Another Pretty Bass, I didn't go through a long list. Chris Potter was my first choice. I'd watched him grow up musically and played with him at the Main Street Jazz Festival for several years, so I approached him at the festival in 1996 to see if he would join us. His participation had a profound effect on the recording dates, lifting the music to a higher level. Pianist Pat Coil was new to Nashville but not to jazz, having played with Woody Herman among others. He has recorded with Natalie Cole and was Carmen McRae's pianist for several of his Los Angeles-based years. He also brought a wonderful creativity to the sessions. Drummer Jim White would be a steady addition to the rhythm section of any music he might choose to play; with us, he played with a strong yet relaxed confidence that I found very supportive, making it much easier for me to simultaneously sing and play for the microphone. I look forward to my continued association with Jim in Nashville.
As for the songs, I looked for strong melodies and interesting lyrics. If the song was familiar, I tried to do it differently, without letting the arrangement overpower its original compositional elements; if it was obscure, so much the better. My hope was that the lyrics and vocals would help make the music more accessible to a wider audience -- even one not used to extended improvisation -- but I also tried to present the vocals and instrumental solos as equal elements. I hope we achieved that goal, and I hope you like Not Just Another Pretty Bass.