John Campbell


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John Campbell


John Campbell has followed a path familiar to those who know their jazz history: perfecting his art in the quiet and undemanding surroundings of the American Midwest before heading east for greater exposure and acclaim. And, like many before him, Campbell has brought an openness, and an attention to substance, that seems endemic to those who grow up on America's prairie.

Campbell was born in Bloomington, a small city in central Illinois, on 7/7/55. ("I don't know the numerological significance," he deadpans, "but it's probably very deep.") While his parents were not particularly musical, the rest of his family was, from his grandfather—who had been a professional pianist and organist—to several uncles and many of his cousins. Campbell's parents contributed their extensive taste in popular music to John's musical education: by the time he was three, the youngster was used to hearing the great swing bands of the Forties, Nat "King" Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, and, a little later, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner.

By Campbell's reasoning, he got a late start at the piano—"I didn't start taking lessons till I was seven"—but it wasn't long before he was accompanying the music classes at the Lutheran grade school he attended. At the same time, his own taste in popular music began to rival that of his parents for range and variety: Top 40 hits vied with show tunes for his attention, and he also began to focus on the classical literature, particularly the work of Chopin.

Eventually, remembering his early fascination with the music of Erroll Garner, Campbell began to gravitate toward jazz. He eventually succumbed to a local music store saleslady who told him to forget Garner and try Oscar Peterson—which changed his entire approach to the piano. “I had never heard somebody swing that hard, or play with that much facility,” Campbell recalls. Galvanized by Peterson's superhuman technique, Campbell formed a trio with two high school classmates; after school, he also began hanging out in the band room, working with the percussion instruments he played in the band, and fooling around with the bass as well.

By the time he graduated high school, the young pianist had found a teacher to satisfy his interest in learning the standard classical piano literature. Unwilling to discontinue those lessons, he decided to remain near home and attend Illinois State University; he was also unwilling to submit himself to other philosophies of piano instruction, so he enrolled as a percussion major, playing bass in the university jazz band. He also began spending time at the University of Illinois, about an hour away at Champaign, where he met and began working regularly on that campus's fertile jazz scene.

After two years of college, Campbell made his way to Chicago—first on a trial basis, in the fall of 1976, and then to stay the following spring. (One of his apartments was near Wrigley Field, and "that's when I started spending a lot of time at the ballpark," says Campbell, explaining the genesis of his continuing interest in baseball.) In 1978, Campbell began working regularly with Joel Spencer (whom he'd known in Champaign) in the band led by Chicago sax legend Joe Daley. Daley's band often included bassist Steve Rodby (now with Pat Metheny), and the association soon led to an intriguing quartet featuring Rodby, Paul Wertico (now Metheny's drummer), and guitarist Ross Traut.

In addition, Campbell and Spencer were now working with bassist Kelly Sill and an energetic young tenor man, Ed Petersen, in the quartet known as Campbell's Group. It was this quartet that spun off the Campbell Trio—one of the most accomplished units in recent Chicago history—which was soon in demand as a backing rhythm section for visiting soloists, including Eddie Jefferson and Richie Cole, Eddie Harris, Ira Sullivan, James Moody, and Clark Terry. Terry was among the first nationally-known musicians to act on his appreciation of Campbell's talents, hiring him for a European tour in 1981.

In 1984, Campbell finally succumbed to his own curiosity and moved to New York. "[Saxophonist and educator] Dave Liebman kind of put the bug in my ear," says Campbell. "Besides, I didn't want to always wonder what it would have been like." Just before the move, pianist Jim McNeely—who had preceded Campbell on the University of Illinois scene—recommended Campbell as his temporary replacement in Stan Getz's band.

Finally, after "some little gigs" around New York, Campbell began working with Mel Tormé in 1986. Tormé would have been bucking a wave of opinion by not hiring Campbell, who first was recommended by bassist Jay Leonhart, and then George Shearing; when Campbell finally worked his first date with Tormé, Al Cohn was on the bill, and he added his voice to the Campbell chorus. "It all came together," Campbell understates.

Called in to work with the rhythm section backing Terry Gibbs and Buddy DeFranco at Chicago's Jazz Showcase in 1986, Campbell proved impressive enough to be invited back: the occasion was their 1987 return to the Showcase, where they recorded their first Contemporary album (Chicago Fire). Campbell also appeared on the next Gibbs/DeFranco album, Holiday for Swing, and it was immediately after that recording session that Gibbs set about producing Campbell's debut as a leader, After Hours. It is clearly only the debut: for despite his invaluable contributions to other bands, a pianist as versatile and satisfying as Campbell has earned a place at the head of his own groups.