Jazz Institute of Chicago

Wilbur Campbell and the Jazz Express

Wilbur Campbell and the Jazz Express
by Irving Zucker

I met Wilbur shortly after joining the Jazz Institute Board in the early ‘80s. I was teaching high school English and taking my classes on evening field trips to cultural events (such as a club appearance by McCoy Tyner), which were fodder for descriptive writing assignments. Old pal Jim DeJong (he’s still on the Board!) suggested that I come on the Board to develop a strong jazz education component. Jazz was taught in the suburbs, while there was so very little jazz in the minimal music curriculum in the Chicago Public Schools. It seemed ironic that schools in the afluent white suburbs had so much more. Jazz, after all, was a black music and so much of it had been created and nurtured right here in Chicago.

The Education Committee at the time had a small historically-oriented project under development involving live-performance videos of jazz stars like Billie Holiday, Duke, Dizzy, and others from Sue Markle’s collection, which were to be shown to high school groups in the schools, helped along by knowledgeable and well-known Chicago musicians as presenters and discussants, people like Wilbur and Willie Pickens and Von Freeman and Art Hoyle.

Our first presentation of “A Look at Jazz” was at Orr High School on the West Side. It was a wild place. Back in those days a giant video screen was a really novel thing. (So was the real Billie instead of Diana Ross.) Wilbur was the presenter, introducing each clip, explaining the jazz art form and what to listen for, and commenting on the various artists. Wilbur sat in the middle of the band room next to the screen, surrounded by 90 students, completely commanding their attention. His rapport and charisma were so strong, I was really in awe of his instant authority over the students. I saw that Wilbur had potential as a master teacher.

The following year I was asked to chair the JIC Education Committee and develop a large-scale, system-wide jazz education program for the Chicago Public Schools. This was when I began to work closely with Wilbur and really got to know him. After a year and a half in the planning stage, we launched the Jazz Express in cooperation with the Chicago Public Schools. Putting the finishing touches on the Jazz Express, I was in contact with Wilbur on the phone almost every other day. What a privilege it was for me to work with a giant of jazz music. Wilbur was the Artistic Director while I was Chairman of the project.

The Jazz Express was a concert series with accompanying text material for preconcert study that was provided to the high schools free of charge by the Jazz Institute. It was for listeners of all levels of skill, not just music students. Before the project came to an end, we had presented 118 live jazz concerts over an eight-year period at a different Chicago high school almost every two weeks. This program was designed to be a start towards knowing about the music.

We launched the Jazz Express at Whitney Young High School with Wynton Marsalis as our special guest artist. When each new season began, we had one of the nationally known stars come in for the kickoff concert. Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Stanley Turrentine, Eddie Harris, Randy Weston, Julian Priester, Clifford Jordan and others all did guest appearances with the Jazz Express. They were all friends of Wilbur’s and came to play and talk because he asked them and because all of them felt it was important for a new generation to be exposed to this important original American art form.

Over 100,000 students heard live jazz, and for most it was their very first experience with this music. Over those eight years, many prominent local jazz artists served as members of the Jazz Express All-Stars: John Whitfield, Dan Shapera, Jodie Christian, John Young, Ed Petersen, Francine Griffin, Jimmy Ellis, Paul Serrano, Orbert Davis, Sonny Turner, George Bean, Kansas Fields, and many others.

One memorable concert took place at Spaulding High School, a school for all types of handicapped students. We featured a special guest artist who was an alumnus of Spaulding, the exciting young jazz organist Chris Foreman. This concert turned out to be an affirmation of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and achieve excellence. Chris, who is blind, was playing at his alma mater. This was one of the most attentive and enthusiastic audiences that the Jazz Express All-Stars had ever played for. Wilbur was especially moved by the warmth of the reception.

During the final season of the Jazz Express, we performed (in jail) at the high school in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The headline of our news release read “Jazz Express Plays to Captive Audience.” That band featured Bethany Pickens, Larry Gray, Alejo Poveda, Ed Peterson, Orbert Davis, and a young vocalist who was soon to become a Blue Note recording star, Kurt Elling. The Jazz Express All-Stars was Kurt’s first professional gig. It was a swinging young, ass-kicking band.

As was his custom at Jazz Express special events, WLS news anchor and jazz afficianado Harry Porterfield was master of ceremonies. Our band leader Wilbur, always gracious and witty, closed the event, thanking the students for attending. He got a big round of applause when he said, “Hopefully we’ll be performing here again in the near future and you won’t be here.” Thank you, Wilbur, for leading the Jazz Express and making it true to the music.

[Sue Markle note: Irv was a true insider to the school system — it was his machinations that got us into music classes and auditoriums all over town on this early project and made the later Jazz Express project able to claim performances at all Chicago high schools. Check that fact—all but one. One holdout.]

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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