Tribute to Wilbur Campbell | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Tribute to Wilbur Campbell


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Chicago drummer Wilbur Campbell's death on December 31 seemed almost poetic in its timing: for most of his 73 years he immersed himself completely in jazz, a music in many ways characteristic of the century that was about to close. Campbell came up playing bebop when bebop was young, in the early 1950s, and by the 90s his mastery of the idiom made him worthy of the usually hyperbolic term "living legend." During the last decade of his life no other drummer in Chicago, and only a handful anywhere in the world, could so expertly navigate bop's fearsome complexity or convey the excitement those first audiences must've felt five decades ago; most contemporary boppers just reconstruct the music from a formula. If a horn man didn't have a firm sense of rhythm himself, he didn't belong onstage with Campbell, because "the Chief" wasn't anybody's metronome. In his hands the beat and its subdivisions became a living thing--and woe to the soloist who hoped Campbell would tie up his loose ends for him. I'm sure this crowded tribute won't run like clockwork, but it's hosted by the Jazz Showcase's Joe Segal, one of Campbell's close friends, and its roster reads like an outline of Campbell's career: it includes the unflappable tenor great Johnny Griffin, who knew him at DuSable High, when they both studied with Walter Dyett, and played with him often in the 50s and 60s; bassist Rufus Reid, who in the 70s anchored the house rhythm section with Campbell at the Showcase; and two younger musicians, bassist Larry Gray and saxist Eric Schneider, whom he mentored and who in turn became his comrades. Copenhagen-based drummer Ed Thigpen, who made his name in Oscar Peterson's famous trio in the early 60s, will also be on hand, along with several other drummers, including Griffin sideman Kenny Washington; so will pianist Stu Katz, trumpeter Arthur Hoyle, and saxist Eddie Johnson. Pianist Willie Pickens organized a different intergenerational lineup at Campbell's funeral--coordinating smaller groups of players to prevent the music from dissolving into jam-session bathos, despite the sometimes simultaneous participation of as many as four trap-kit drummers--and he'll perform the same function here. Monday, 8 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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