Jazz Institute of Chicago

The Wilbur Campbell Jazz All-Stars at the Red Sea Jazz Festival

The Wilbur Campbell Jazz All-Stars at the Red Sea Jazz Festival
by Irving Zucker
Wilbur sure had paid his dues as a musician and as an African-American growing up before the era of civil rights. I was always puzzled by the fact that some musicians achieved national or even international fame while others with superior talents didn’t. Even with all of his musical achievements, Wilbur had never been invited to perform at an overseas jazz festival. Musicians all seemed to know him—Wilbur was friends with and played with ALL of my jazz heroes—Bird, Trane, Miles, Billie, Jug, Stitt, etc. But few festival directors here or abroad knew about the musical treasures we had in Chicago.
With the encouragement of Jodie Christian, one of Chicago’s brilliant pianists and a Jazz Express band member, I tried my hand at booking Chicago jazz groups at overseas festivals. During one of my trips to Israel, I chanced to meet Danny Gottfried, the artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. After sending him press clippings and recordings, I finally convinced him to let me book two Chicago ensembles at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.
I asked Wilbur to choose a group of musicians that he would like to lead to go to this festival. He put together the “Wilbur Campbell Chicago Jazz All-Stars”, with Von Freeman, Willie Pickens, Francine Griffin, Ron Blake, John Whitfield, and Paul Serrano joining him. The other band I booked was the elegant, avant-garde 8 Bold Souls. Those two groups represented two widely different styles of Chicago jazz.
What a great time we had. These two bands were the first ever from Chicago to appear at this festival. The two groups and many of their spouses who came along got the royal treatment—an article about the bands in the TWA in-flight magazine, a mini press conference and photo shoot at the airport upon our arrival, a full-fledged interview session with all of the Israeli jazz critics in the hotel lobby in Eilat, a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, kitchenette suites at the hotel with boxes of chocolates and bottles of wine in each. When the festival was over the whole group got on a bus for a ride across the Sinai desert to Cairo for a three-day tour including the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, Memphis, and Sahara.
I’ll always remember Wilbur Campbell, who taught me so much about jazz and about life. He was the transcendant jazz musician. He never sweated the small stuff because he always saw the larger picture. He understood people and saw through all pretenses. He was always direct and perfectly honest, without offending or hurting anyone’s feelings. Once I asked him how it felt to play with all the great superstars and to know them as friends. Wilbur said that even famous people are still people and have their faults and flaws just like the rest of us. He never placed himself above others, in spite of his “royal” stature among Chicago drummers as “the Chief.”
We all owe you a lot, Wilbur, and we sure will miss you.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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