By Ainslie Coghill
Carleton Music’s jazz ensemble will look very different this fall.
For the first time in its history, the ensemble will gather and play together online. While the transition to virtual music-making will temporarily take the group in a bold new direction, there’s a permanent shift underway that suggests the end of an era: beloved Jazz Ensemble Director Mark Ferguson has decided to step down after nearly two decades of dedicated stewardship.
Hold the cards and balloons; this isn’t a retirement. Thankfully, Ferguson will continue to teach courses in jazz theory, arranging, orchestration, piano and trombone for Carleton University this year.
But his long-term commitment to the jazz ensemble in particular has provided an enviable level of stability for the university’s Music program, says Professor Alexis Luko, Assistant Director of Music with the School for Studies in Art and Culture.
“Due in no small part to Mark, we have one of the strongest jazz programs in Canada,” she says.
A Second Father Figure
Since 2003, Ferguson’s goals as Jazz Ensemble Director have been straightforward.
“I’ve always had two main objectives as Director of the ensemble,” he says. “First, to introduce young musicians to some amazing music that I became obsessed with when I was in my late teens and twenties and continue to be obsessed with, like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, and second, to provide young musicians with the tools necessary to make music in an ensemble situation and to inspire them.”
There’s nothing more fun than playing in a band, and Ferguson wanted his students to have every opportunity to experience that. He says watching the progress of former students who have become working musicians has made him very proud.
For many students, he was a central figure in their development as musicians. Carleton Music alumni and accomplished jazz pianists Anthony Kubelka and Cynthia Tauro were members of the ensemble throughout their degrees, and both describe Ferguson as a second father figure.
“Mark’s warm demeanour and infinite patience is further complemented by his honest appraisals of students’ work,” says Kubelka. “He was always quick to give praise when deserved, but also had a knack for guiding students towards higher levels of performance in a positive and encouraging manner.”
The audition process for Carleton’s jazz ensemble includes playing a jazz standard, sight-reading, and an oft-feared feat for young musicians – improvisation.
“Playing music without the notes in front of you can be very scary! Often during the first few weeks of rehearsals, students will be reluctant and sometimes terrified to improvise,” says Ferguson.
Kubelka recalls that Ferguson fostered a safe environment for students to take the risks inherent in learning to improvise.
“Mark helped ease all of those tensions as he gradually opened up many avenues to improvisation that I wouldn’t have found on my own,” he says.
Cynthia Tauro, whose family is from Toronto, says Ferguson and his wife Monica made her feel like she had a home in Ottawa.
“Mark introduced me to all the top players in town and set a great example of what it’s like to be a successful and accomplished musician,” she says.
Tauro says he incorporated his real-life experiences into his teaching while leaving room for students to forge their own path and find their own sound.
“As much as I learned from our weekly lessons, going out to hear Mark play was always a learning experience in itself,” she adds.
For years, Ferguson balanced his teaching at Carleton with his musical career outside of the university, and generously blended the two for the benefit of his students.
“In addition to being an exceptionally gifted musician, Mark is a wonderful educator. His time as Jazz Ensemble Director has left a lasting impression on the Carleton Music program, and on the Canadian jazz scene,” says Professor Jesse Stewart.
Growing Carleton’s Jazz Program
Long before Carleton University, Ferguson received his Bachelor of Music from the University of Ottawa, spent some time studying at Humber College, and worked as a professional musician in Toronto’s healthy studio scene, performing with big acts like Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Tony Bennett, Gil Evans, Natalie Cole, Holly Cole, The Boss Brass and many others.
He began teaching jazz piano at Carleton in 1995 and says the jazz program has come a long way in the past few years with the hiring of many excellent performance instructors.
“Also, the development of a summer jazz camp, thanks to the efforts of Mike Tremblay, Tim Bedner, and faculty members James Wright and James McGowan has been a great recruiting tool,” he says.
“My hope is that the development of a Jazz Studies program will entice some of the more promising young jazz musicians to stay in Ottawa rather than leave town to pursue their studies in Toronto, Montréal or the U.S.”
The Next Chapter
This fall, Ferguson is pleased turn over the role of Jazz Ensemble Director to Ed Lister, and says the ensemble is in very capable hands.
“I play a lot with Ed and know him to be an extremely talented player, composer and arranger. Ed’s a young guy, and will bring some fresh ideas to the program,” he says.
The opportunity to learn from both Lister and Ferguson is a unique experience for upper-year students in the Music program. Those students, who have played with Ferguson for a number of years, will surely keep his teachings in mind as they begin to mentor the university’s newest music students. In that way, Ferguson’s impact on the ensemble will carry forward for many years to come.
“Thank heavens he’s still very much with us in his performance and course teaching capacity, and on the Jazz Camp team,” says Professor James Wright.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Mark – countless students and alumni most especially – for so generously sharing his expertise, passionate commitment, kind nature and character, and dedicated leadership skills.”