The Road Often Traveled

The Road Often Traveled

By Rita Mitchell

Ed Sargent stepped on a tour bus 3 days after finishing finals at UT Martin in 1982 and began a jazz ride that lasted 24 years. Now he is taking a walk on the wild side.

Sargent, Grammy-nominated producer and longtime tour manager for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, became tour manager for rock guitarist Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts in 2007.

While the music genre he is now part of differs distinctly from his years in jazz, the road has an attraction that drew him out again after the legendary Ferguson died in 2006.

It was Ferguson, a dear friend besides a mentor and boss, who gave him his start in the business, promoting him to tour manager, later adding personal manager to his title. And it was Ferguson’s final album, completed just weeks before his death and produced by Sargent and drummer Stockton Helbing, that merited a Grammy nomination in 2008.

In addition to his current responsibilities with Joan Jett, Sargent manages Tim Ries, the Rolling Stones’ saxophonist, and Carl Fischer, Billy Joel’s trumpeter. When he’s not touring, Sargent conducts master classes and production-oriented workshops mentoring young musicians on college campuses.

An Early Love of Music

Sargent’s love of music began as a small child. He would sit on the floor of his grandmother’s house tapping out a tune with wooden spoons. “She was my first big influence. She’d make over me and say ‘You’re going to be a great drummer one of these days.’ ”

His interest took a formal turn when he joined the fifth-grade band in Amory, Mississippi, and continued throughout high school after a move to Bolivar, Tennessee. The high-school band director in Bolivar usually got to school early and played his favorite albums before morning rehearsal. “I remember the first day he played an album from a trumpet player named Maynard Ferguson,” Sargent says. “It just blew us all away.” It began Sargent’s lifelong love of Ferguson’s music and with jazz in general.

Sargent joined the UT Martin band program in fall 1977. He majored in percussion but also took business courses. “I loved to play, but I started becoming more involved in the whole business aspect.”

Maynard Ferguson was very popular with the UT Martin jazz and marching band, and the band even did a field show tribute to the jazz great. That led to Sargent’s attempting to get Ferguson to play a UT Martin concert. It didn’t work out that year, but Ferguson’s lead trumpeter, Stan Mark, did appear. “It was a really big hit. I was Stan’s liaison in a tour-manager capacity—a junior in college. He had a really marvelous time.” With Sargent spearheading the project, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the professional music fraternity, brought Mark back to campus the next fall.

Friend, Mentor, and Boss

In spring 1982, Sargent’s senior year, the Maynard Ferguson band finally did appear at UT Martin. Because of Sargent’s connection with Mark, he got to meet Ferguson. “I basically said, ‘I’d love to be out on the road to work for your band in any capacity. You’re my favorite band.’ I put my cards on the table. I told him, ‘School’s out in three weeks.’ That’s the last thing I said to him. He just laughed as I walked out the door.

“I finished finals on a Tuesday and got a call on Friday. His tour manager, Bruce Galloway, asked if I could fly to Indianapolis the next day, and of course I told him I could. That was the first day of twenty-four years.” Sargent accepted the job of valet, or personal assistant. “I was willing to do whatever it took to maintain a position on that tour bus, travel the world, and get to see my favorite band play every night.” Two years later, at the age of 24, Sargent was Maynard Ferguson’s tour manager, touring the world and performing 200 dates a year.

Sargent tells the students in his master classes that it’s OK to fly by the seat of their pants and try to figure it out along the way.

“There’s no handbook for life,” he says, as long as you are honest with yourself and those with whom you’re dealing.

As tour manager, Sargent was responsible for literally every logistical detail and was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After an agreement is reached for a concert date, he says, the responsibility falls to the tour manager to “make it happen—the travel, personnel, logistics, equipment—all the components that make the show. Sometimes it’s complete insanity and always a phone call away from disaster at any given point.”

Sargent says the key to his success on the road has been good communication skills and effective advance work that covers everything from the first call to the end of the show, to the doors shutting and the bus pulling out of the parking lot. “Do your advance work so you don’t have to figure out surprises on show day,” he says.

Sargent follows the same formula with the Joan Jett tours. Noting that Jett has been in the business since she was 15, he said she has a strong work ethic. She, too, comes from that old school. “Nothing is more important to Joan on show day than preparing for the show. If a tour manager has done his job effectively, the musicians have nothing but playing to worry about.”

During his career with Ferguson, if the band wasn’t touring or recording, Sargent had the opportunity to work with other legendary musicians—Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Al Hirt, and Billy Eckstein. Charles is one of Sargent’s heroes. “I still think he was probably the most soulful cat that ever lived.

“I was very fortunate being a drummer and having ‘ears’ for music,” he says. Ferguson gave him the opportunity to be involved in all of his projects right through the final album, The One and Only Maynard Ferguson. The recording in Tony Bennett’s studio was completed 30 days before Ferguson died.

The Business of Touring

With the Joan Jett organization, Sargent has been on tour with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Motorhead, Cyndi Lauper, and Def Leppard. “Tours are run like a business,” he says. “There’s very little trashing of dressing rooms or hotel rooms. That just doesn’t fly anymore in the business we’re in.”

Meshed with Sargent’s years on the road are his memories, especially those of his days with Ferguson. “He took a 22-year-old kid from West Tennessee who was green as a gourd, who was willing to do anything—eyes and ears wide open and good enough sense to keep my mouth shut—and basically gave me the opportunity to see the world. He molded me into what he wanted in a tour manager, and we became best friends in the process.”

Ferguson took Sargent on trips during tour breaks, including a trip to India, one of the jazz legend’s favorite places to relax and recuperate. Sargent also hung out with Ferguson and his wife, Flo, at their home in Ojai, California. “I felt like and was treated like one of his kids.”

Ferguson also wanted his band to have fun and provided sightseeing excursions during days off. “How could you not feel like a blessed person working for your favorite band, traveling all over the world, eating at the best restaurants, hanging with fun people and your best friend?” Sargent says. “How could you not dig that?

“This is what I do in life. I can’t ever see myself stopping.” After a brief hiatus while he worked as president of Johnny Rabb Drumsticks Company in 2000 and 2001, Sargent realized his place was on the road. “If I’m home for two weeks, I get stir-crazy. I love the excitement this business brings.”

Sargent says he broke his parents’ hearts when he left UT Martin a few credit hours shy of graduation. “But it was an opportunity I couldn’t let get away. When the album [The One and Only Maynard Ferguson] received the Grammy nomination last year, I think my mom finally forgave me.”

Now he’s making new memories with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. “I’ve always been a big fan of Joan’s. Touring with her is great and, I must say, never boring.”

Sargent is happy to have the opportunity to do university master classes like the one he offered earlier this year at UT Martin. It’s a way to give back in honor of a mentor, Nancy Matheson, his UT Martin percussion instructor. “She wasn’t cautious about speaking her mind. That motivated me. She never sugar-coated the truth.” Once she told him he was an OK drummer, but that he was great with people and had a keen sense for musical production. “She wasn’t happy I left [UT Martin before graduating], but she saw the opportunity for me to utilize my strengths in a business I loved. She motivated me to do my best and pursue the dream, which is the best gift a teacher can give a student.”

Sargent took his talents on the road—and what a ride.