One morning not long ago, I’d awakened to the sound of music. It wasn’t from the neighbor’s all-rock radio station. It wasn’t my son Andrew spinning some of Dad’s sides, either. This music was in my head, a musical “leftover” from a dream I’d had. Its rhythm was tropical, and its melodies were French, but reminiscent of early New Orleans jazz. Music as it was played on the island of Martinique, many years ago. I suppose all this is a bit strange. Some days, I hear Louis Armstrong as I wake up. Other days, Charlie Parker. Occasionally, Ravel, or maybe Edith Piaf, or Bechet or Billie, or Duke or Pres or Leadbelly or Bix. Maybe a TV show’s theme song or a commercial jingle now and then. Today, it was old Martinique music. I fixed some coffee, and padded over to the LP shelves. I pulled out a rather beat-up 10-inch LP on the Dial label. It dates from the mid-1950s, and is entitled Dance Music of Martinique.
I received it long ago as a gift from the late Bill Campbell, who was probably my most significant teacher about music, philosophy, and life. I put the record on the turntable and lowered the arm. The joyous opening track began to play, and Eugene Delouche, one of two exceptional clarinetists associated with the music, began to make me smile (as he has each of the hundreds of times I’ve played this record). It’s genuinely happy music, meant for good-natured (and sexy) dancing, like you would hear in the French West Indies several decades ago.
Casual listeners always notice the music’s superficial resemblance to early New Orleans jazz. The Martinique bands are (or were) comprised of: one or two clarinets; a trombone; maybe an alto sax; and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. The instrumentation is similar to that of a typical New Orleans jazz band, except there is no trumpet. In this music, the clarinets play the lead. (The brilliant Alexandre Stellio is acknowledged to be the other great clarinetist to emerge from Martinique.) The rhythm section, and the overall “feel” of the music is what sets it apart, though. To say it’s like early New Orleans jazz played over a Caribbean beat doesn’t begin to describe the sheer swing, or the rhythmic subtleties that abound in the music. It’s exciting, soulful, happy, melancholy, and above all, swinging. The Martinique bands (first recorded in Paris in 1929, under Mr. Stellio’s leadership) played a variety of dance tempos and rhythms. Biguines (sic), mazurkas, and waltzes were all in a night’s work for any band playing on the island, or in any of the small clubs catering to the island’s natives in pre-war Paris. It was Bill Campbell’s favorite music, and his piano playing reflected that fact. In fact, the adjectives I just used to describe the music of Martinique could very well describe Bill’s own playing. I thought back several decades, to when Bill Campbell entered—and changed—my life…
I met Bill at Disneyland in the summer of 1974, when I began playing trombone in the “Banjo Kings”; a band conceived by Disney executives who one day—sitting around the conference table—must have decided that three banjos, a tuba, and a trombone would be a great idea for a musical group. (They were wrong.)
I was in college, and had been playing around Southern California with various traditional jazz bands. During this time, I also led a group called the Back Bay Jazz Band for casual gigs and year-long runs at three different nightspots. Despite all this playing, I hadn’t had much experience being the only horn in a band. With the Banjo Kings, I had to learn how to (wonder of wonders) play the melody to each song we performed. In all the other bands in which I’d ever worked, it was the trumpet player who took care of that chore! More pressure to do well stemmed from the fact that I was the youngest member of the band by a good 30 years.
For the first couple of days of my new gig, we strolled around the pseudo-French Quarter area, and over near the Mark Twain steamboat. A tall banjoist named Red Shade was the bandleader. Naturally, he had bright red hair, and was probably in his middle or late fifties at that time. (I saw Red many years later at the annual San Diego Jazz Party [www.sdjp.org], and was pleased to see him looking well and fit. He passed on some time later.)
At Disneyland, we would play occasionally on the ersatz-French Market stage. More often, we performed out on the sidewalks between New Orleans Square and Frontierland, for mouse-eared kids and their tired-looking parents. I fished around for the melodies on my trombone, playing what I thought might be at least close approximations of the poor composers’ intentions. About the third day of my new gig, Red suggested we “take a couple of laps” on the Mark Twain.
“Then,” he said, “Bill can play some piano.”
“What piano?” I said.
“There’s a small spinet on the second deck,” replied Bernie Miller, the gruff tuba player.
“Gee,” I said to Bill. “I didn’t know you played piano.” Bill just smiled and took a last drag on his cigarette (which he wasn’t supposed to be smoking at Disneyland). He dropped it and mashed it out.
Bill once described himself as looking like Barry Goldwater, but was somewhat smaller and thinner. A lot thinner. Bill was positively gaunt, but did indeed resemble that right-wing politician facially, if not otherwise physically or politically. Bill had the same square jaw, the horn-rimmed glasses, the close-cropped gray hair; that Midwestern “heartland” look. However, I doubt that Mr. Goldwater ever wore a day-glo striped jacket, white pants and shoes, and a straw hat. (Maybe in private; who knows about politicians?). Bill later told me he was from the Little Egypt area of Illinois.
Author Derek Coller’s research lets us know that Bill was born on November 19, 1914, in Grand Tower, Illinois. For years, I thought Bill’s father was a coal miner, but Mr. Coller, a friend and fellow Bill Campbell fan, learned that Bill’s father was a power plant engineer. Evidently, he loved music. Bill learned to play banjo at an early age. He basically taught himself the piano. Years later, in a taped interview, he said that he got hired on piano early on around Chicago because he “knew the tunes,” but he really learned how to play the piano on the gigs. After Bill discovered that 10-inch Dial LP, a lot of the Martinique feeling drifted into his playing, and into the way he felt the beat. It made his jazz playing unique.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this about him that day at Disneyland. He was just the old guy who hardly spoke, who played terrific banjo; that is: correct chord changes (including beautiful passing chords); a nice, light touch and excellent technique; perfect, swinging rhythm; and all of this played in tune. We all went over to the faux-paddlewheel named the Mark Twain, and waited to climb on board with the other passengers.
I followed the guys up to the second deck. Bernie got both his big Conn recording bass (tuba) and himself settled in a chair toward the back of the very small, low bandstand. Bill leaned his banjo against the wall behind the end of the piano, took off his straw boater, placed it carefully on top of the piano, and brushed his thinning gray hair back with both of his hands. He set his fourth or fifth cigarette of the day on the edge of a cheap, colored, pressed-tin ashtray that he had extracted from the piano bench. (He kept it hidden there from the ever-alert, take-no-prisoners security force of Team Disney). Bill placed the ashtray discreetly on the small square space at the left end of the keyboard. Bill sat quietly, his back to us, with his hands folded in his lap. Bill made the Sphinx seem downright chatty. I stood in front alongside Al Cluck, the other banjoist, and Red Shade, who were both to my left.
I’ll never forget Al’s name. That first summer with the Banjo Kings, KFC (née Kentucky Fried Chicken) had an ad campaign with billboards around southern California that boasted, “More Cluck for your Buck!” Poor Al had to endure that for a few months.
Red called a tune. It was “My Blue Heaven.”
He said, “You want to give us an intro, Bill?”
Bill played an introduction that was so original, swinging, and so perfect that I missed the pick-ups into the first chorus. His time, like on the banjo, was that seeming dichotomy of precise and swinging, even on the out-of-tune, inferior spinet that lived in the elements aboard the Mark Twain. (The poor piano was protected only by the ceiling of the second deck and a cheap leatherette cover that Bill would carefully replace at the end of each session aboard the boat.) I’d only heard piano playing like that on my favorite jazz records from yesteryear, never “live.” It was thrilling. The other band members didn’t seem to notice or care. They laughed when I failed to come in, forcing Bill to play another four bars. I came in the second time, and tried to focus on my own playing, and not the astonishing piano playing going on behind me.
After the set, Red announced that we had an hour off for dinner, and that we would meet over by the French Market at New Orleans Square. Our time was our own. I started to follow Bernie and the banjoists down the stairs, and I heard Bill’s voice behind me:
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I—what? – Red said that it’s dinnertime–“
Bill said, “Well, you look like you could stand to miss a few meals. Get back over here.” I thought this was funny, because I was pretty slender in those days.
I went back to the bandstand, where Bill was still seated at the spinet. He lowered his voice, and I remember my surprise when he said, “I have to spend all goddamn summer with you, and I don’t intend to spend it listening to you butcher these songs every day.”
I probably stammered some attempt at an apology or explanation—or excuse—but Bill would have none of it. He said, “What was that tune we played just before the end of the set—oh, yeah: ‘Somebody Stole My Gal.’ Now, is that really the way you think the melody goes? Here’s what you played.”
Bill then played the song through the second eight bars, where he began to hit some awful dissonances, and hard. I recognized my own inept attempts at finding the melody being played back at me. Those wrong notes hit me like bullets. It was what I had just played, guessing at the melody.
“There,” he said. “And here!” He kept going, the music rife with clinkers and dissonance. My clinkers! My dissonance! Bill was replicating my own failed version of the song.
“Do you like that? Is that the way the song goes?” he asked between clashing notes and chords.
“Well, no,” I replied, lamely.
“Well then, why in the hell did you play it like that?”
“I guess I don’t know how it really goes there…”
“You guess you don’t know how it really goes there.” Bill took an exasperated drag on his cigarette and looked off for a moment. Then he turned back to me. He asked, quietly and not unkindly, “Do you know anything about the piano? Do you understand the keyboard?”
I nodded, a little nervously now.
“Well, here’s how it ‘really goes there,’” he said.
Bill proceeded to play the passage in question slowly and deliberately, and correctly. I watched over his shoulder, and worked to memorize the few measures in question.
“OK,” I said. “I’ve got it.”
“You’ve ‘got it,’ huh? OK, prove it.”
“What?” I said.
“Prove it.” Bill said again. “Take it from the top, and play me a whole chorus.”
Remember, tourists were still milling about the deck, taking pictures of Tom Sawyer’s Island, and mopping spilled ice cream from their toddlers’ shirtfronts. Bill and I were on the little bandstand, oblivious to them. We’d gone around Tom Sawyer’s Island at least a couple of times during all of this. I noticed that the settler’s cabin was still burning. Back in those innocent, “pre-woke” days, there was a cabin at the far end of the island that was on fire, with evidence of an “Indian” (sic) raid. It had been burning since my first trip to the park with my parents as a child, long before “political correctness” was ever in our lexicon. The burning cabin is long gone now, but back then the poor settler was still lying out in front, as he had since the park opened, dead from two classic-looking arrows sticking out of his chest. The way things were going with Bill, a couple of well-placed arrows in my own chest wouldn’t have seemed too bad.
Bill played another one of his knocked-out introductions, and I came in playing “Somebody Stole My Gal,” albeit a little tentatively. Then I muffed a couple of notes. Bill stopped. “I thought you said you had it. Here it is again.” He played the part of the melody that had been my trouble spot again. I listened, and watched him closely.
“OK,” Bill said. “Play it again.”
We started to play, with Bill leading me into the new musical territory from the piano like a swinging guide dog leading his blind (or deaf) master. I played the passage correctly, if a little carefully. We finished a chorus, and we stopped.
Bill said, “So that’s the way you think it should sound, huh? Play it again.”
I played it again. I played it pretty well, too. The tourists, though, were still busy with their cameras and toddlers.
Bill swore under his breath. “It isn’t music yet. I said, PLAY IT!” Sure, I realized Bill was teaching me something, but I was 19 years old, and pretty cocky, and I was getting a little annoyed. Besides, I was hungry. I played the damn song again, the whole way through. I played the melody absolutely correctly, but with the kind of juice and swing that comes with a bit of adrenaline and a bit of anger. People turned from their cameras and toddlers. I felt them staring, and felt my face go red. I didn’t cave in, though: I kept shouting out that melody, and I’d be damned before I was going to make a mistake!
I stopped after one chorus. Bill played a wry little coda, and wrapped it up. We received some confused applause. He sat there, facing the piano for a few seconds, thinking. He reached toward the ashtray for his cigarette. He took a long drag, and with the smoke wreathing his head, the way it used to surround Hoagy Carmichael in the old movies, he turned to me. Squinting through the smoke, Bill said quietly, “Yeah—THAT’S what I mean! That’s the way to play music.” He stabbed out his cigarette. He gathered his thoughts for a few seconds, and turned to face me, and spoke in a confidential voice.
“Now, I know you laid into it like that ’cause you’re browned off at me a little, but I don’t care about that. I’m trying to show you something. Get the anger out, but leave in that conviction. If you can play everything we do here just like you played that one chorus, we’ll get along fine. And, whatever we play, if you don’t know it, do the best you can the first time—I won’t bite your head off anymore. But for God’s sake, go home and learn it correctly before you have to play it again, all right? Come on, we jus’ got time for a cup of coffee before we have to meet the ‘Sunshine Boys.’”
From then on throughout that summer, every time we were on the Mark Twain, Bill would forfeit his dinner hour (and many of his other breaks) to show me passages in the songs we were playing that I’d always bluffed my way through; things like the bridge to “I’ve Found a New Baby,” a bridge (the third eight bar section) that I rarely hear played correctly, even by so-called professionals.
Often, Bill would show up with a photocopy of the sheet music for a tune we’d played the day before. A couple of measures would be circled or highlighted in yellow for me. I’d make sure I went over those passages before we played the tune again. I lost a bet—I had to buy him dinner—when I thought I knew how “Pagan Love Song” really went. He showed up the next day with the sheet music, settling the debate once and for all. It was the first and last time I bet against him about anything.
Every song we played he knew correctly, and he knew the lyrics to almost all of them as well. He impressed upon me the importance of shelling out for the actual sheet music when one is learning a tune. “Fake book” versions are incomplete at best, or plain wrong at worst. He once said, “There are countless ways to play a melody wrong. There’s only one way to play it right, and that’s the way the fellow wrote it. Sure, jazz involves improvising, but it involves playing the melody, too. Lots of guys improvise because they don’t know certain parts of the song, and they go through their lives never looking at the sheet music, and sitting down to find out how those parts go. If they don’t care that they sound like that, that’s okay, I guess—for them. But the real players learn exactly how the f***ing melody goes. When they improvise, it’s from the standpoint of knowledge, not ignorance. Make sense?”
Of course it did.
That summer, I learned more from Bill Campbell than from any of the college music courses in which I’d naively enrolled. Bill and I talked about many things, including women, art, and religion. (I think they were all one and the same to Bill.)
Around the same time that he gave me the Martinique LP, he brought me a copy of Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen. Bill felt the best jazz was a Zen-like experience: the harder you try to get the band or yourself swinging, the more it will elude you. Instead, he said, just try to play “nice,” and musically, with a “let’s see what happens” approach, and sometimes the muse will point her finger your way and let you and the band get off the ground. We also talked about drugs. Bill disapproved of strong drugs and never drank to excess that I ever saw, but he smoked marijuana in careful moderation until his death at 83.
I found out that he had worked with no less than five of my trombone-playing heroes: Jack Teagarden, Turk Murphy, Warren Smith, Kid Ory, and the lesser-known but no-less-great Al Jenkins. Of all of them, Bill said that working with Kid Ory’s band at the Beverly Caverns in the 1940s was the experience that changed the way he thought about jazz.
Bill was brought in as a substitute for Mr. Ory’s regular pianist, Buster Wilson, who was hospitalized for a few months. With swing and early bebop being heard around Hollywood in those days, Bill figured that Ory called him because Bill was acknowledged to be one of the guys around town who “knew the old Dixieland tunes.”
He showed up for work the first night with, he admitted, something of a condescending attitude. He said that “everyone in Hollywood was trying to play like Benny Goodman or his band, and I could do a pretty fair imitation of Teddy Wilson at that time. I wasn’t brought up in a racist home, but I still figured that I was going to be mighty amused by this group of what were—after all—old New Orleans fellows who hadn’t the benefit of a solid education, musical or otherwise.”
Bill said that he was somewhat disarmed by Mr. Ory’s charm when they met that first evening before the gig. Kid Ory told Bill that he was happy that Bill was available, and he’d heard a lot of good things about his playing, and he was looking forward to playing with him for the duration of Buster Wilson’s hospital stay. The band assembled on the stage, and Mr. Ory, with the dancers in mind, called a medium tempo tune. Bill told me,
“I played an introduction, and inside of two choruses I realized that I wasn’t in the same place rhythmically as the rest of the guys. They weren’t exactly together either! It’s hard to explain. It sounded like Ram Hall [Minor “Ram” Hall, the drummer] and Tudie [Ed “Montudie” Garland, the bassist] weren’t in sync, at least as I understood ‘together’ then. And the front line [cornetist Mutt Carey, clarinetist Joe Darensbourg, and Kid Ory] was somewhere else again—or that’s the way it seemed to me. I was surprised that it didn’t seem to bother Ory; he looked like he always did, calm, relaxed. He smiled down at the dancers, real charming-like, and stepped backward to the piano. Ory had the trombone hung on the crook of his arm, and outta the side of his mouth he said, ‘That’s okay, Bill. You’re all right, yes. You just keep on playin’ here-here-here–’ and he tapped the beat gently on top of the piano.”
“Well,” Bill said, “I was sure he was nuts, because that beat he was tapping was ANOTHER beat from the three or four the other guys had going on already! But I figured, he’s the boss, so I went with him. And damned if it didn’t work with the rest of what was going on, in a weird way.”
Bill eventually learned that what he was experiencing was the exquisite push-and-pull rhythmic tension that the best New Orleans bands can create, far removed from the more “streamlined” swing that Bill had been used to. Although it may have seemed as though the rhythm section (which may or may not have included guitarist Bud Scott at that time) was out of kilter, the rhythm men were actually setting up layers of rhythms, enhanced by the band’s “pushing’ the beat, or “laying back” on the beat, all based on what the dancers were doing, what drummer Ram Hall felt like that night, and what the leader, Kid Ory, dictated from chorus to chorus, using his trombone as a big New Orleans conductor’s baton. Far from the “primitive” experience Bill was anticipating, it was a musical epiphany.
“After a week or so, I felt more confident with all those rhythms going on at once, and Ory didn’t have to tell me where to put it. After several weeks, I was having a ball with the guys, and we were swinging, man. Toward the end of the gig, I had mixed emotions, because naturally I hoped that Buster Wilson would recover, but I didn’t want to leave the band. Finally, one night Ory told me that Buster was ready to come back. I finished out the week, and all the guys were real nice telling me so long, and all that. And man, that Papa Mutt—that old man on the trumpet—now, HE was something!”
Bill had similar, if less life-changing stories, about Jack Teagarden, Wingy Manone, and Red Nichols (with whom he went to Tokyo in the 1960s). Bill can be heard on Mr. Nichols’s Capitol LP, Old-Time Rags and Blues, and is featured on a terrific version of “Apple Jack Rag.” There’s a nice photo of the band on the cover, and Bill is clearly visible, seated at the piano. He can be seen “in action” with Ben Pollack’s band in a short film, originally televised in about 1961 or ’62, called Jazz Scene USA, hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr.. The band includes: Dick Cary on trumpet; trombonist Warren Smith; clarinetist Gene Bolen; Walt Yoder on bass; and Pollack’s solid, four-four drumming.
Bill gets into his Martinique groove a little bit on “At the Jazz Band Ball,” and plays a hip—and moving—solo on “Tin Roof Blues.” He was also the “honky-tonk” piano man (replete with striped shirt, vest, straw hat, and arm garters) on Hurdy-Gurdy, a weekly TV show in the mid-1960s. (I’d love to find episodes of that show. They probably no longer exist, but if any readers recorded the show at the time, please get in touch with me through TST. I’m also looking for episodes of the one season-long TV series, Pete Kelly’s Blues. Thanks.)
Bill occasionally talked with me about his two children, and his wife, Carol. He was having marital troubles at the time I knew him, but generally spoke fondly of his family, including Carol. Eventually, he and Carol divorced. Bill moved out of his house in Los Angeles, and moved into a furnished garage on a quiet street in Burbank. It was a very nicely-appointed room, with a foldout couch on which he slept, and a full bathroom and small kitchen. It was spotless every time I came by to visit. He had several interesting pictures on the wall. One drawing Bill had made himself, traced from a book or magazine. The drawing was of Andres Segovia’s right hand. Bill played piano and banjo for a living, but his real love was classical guitar, which he played beautifully for his own enjoyment.
On a spring afternoon, long after our days at Disneyland were over, I drove up to visit him. It was just after breakfast. He lit a joint, took a hit, and offered it to me. I might have actually declined. He took another small toke and put it out for later. Moderation. We sat around and drank his “cowboy coffee,” which Bill brewed in an old metal percolator. He always threw the cracked eggshells from his breakfast into the pot as he was brewing the coffee. It took some of the bitterness out. (I still do this occasionally, mostly to let Bill know I haven’t forgotten.) He looked at me over the rim of the coffee cup, and asked me, “What are you doing this Friday? You working?”
“Ah, good! Come back here Friday—say, 5:30. We’ll have a light dinner, and then I have tickets for us to see—The Maestro!” Bill was not without his dramatic moments.
“The ‘Maestro?’” I said. “What ‘Maestro?’ Who are you talking about?”
Bill’s eyes fixed on me. They looked like twin ball bearings. He leaned in toward me. “The MAESTRO,” he whispered. “SEGOVIA!”
I met Bill as planned. I was surprised to see guitarist and multi-media artist John Reynolds with Bill. We had a light dinner, and he drove the three of us in his old VW station wagon (which I’m sure is still running, someplace) to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Bill’s tickets got us adjacent seats in the furthest corner of the balcony. In my corner seat, with my left shoulder against the wall, I was physically the furthest person from the stage in the entire theatre. It was time for an epiphany of my own.
Mr. Segovia came out briskly onto the stage. He nodded to the capacity audience. I remember he wore a soft yellow V-neck sweater and dark slacks. As he sat down, and put his left leg on a low footrest, the crowd grew quieter. He lowered his head to the guitar and checked his tuning (I remember seeing, but not hearing, him use harmonic fingering as a reference for his tuning). He was finished in a few seconds, and then he raised his head, clasped his hands on top of his guitar, and sat and smiled at the house. People stopped rustling their programs. Other people stopped coughing. Mr. Segovia sat for several long minutes, an eternity if you have ever been on a stage in front of several hundred people waiting for you to do something. Just when I thought the room could not have gotten any quieter, Segovia sat up, and straightened his back. Then, he sat back down, clasped his hands again, and—well—sat some more. The house finally went beyond quiet, to what I’ve always thought of as genuinely still. The audience even began to breathe more quietly.
After a few more seconds, Mr. Segovia smiled, and nodded to the various sections of the house. He said nothing, but his bemused expression said, “this is what I have been—and you have been—waiting for.”
He assumed an elegant playing posture, and played one note. That note is with me today, a little bell that went right through me, and immediately made me understand Bill’s continuous and profane tirades against amplification. One small man with a nylon-stringed guitar, fifty yards away from me—and I heard him as though he were standing right in front of me. That experience corroborated everything that Bill had told me about amplification. In short, it has been the bane of music in the last century. It continues to be the bane of twenty-first century music.
Over the years, I stayed in touch with Bill, and was lucky enough to play with him around Southern California. Often, the other musicians were veterans with gilded credentials:
• Joe Darensbourg (the Baton Rouge clarinetist who worked with Kid Ory in the 1940s, led his own “Dixie Flyers” in the ’50s, and plays clarinet on Louis Armstrong’s record of “Hello, Dolly”)
• Al Jenkins, (the aforementioned trombonist who was a big influence on me from the moment I first heard him)
• Bill Hadnott (a bassist from Kansas City who had played and recorded with Harlan Leonard’s Rockets, and is featured on the famous 1946 Jazz At the Philharmonic recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good!” with Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young), and even:
• George Orendorff (a shy, witty and always immaculately attired gentleman who had played and recorded with Les Hite’s Orchestra and Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders in the late ’20s, and spent the early 1930s in the trumpet section of another swinging orchestra led by his hero, Louis Armstrong).
It was obvious, even at my naïve age, that these great musicians held Bill Campbell in high regard musically. They treated him with some deference, also possibly due to Bill’s reticence or seeming aloofness. My own feeling is that Bill very much enjoyed being with these men, all of whom he admired. He had kind and flattering things to say about all of them in our many conversations. However, Bill was far from gregarious, and seemed to simply enjoy being “the fly on the wall,” observing these men interacting with each other. Bill was a great observer.
Much later in the 1970s, Bill and I saw each other often at a place in Marina del Rey called the Lobster Shack (we called it the “Lobster Trap”). The leader was Al “Red Dog” Weber, a charismatic character who had been a football player of no small renown a few generations ago. Al banged on a device called a “boom-bass.” Resembling a pogo stick, it was outfitted with a splash cymbal on top, woodblocks nailed vertically down its length, and a cheap tambourine at the bottom. Red Dog had a pretty fair beat, which redeemed him somewhat for the godawful noise he made whenever he bounced it up and down off the floor and whacked that tambourine. The band itself was a pretty rag-tag Dixieland outfit (of which I may well have been the rag-taggiest, going through some kind of quasi-hippie period). It included my longtime friend and brother, cornetist Dan Comins, and yet another jazz legend—clarinetist Johnny Lane, who must have been in his mid-80s at the time. Johnny had played for Al Capone in Chicago.
One night, somebody requested the “Tin Roof Blues.” It was going along in usual “Tin Roof Blues” fashion until it came to Bill’s solo. Bill began his solo, and I closed my eyes. I swear I saw telephone lines ’way out in the desert, stretching as far as the eye could see, all the way to the horizon. It was a lonely, desolate scene. That’s just the way those blues sounded. I still remember them as being “The Loneliest Blues I’ve Ever Heard.” I felt my eyes fill up, and something rolled down one of my cheeks. I tried to keep it discreet, but Bill saw me and chuckled, the old—old—Zen Master! That doesn’t mean they weren’t some mighty sad blues, though. I always wanted to ask him what in the world he was thinking about to play the blues like that, but I guess I’ll never know.
I moved to New York in 1983, and married Laura Shaw. Our son, Andrew, was born at New York Hospital in 1987, and we moved to New Jersey in 1992. The three of us moved back to California in 1996, when I started spending more time on the road and overseas than in Manhattan. During those years in New York, I did my best to stay in touch with Bill. I phoned him occasionally, and one day learned that he’d moved again, settling in a quiet town in Northern California called Paradise.
I saw him for the last time in 1994, when I flew back from New York for what was then known as the “Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival.” It has since been replaced by the “Sweet and Hot Festival.” I was playing in one of the “all-star” bands, and Bill was playing in a good traditional band called “Chris Kelly’s Black and White Jazz Band,” with my friend Mike Baird on clarinet and the great swing-era trombonist, John “Streamline” Ewing. (I always wanted to have a nickname as hip as “Streamline.”)
Oddly enough, the bandleader wasn’t named Chris Kelly. Bob Allen was an attorney who played New Orleans-styled trumpet and bass in the Los Angeles area before moving to New Orleans. Bob passed away a few years ago.
I listened to the band for a set, and afterward I made my way up to the outdoor stage to say hello to Bill. It had been quite a few years. He looked older: an aging and still improbably thin Barry Goldwater. I was older too, and wider. He smiled at nothing in particular, and mashed what was probably his fourth cigarette of the day into an ashtray; one that he’d no doubt pulled out of the piano bench. He grunted a typical greeting, shook my hand with four chilly but manicured fingertips, and then said, “Say, a few days ago, I heard them play a record of yours on the jazz station.” He drew out the word “jazz” with all the good-natured sarcasm he could muster. The laugh that followed was closer to being a cough. Then he went on in his unique, creaky voice.
“I didn’t know who it was playing trombone; you know how it is, when you tune in to the song late on the radio? Anyway, I listened for a bit, and figured, ‘that could be Dan Barrett, if he’d ever finally learned how to play the trombone.’” It turns out it was a recording of mine. What Bill had said about it was one of the greatest compliments I ever expect to receive.
Bill passed away on October 12, 1995. He left a son, a daughter, his ex-wife Carol, and many admiring musicians, including a trombonist who owes much of whatever success he’s achieved over the years to Bill’s teachings.
I’ll flip the Martinique record over before I close.
Much of the music of Martinique is available (though no tracks from the Dial LP, unfortunately) on a series of French CD reissues on the Fremeaux & Associes label. One two-CD set is simply called, Stellio, and features that great clarinetist in recordings made in Paris between 1929 and 1931. Another double-CD set on the same label is called Biguine, and includes several tracks by Messrs Stellio, Delouche, and many of their island colleagues. They’re available online. Bill was always buying lottery tickets, and promised that if he ever won, we were both going to fly to Martinique, and see how much of the original music was left there. I knew he wasn’t kidding, and I’m just sorry that his numbers never came up. That would have been some trip.
Our son, Andrew, was born in 1987. Over the past half dozen years he’s become a very good piano player. He knows all about Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb, Zez Confrey, and Rube Bloom. Fats Waller, The Lion, James P., Donald Lambert, Art Tatum, Joe Sullivan, John Sheridan, Mel Powell, Art Hodes, Arthur Schutt, Bill Evans, Rossano Sportiello, Chris Hopkins, Bernd Lhotzky, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Ralph Sutton, Jay McShann, Johnny Varro, Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Sonny Leyland, Jelly Roll Morton, Mark Shane, Ray Skjelbred, Jess Stacy, Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, and many, many others.
Andrew knows who Bill Campbell is, too. I think Bill would like that.
I would like to thank my friend Derek Coller, whose own April 2005 Mississippi Rag article about Bill Campbell, “I Was Always A Help-Out Guy: The Story of Bill Campbell,” provided me with necessary biographical information and more than a few insights into this complex man.
My “conversations” with Bill are of course paraphrased, yet are close approximations of what was actually said. In 1992, my friend and colleague, the great New Orleans-styled drummer Trevor Richards, took a quartet including Bill, Pud Brown, and Tom Baker to Zagreb for a couple of weeks. Trevor had the prescience to interview Bill at that time. The tape that Trevor later gave me of that interview proved invaluable in helping me recall Bill’s voice and his unique way of speaking.
Another friend (and another great drummer!), Hal Smith, patiently read and edited this article. Each one of his informed suggestions was a distinct improvement over my original effort. Any journalistic errors that remain are my own.