Campbell’s Low Profile to Appear in Twin Cities

Thursday, November 23, 2000

By Dan Craft, Pantagraph entertainment editor

Looking back over his quarter century as a professional jazz pianist, Bloomington-Normal native John Campbell can attest to having tasted the bitter with the sweet.

In no area is that sensation registered more acutely than in the realm of the dwindling ranks of legendary jazz greats.

Campbell, who will be back in town a week from today (7 p.m. Nov. 30) for a homecoming gig with the Heartland Jazz Orchestra at The Coffeehouse in downtown Normal, knows whereof he speaks.

For example, the last time The Pantagraph published a full-scale profile of Campbell — in February of 1990 — the 1973 University High School grad was still the personal accompanist for singer Mel Torme, who was in town for an ISU Braden Auditorium show.

In the intervening years, Torme suffered a debilitating stroke and passed on.

Also a key associate of Campbell during the past several decades is yet another 20th-century jazz icon, Clark Terry. These days, says Campbell, “he’s still hanging in there, but he’s not great — he has to sit down when he’s playing …”

And so time riffs on, to its own dizzying be-bop beat.

“You know, I’m really fortunate,” says Campbell, 45. “I’ve gotten the chance to play with a lot of the older guys who are starting to disappear, and it’s bittersweet because, certainly, everybody has to die. But I’m really glad to have had the chance to work them.”

Besides Torme and Terry, “them” would include the formidable likes of Buddy DeFranco, Lionel Hampton, Terry Gibbs, Joe Williams, Anita O’Day, Cleo Laine and Stan Getz.

The Torme association was certainly one of Campbell’s highest-profile gigs to date, beginning in 1986 and continuing though 1990.

Actually, he notes, when Twin Cities audiences saw Campbell accompanying the famed “Velvet Fog” in his February 1990 ISU concert, the partnership was nearing its end — just eight months later in November of that year.

“In fact,” notes Campbell, “my very last gig with Mel — in Japan — was recorded as an album (‘Mel Torme: Fujitso Concord Festival in Japan ’90’).”

Following Campbell’s exit from the Torme fold, “I wasn’t terribly close to him after I left — it wasn’t bad vibes or anything like that. I did see him at Michael’s Pub (in New York) several times later and we got along fine. And his manager recommended me for a couple other gigs.”

It was just careers going in other directions, as happens all the time in the music world.

“I felt bad about Mel after I heard about the stroke,” Campbell continues. “I knew that that was really killing him, not being able to work. He loved to perform and that was his whole thing. I talked to a couple people subsequently who basically said that they’d been to see him, and it was not good.”

Not to downplay his four years with Torme, but, notes Campbell, “I’ve played with Clark Terry for 10 years — twice as long as Mel. But somehow everybody always thinks of Mel first.”

During the early days of his career in Chicago, Campbell’s own group, the John Campbell Trio, was hired to back visiting solo greats like Terry (and Bunky Green and Ira Sullivan and Stan Getz and Al Cohn and many others).

In 1981, Campbell went to Japan to perform solo for several months and joined Terry in his European tour. The association continued thereafter. “That was a terrific experience,” the pianist says today.

Another perk of working with the likes of Torme and Terry was the chance to tour the world and play in some of its finest concert halls.

“Like with Mel, for instance, we played at the White House, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center — the best venues.”

Indeed, you name them, and Campbell has probably performed in them.

The 25-year road to the bitter and the sweet began when Campbell — the son of John E. and Harriet Campbell — was just a kid growing up on West Oakland Avenue in Bloomington. A fascination with his father’s collection of Erroll Garner albums and other jazz greats led to piano lessons at age 7 from veteran Twin Cities teacher Bee Guess, and further musical tutelage under Adrienne Jacoby (whose husband, Bill, was Campbell’s band director at U High) and Anna McGrosso.

On the performance front, Campbell could be heard as the U High Jazz Band’s pianist, percussionist in the school’s concert band and, several years later, as ringleader of the first edition of the John Campbell Trio, playing the Galery and Kosher Chuck’s Deli in downtown Normal. He also taught at Dick Benson’s Music! Music!, and, as a student at ISU, majored in percussion, because he was already studying piano with McGrosso.

At age 21, Campbell made the decision to leave ISU and head for Chicago, where he “found some work right away” with his trio partners and fellow U High grads, Clay Hewlet and Rick Drexler. During the next seven years (1977-84), Campbell carved out a firm niche on the Chicago jazz front (“the finest young keyboard man in town, and one of the better pianists anywhere,” said the Chicago Sun-Times’ jazz critic Neil Tesser), then made the move to an even more competitive market — New York.

Following several years playing vibes at a Holiday Inn brunch in Connecticut and an occasional gig with Terry or Getz, Campbell landed the Torme assignment, which kept him busy for four years. Also, he says, in 1993, he opened “the chicest hotel in New York — the Four Seasons,” and remained as a house pianist for four years.

Also during his 13-year New York stay, Campbell recorded three of his own albums — “After Hours” (1988), “Turning Point” (1990) and “Live at Maybeck Recital Hall Vol. 29” (1993). In addition, his sidemen duties were incorporated into more than a dozen albums by Torme, Terry, Terry Gibbs, Buddy DeFranco, Cleo Laine and others.

Of the Four Seasons hitch, he says, “It was a good feather in my cap that I could say I did. They never advertised or anything, but it had some moments.”

For instance, there was the time that composer Johnny Mandel happened to be in the room while Campbell was performing some of his standards. “He came up to me while I was playing — I had no idea he was in the audience — and he seemed to really like it very much. And we kind of been in touch every so often.”

Campbell admits that the New York jazz scene’s competition “can be kind of cutthroat, and I don’t really promote myself too much — that’s just not a part of me.” When the Four Seasons canceled its live music offerings during the summer of ’97, Campbell decided it was time for another change.

So it was back to his Midwestern roots three years ago, with a renewed presence on the Chicago jazz scene and his current steady gig at new club, the Villa Kula, at 4518 N. Lincoln Ave., where Campbell plays every Sunday night.

“I came back in a fairly low profile,” admits the pianist. “But people know I’m around, and I’ve been pickier about my gigs — I’m not taking everything.”

A year ago, Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich noted that “though he always has been a fluid, technically accomplished pianist, his work now carries a ferocity and drive that were not hallmarks of his earlier years. The smoothness and imperturbability of his youthful playing have given way to more vigorous keyboard attacks, more dramatic contrasts of dynamics and a generally more propulsive approach to up-tempo rhythm.”

Coming soon: a new John Campbell Trio album, recorded last June in New York for the Criss Cross label, with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond.

Coming not: any thoughts of retirement or slowing down.

“You don’t think of retirement,” he says, echoing the career timelines of Mel Torme and Clark Terry. “It’s a passion, not a job. I can’t see not doing it.”