Charles “Duff” Campbell — jazz aficionado and art dealer and close friend of the famous — was born on January 9, 1915. He died on October 3, 2014, peacefully, at his home in San Francisco. Even if he had never become friends with Jelly Roll Morton, Nat Cole, Mary Lou Williams, and many others, he would have been a remarkable man: a childhood in Vladivostok and Shanghai before he returned to California to stay.
Here is an official obituary — but Duff led such a richly varied life this summary cannot begin to tell more than the smallest bit of his tale.
Through the good offices of his dear friend, cornetist Leon Oakley, I was invited to Duff’s house on the afternoon of April 16, 2014, and I brought my video camera. Duff’s memory was not perfect, and occasionally it took a few questions from Leon to start a story going, but we knew we were in the presence of a true Elder.
He recalled seeing the Ellington band in California in the late Thirties (“They were so damned good”) and hanging out with Mary Lou Williams when she took a solo piano job at a hotel. “I went to hear everybody,” he said. “Everybody” meant the Basie band on an early trip west; Louis and Jack Teagarden in the first All-Stars; Joe Sullivan, Earl Hines, Don Ewell, Darnell Howard, Muggsy Spanier. Duff remembered sitting near Sullivan at Doc Daugherty’s Club Hangover and Sullivan turning to him and saying, “Well, what would you like to hear?”
For me — a born hero-worshipper — Duff was the most real link with the past imaginable. He sat in a car with Jelly Roll Morton; he drove Art Tatum to and from the gig; he had listening parties with Nat Cole as a guest.
Before anyone turns to the video, a few caveats. Duff had lost his sight but could still get around his house without assistance, and he had some involuntary muscle movements — so the unsuspecting viewer might think he was terribly comfortable, but he wanted to talk about the days he recalled, and when the afternoon was over he was intent on having us come back soon for more. It was a warm day and he had dressed formally for his guests, so he was perspiring, but a gentleman didn’t strip down while company was there. Here are some excerpts from that long interview, with Leon asking Duff questions:
on his encounters with Jelly Roll Morton:
and with Nat King Cole:
a brush with the law:
memories of Art Tatum:
Everyone I’ve ever mentioned Duff to, before and after his passing, has had the same reaction. We knew and and know now we were in the presence of an Original: quirky, independent, someone who knew what was good and supported it no matter what the crowd liked. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first met him at one of Mal Sharpe’s Big Money in Jazz afternoons at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach San Francisco. I saw an older gentleman sitting in front of the band, as close as he could get, a drink on the table. He was dancing in his chair, his body replicating every wave of the music. When I found out who he was and introduced myself (we had a dear mutual friend, Liadain O’Donovan) he was as enthusiastic in speech as he had been in dance. And I suspect that enthusiasm, that deep curiosity and energy, sustained him for nearly a century.
Goodbye, Duff. And thank you. It was an honor to be in your presence.
May your happiness increase!