Roy Campbell 101: From Where He Came

Jason Byrne - Red Cat Publicity BY

Sign in to view read count
[Campbell] has been an incessantly curious musician for most of his 50-plus years and this informs everything he does in music and life.
We're just about midway through 2005 and NYC-based trumpeter Roy Campbell has already toured Europe with The Nu Band; performed at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival with his Pyramid Trio, featuring his musical brother, bassist William Parker; and toured Europe yet again with guitarist Marc Ribot's Spiritual Unity Band. Plus, he's played a host of gigs on his own turf and has presented jazz workshops for elementary school students with his group Tazz. "Tazz is Roy's nickname, bestowed upon him by the late Billy Higgins when they both played with David Murray in the '80s, for reasons that become obvious when listening to Roy's fierce, mischievous playing.

Campbell likes to keep his fingers in a lot of pies and often performs with several different ensembles within the span of a few days, as he will be doing at the 10th annual Vision Festival this month. He has been an incessantly curious musician for most of his 50-plus years and this informs everything he does in music and life. Although Campbell considers himself a traditionalist, musically anything goes.

On his solo from the title track on Ethnic Stew and Brew (2001), evidence of Roy's free spirit and his virtuosity can be found in abundance. As he aims to do when soloing, this one takes you on an excursion. It is simply fearless, emotional and powerful. One of the first solos that taught him the importance of getting listeners on board was Kenny Dorham's slick improvisation on "Soft Winds from Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers' At The Cafe Bohemia, Vol. 1. He still marvels at Dorham's knack for playing the right notes at the right time and probably has this in the back of his mind regardless of how free the music gets.

By age six Campbell started classical piano lessons while in the midst of intense listening to recordings by Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker With Strings was an early influence), Dizzy, Ella and later Jackie McLean and Dexter Gordon (on Dexter Calling, 1961). Campbell was also being influenced by soundtracks to films such as Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, where he got a taste of Arabic music; the Zorro films of the '30s and '40s, where he heard boleros and other Latin styles; and Tarzan films where he heard some semblance of African music.

He continued listening to disparate styles such as flamenco and what he calls "pork chop and barbecue music by artists such as "Groove Holmes and the late Jimmy Smith. He later got into Coltrane and Albert Ayler, although he remained partial to Hank Mobley, especially the Blue Note album Dippin' (1965), featuring Lee Morgan and Billy Higgins.

As a kid of the '60s growing up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, where he still lives, Campbell started digging rock, R&B, Motown and James Brown. Particularly Grits & Soul (1964) and James Brown Plays James Brown: Today and Yesterday (1966), on which he heard Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder and Horace Silver's "Song For My Father. This led him to seek out the composers' versions of these tunes, which he found to be far superior. The influence of Morgan grew stronger, peaking when he met the trumpeter at The Bronxwood Inn at age 15.

At this club, and at two other neighborhood clubs -Mother Blues and The Monterey -Campbell also remembers hearing Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Blue Mitchell, Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Heath, Milt Jackson and Lou Donaldson. In the mid '60s, Campbell had worked summers as an usher for concerts produced on Randalls Island and had the golden opportunity to hear Monk, Ellington, Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Cannonball Adderley. "In the '60s you could see the whole period of jazz, said Campbell.

The trumpeter heard drummer Sunny Murray around '67 play at Carnegie Hall with Byard Lancaster, after which he bought several of the drummer's records and also recordings from saxophonist Frank Wright which fascinated Campbell because he has perfect pitch and could hear what was happening harmonically. "It wasn't predictable, they weren't following the mainstream chord progressions, I found it very interesting, was his instinctual reaction.

All of these varied influences coalesced inside his mind and soul and fueled his desire to play music that spontaneously blends styles and genres, freely abandoning convention but not completely. By '70, at age 17, it was decided that he could no longer just listen, he had to play.

So he began contending with the imposing lineage of jazz trumpet playing, including his father (also a gifted trumpeter who once played with Ornette Coleman). Coleman later told Roy, "Man, your father had a style like 'Fat Girl' [Fats Navarro]. Campbell added, with pride, "he could play! Campbell listened endlessly to the masters, digesting fragments of their solos that he fancied. Eventually he thought to himself, "You got Lee Morgan, Roy Eldridge, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Dizzy, Woody Shaw, all these great cats that play this instrument...you want to play trumpet, you've got to come up with something different... After stretches of eight-hour practice days and studies at Jazzmobile with Morgan and Dorham, a friend came to hear him play and said, "Roy, I could hear you from down the street and I knew that it was you playing. As important as it is to have your own identity in jazz, this was clearly a breakthrough. During this time, "guys wouldn't mind that you were influenced by somebody, but back then they said you had to get your own stuff. Campbell stands tough on this issue today as well, "you really have to have something to say...we don't need anybody out here that is playing just to be playing. If you don't have something unique to contribute, do something else.

In '74, after leading a band called Spectrum, Campbell and pianist/vocalist Radha Reyes Botofasina formed the Spirits of Rhythm, which featured at various times the likes of Charles Neville, JT Lewis, Kenny Kirkland, Rodney Jones, Kenny Washington, Bobby Watson and Cecil McBee. Five years after picking up the horn Campbell had already racked up experience playing with Dannie Richmond, Bill Saxton, Wilbur Ware, Pharoah Sanders, Carlos Garnett and others. But it was in '78 he met his kindred spirit, bassist William Parker, and soon after joined Jemeel Moondoc's Ensemble Muntu. He went on to perform and record with David Murray, Sahib Shihab's Big Band, Klaas Hekman (while living in the Netherlands from 1990-92) and many others. In '91 Campbell recorded his first album as a leader, New Kingdom, which he calls "Roy Campbell 101 as it touches on the many musical bases Campbell regularly spins off from to this day. New Kingdom was for him a way of humbly presenting "another order of the music. Something he feels continues to this day.

Despite the fact that Roy Campbell has been one of the most active musicians on the scene for several decades, his name is absent from three of the major texts on jazz that have been released in the past several years: Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz, Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz and, most surprisingly, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler's The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. This can be accepted, but only when realizing that perhaps Campbell's brightest star has yet to shine, since he has plenty of music up his sleeve that surely will turn heads.

At 40 Campbell suffered a stroke and almost died. Astonishingly, six months later he recorded his second album as a leader, the brilliant La Tierra del Fuego (Delmark). This speaks volumes for Campbell's notion that music holds the healing power of the universe. After all, it was always the music that Roy Campbell lived for, and still does.

Visit Roy Campbell on the web.

Recommended Listening:

· Roy Campbell -New Kingdom (Delmark, 1991)

· Roy Campbell -La Tierra del Fuego (Delmark, 1993)

· Roy Campbell/Pyramid -Communion (Silkheart, 1994)

· Other Dimensions in Music -Now! (AUM Fidelity, 1997)

· Roy Campbell -Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark, 2000)

· Roy Campbell -It's Krunch Time (Thirsty Ear, 2001)

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin

Post a comment


View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Local Businesses | More...

Shop Amazon



Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.