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About Wilbur Campbell


Albert Nicholas first presented me with the old canard:

"How big is the band?"

"Six musicians and a drummer!"

Baby Dodds may have been the first drummer to prove himself a musician, but it seems that every drummer since the earliest days has had to do so. The fact that Wilbur doubled on vibes and occasional served as emergency pianist closes his case.

Bassist Truck Parham once played tuba and remembers a very young Wilbur tossing pennies into his horn while he was playing. He also recalls playing with Wilbur's brother Burns Campbell (records for Bluebird with Lovin Sam Theard for Bluebird in '38.)

Wilbur Campbell came out of Walter Dyett's jazz cauldron, DuSable H.S. and into Chicago's overheated jazz scene of the 40's -- alive with the offerings of Fritz Jones (Ahmad Jamal); Sonny Blount (Sun Ra); Gene Ammons; Jay Peters; Andrew Hill; George, Bruz and Von Freeman, among many others, galvanized by regular visits from Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, J.J.Johnson, Art Blakey, et al.

Did Wilbur go on the road with some of these fiery visitmen? Not that I know of. A wife and a family were more important.

He burned up the bandstands and recording studios here in Chicago. I could never get details of R&B and blues sessions he occasionally referred to, but you'll find him on numerous jazz sessions for Vee Jay and Chess's Argo/Cadet labels. Delmark's very first Chicago session by Ira Sullivan with Nicky Hill, Nicky's Tune (422) was aided by his enthsiasm as was that slightly later album by Ira with Johnny Griffin, Blue Stroll (402).

The Blue Stroll session was hurriedly called when Mr. Griffin became suddenly available. Wilbur's drums were locked up at the Sutherland Hotel ballroom where he had played the night before, so he borrowed a set. Toward the end of the long Bluzinbee track, one of the spurs of the bass drum gave way and Wilbur concluded the track working at a 45 degree angle. (The engineer was able to fade from one Magnecorder to another when the tape ran out.)

Another Delmark session was Stablemates (488) by Eric Alexander and Lin Halliday. Wilbur played his own drums and we can only recall that he did his usual great job.

If Wilbur wasn't a charter member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago he certainly came on the board very early and was relied upon to wryly bring his knowledge of the everyday workings of the jazz music world to bear on JIC's planning and activities.

Wilbur Campbell was the most frequently employed drummer at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase. In fact he and Joe probably went back to Joe's days with the Roosevelt University Jazz Club and the Beehive, thru the legendary sessions at the Gate of Horn, in the late 50's, the Blind Pig in the early 60's, the Brown Shoe, Club Laurel, Rush Street, etc. Not just because Joe and Wilbur were tight but because the visiting musicians would ask for his presence.

Aside from his musical career, Wilbur deserves much credit for his day job, bringing his vast street knowledge to bear on a substance-abuse program.

Wilbur died December 30th and a service took place on Saturday, January 8th at Cage Memorial Chapel. It was a memorable affair. The Bethany Pickens Trio played in a lobby adjacent to a wondrous spread in one room while a video of some of Wilbur's performances played in the main room, where I noticed no less than four sets of drums, and Wilbur's vibes were set up in the main chapel. Joe Segal capably handled matters and it seemed everyone in jazz was there and most played, including Ari Brown, Von Freeman, Duke Payne, Eric Schneider, Burgess Gardner, Art Hoyle, Sonny Turner, Stu Katz, Willie Pickens, Rufus Reid, Dan Shapera, John Whitfield, Jerry Coleman, Don Moye, Curtis Prince, Robert Shy.

A life to celebrate, a passing to regret.

From Howard Reich's Tribune obit comes this Jackie DeJonette quote: "When he would play the drums, he would fill up his solos like somebody was packing a suitcase with as much as he could. ... He was one of the great drummers of the world, even though a lot of people didn't know it."