Jazz Institute of Chicago

Remembering Wilbur

Remembering Wilbur
by Stu Katz

I decided to become a bebop player in the mid-'50s. At that time, I chose to come out playing vibes because there were already so many talented pianists in residence (among others, Richard (Muhal) Abrams, Chris Anderson, Jodie Christian, Kenny Frederickson, Gene Esposito, Billy Green, Eddie Higgins, Andrew Hill, Eric Kaiser, Tommy Ponce, Norman Simmons and John Young).

Wilbur Campbell was immediately one of my heroes. He was the drummer of choice in groups led by Ira Sullivan (trumpet and saxophones), which at the time as often as not included Nicky Hill or Johnny Griffin on saxophone, Victor Sproles on bass violin and one of the above pianists. After having established my credentials, I would be permitted to sit in (first on vibes, later on piano) with different bands, although rarely with Wilbur in the beginning.

So when Wilbur's and my relationship began over 40 years ago, I was originally just an observer of his prodigious talents. There were countless evenings when I would watch him perform, marveling at his uncanny ability to play blinding tempos with absolute control and musicality and awed by his mastery of ballads.

When I was lucky enough to be in the same rhythm section as Wilbur and he would play a solo, especially on up-tempo tunes, I would painstakingly count every bar just to see how he moved from chorus to chorus. This went on for years until one night in the '60's at a club on Stony Island Avenue, the late bassist, Donald (Rafael) Garrett, pulled me aside and mentioned that he could tell I was counting bars during Wilbur's drum solos.

"When a drummer as musical as Wilbur plays a solo" he said, "don't ever count. Instead, listen to what he is playing, as you would to a trumpet, saxophone or piano solo. I can walk into a club in the middle of a Wilbur Campbell solo and know not only where he is in the tune but most of the time what song the band is playing!"

After that night, whenever Wilbur and I played in the same rhythm section, regardless of the tempo, I never counted during his solos. This not only took the pressure off me as to when to come back in—it also blessed me with opportunities to listen to his solos from the perspective of an audience member with the best seat in the house.

Some of the happiest nights of my life were playing at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase with Wilbur Campbell as the percussionist and Larry Gray playing the bass. Wilbur's gentle but completely assured dominance of the rhythm section and Larry's sensitive, creative and solid playing made those occasions utterly delightful.

I also specifically rememember two nights at a now-defunct club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, many years ago, when Wilbur Campbell, a bass player (it may have been a different bassist each night) and I accompanied Bunky Green. Milwaukee was Bunky's home town and his family came out in force to hear him play. Because Wilbur's wife, Valarie, my wife, Penny, and Bunky's wife, Edie, are close personal friends, Valarie and Penny came along for the ride and the six of us made a weekend mini-vacation of it. As wonderful as the social part of it was, the highlight was the music.

I think it may have been Ira Sullivan who first introduced me to the concept of "striking a groove" (which should be the goal of every jazz group). You certainly know it when it happens. A surreal unity, aura and joy surrounds the music and the musicians and everything seems to come together in a spectacular way—and it seems to last for the entire evening once it arrives. For me, it parallels any experience I can remember.

There was a non-stop groove the entire two nights in Milwaukee. And at the time, Wilbur was at the height of his prowess. I smiled and laughed as much that weekend as in any other musical setting I can recall.

Because Wilbur and I were good friends, I was often graced by his personal wisdom. Wilbur was a man of few, very well chosen words. His advice and counsel were always important to me. Wilbur's generosity of spirit and genuine care for people taught me many life lessons.
It is impossible for me to summarize the essence of a truly great musician in words alone. I can only say, in closing, that my life is infinitely richer and more fortunate for having known and played with my good friend, Wilbur Campbell.

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