Tag Archives: Liadain O’Donovan

A VIVID MAN: CHARLES “DUFF” CAMPBELL (1915-2014)

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! 

“ROSES OF PICARDY” AND “SUNDAY”: WHAT FUN!

I’m indebted to Flemming Thorbye, whom I’ve never met, for video-recording these two songs and putting them on YouTube, where they held me transfixed through several viewings.  The performances might look informal, but it takes a great deal of hard-earned mastery to be so casual.  Thorbye captured this band at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa, July 2005.

The band was officially billed as Spats Langham and his Rhythm Boys, but this ensemble has a democratic strolling feel: routines are improvised on the stand and no one monopolizes the stage.  Even at a distance, you can see the players grinning at each other’s solos, which is not as common as you might think.

The Anglo-American players — what players! — are Thomas “Spats” Langham, guitar and vocal; Tom Pletcher, cornet; Paul Munnery, trombone; Norman Field, clarinet; Jeff Barnhart, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass sax; Nick Ward, drums.

The first song was one of Jule Styne’s earliest — “Sunday,” whose lyrics make the trek through the week to arrive at the one day when romance can flourish.  Bix recorded it as a member of the Jean Goldkette band — with an enthusiastic, cheery vocal by the Keller Sisters and Lynch.  Apocryphally, Lynch was the Sisters’ brother, but that might be too confusing a fact to incorporate.

I know “Sunday” from years of listening to jazz sessions that took place on that day: it was and is a comfortable tune to begin with.  Ruby Braff and Bobby Hackett did it often, and Jon-Erik Kellso continues the tradition now.

After a few cinematographic shudders, we settle down with Pletcher’s firm, nuanced lead — helped immeasurably by neat improvisations from Field and Munnery.  The limber rhythm section moves things along: Sjostrom, as always doing the work of two or perhaps three men, playing rhythm and soloing.  After Tom ends his solo with a “Holiday for Strings” lick, Munnery comes on like a supple Harlem trombonist c. 1931, with easy grace.  Pletcher’s solo outing is full of Bix sound-castles, beautiful architecture, but I would also have you listen closely to Nick Ward’s rocking choke-cymbal (and then his accents behind Field on what Jo Jones used to call “elephants’ nuts”).  Feld is deep into the idiom, but he doesn’t copy anyone’s phrases.  Spats (at Pletcher’s direction) takes a winsome vocal, backed by Barnhart and then Sjostrom.  When Frans solos, it’s easy to get swept away in his pure sound — but on a second listening, one comes to admire the shapes of his phrases, echoing the whole reed tradition.  Jeff Barnhart drifts into some nifty Zez Confrey flourishes in the middle of his solo, paving the way for a fervent but still measured ensemble, driven home by Nick once again.

“Roses of Picardy,” a sentimental favorite from the First World War, is even better.  It was the last tune of the set, and (as often happens) all the horns and the players and their instruments had warmed up.  I can’t connect Bix with this song, but it was a popular favorite of his teens.  Everyone is even more lyrical — Frans, Tom, a very Russellish Field, Langham blending Django and Lang, and Munnery, leading into the final ensemble.  Although the audience drowns out Nick Ward’s break, we know it was there, so that will have to do.  What great ease!

Some discographical comments:

I first heard Nick Ward, Spats Langham, and Norman Field on a Stomp Off CD, THE CHALUMEAU SERENADERS (1394) which also features the reed wizard Matthias Seuffert in the front line.  Spats appeared on only one track — a vocal on a song I associate with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, “Okay, Baby,” but his singing was so wonderful that I sought out the two Lake CDs he had made under his own name — a duet with pianist Martin Litton called LOLLIPOPS (LACD 226) and a small band — also featuring Norman! — THE HOTTEST MAN IN TOWN (LACD 228).  The duet album has its serenely beautiful moments; the small band is cheerfully frisky.  Norman shows off his beautiful alto work as well on these CDs.  And Nick Ward is a quiet powerhouse, rocking the band without getting loud or louder.

I apologize for my not having any Paul Munnery CDs to report on — but a bit of online research suggests that he is a Higginbotham – Nanton man on CD, so I will look for his smaller group, SWING STREET, and his work with a big repertory band, HARLEM.

Jeff Barnhart has made many CDs with multi-instrumentalist Jim Fryer, and he’s also recorded a lovely solo piano CD for Arbors, IN MY SOLITUDE (19324).

I’ve praised Frans Sjostrom elsewhere in this blog and will continue to do so: search out his extraordinary HOT JAZZ TRIO on the Kenneth label (CKS 3417) with Bent Persson, and he also is an essential part of the ensemble on I’M GLAD: TOM PLETCHER AND THE CLASSIC JAZZ BAND (Stomp Off 1353).  Tom has appeared on many earlier vinyl issues with the Sons of Bix — have they made it to CD?  But most recently, he has impresed me deeply on CD, not as a player, but as a writer and annotator of a most special kind.  Many of you will know of Tom’s late father, Stewart (or Stu or even Stew) Pletcher, a wonderfully lyrical player whose most notable recordings were made as a member of Red Norvo’s Thirties orchestra and combos.  I was delighted that the Jazz Oracle label issued THE STORY OF STEWART PLETCHER (BDW 8055) in 2007.  Marvelously researched as always, it gives a thorough picture of Pletcher Sr.’s playing — through rare recordings, of course, from 1924 to 1937.  That would be enough for me.  But I was tremendously moved by his son’s essay on his father.  It is loving yet candid, a tribute to a man much-loved but not always easy to know.  I do not overpraise it by calling it an affecting memoir, honoring both father and son at once.

If you don’t know these players, I hope I’ve given you reason to regret your previous ignorance and repent yourselves of it as soon as possible.

P.S.  The espression “What fun!” comes from Liadain O’Donovan — of Kinvara, Dalkey, New York, and San Francisco — and I hope she doesn’t mind my borrowing it.