On the Resonant Voices of Roy Campbell and Amiri Baraka

Roy Campbell/ photo by Peter Gannushkin

Yesterday I was shaken by the deaths of two men: Roy Campbell, 61, a musician who expressed himself best on trumpet, flugelhorn and pocket trumpet but also played flute, was an insightful writer, and acted in independent films and plays; and Amiri Baraka, 79, who is best known as an influential poet, playwright and critic but whose use of words as rhythm and color and whose many performances with jazz ensembles counts him as a musician of high order in my book.
That they passed on the same day merely highlights many points of connection—cultural, spiritual and intellectual—regarding their respective arcs of art and life, not to mention one regular spot of physical convergence, Manhattan’s annual Vision Festival. That’s where I saw and heard Baraka, wearing reading glasses and a cardigan sweater, holding a book of his own prose onstage, making the phrase “We were slaves” sound alternately tender and fierce, sad and angry, as set against the thrum of William Parker’s bass. And it’s where I began a friendship I’ll always treasure with Campbell, who played in multiple Vision Fest set most years, sometimes alongside Parker, his dear friend and longtime associate, and often leading his own powerful bands.
It will take me a while to process these passings, and I’m sure to write about each of these men separately to celebrate their distinctive achievements and spirits: They were towering artists and very different men whose warmth, wit and wisdom took often contrasting forms. I suspect I’ll be attending gatherings in each of their honors.
Amiri Baraka/ photo by Peter Gannushkin

But just now, I want to mark the moment and acknowledge how much both of them taught me about what black music sounds like, why it sounds that way, and what that might mean. I want to share these black-and-white photos by Peter Gannushkin. I want to relay what musicians have told me about Campbell and what Baraka and Campbell have said to me.
Trumpeter Dave Douglas told me that Campbell’s musicianship and humanity and his efforts as cofounder inspired the Festival of New Trumpet Music, which recently celebrated its tenth year. “On a cocktail napkin, Roy and I made a list of interesting players we could present,” he told me in an interview for this piece, “and it just got longer and longer. We didn’t think we’d do it again, but it created a community and people starting asking us, ‘What’s happening next year?’ We thought, ‘Why not see how far we can take this?’”
I want to spill out this comment, emailed from pianist Matthew Shipp:

There is no one like Roy Campbell on the music scene now. I guess it’s hard to situate someone by comparing them to others, but for lack of a better way to look at it: Roy encompasses both Lee Morgan’s soulfulness and the true abstract genius of Don Cherry into an organic synthesis. That statement is just an attempt to get a something across and is not meant to be taken literally, for what Roy brought to the table is original for this time. Roy was a natural—everything about him was completely real and never forced. The jazz industry does not have a place for someone as real as Roy Campbell. The jazz industry has some soul searching to do.

I want to recall what Amiri Baraka told me a the Vision Festival in 2006, when the post-Katrina devastation in New Orleans was still raw, and I was trying to make sense of its context:

“See, what Bush wants is to make New Orleans like his mother — shriveled and colorless.”

(Baraka could pack wisdom, hard truths, racial pride and funny stuff into a phrase as tightly as Thelonious Monk did at the piano.)
And I want to paste below an interview I did with Campbell for a Vision Festival program book nearly a decade ago (hence the dated references):
Roy Campbell’s presence is felt wherever he goes. His smile is infectious, his humor disarming. But it’s really about his intensity and openness when he picks up his trumpet, a wound piece of brass with three keys. Campbell thinks there’s magic in threes. He says it took him basically three years to formulate his style of playing, one that mixes blues and bebop convention with a searching sense that grew out of late-’60s free jazz. As on his new recording, Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark), he makes good use of a threesome—his Pyramid Trio, with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid. But Campbell thrives in all manner and number of contexts. He leads a quartet too, with new disc on Thirsty Ear Records. And among the many contexts you can hear Campbell is one clear favorite of his, the collective known as Other Dimensions in Music.
We tried to cover I all over lunch at an East Village Chinese joint.

How was your attention drawn to improvised music?

I think what turned me around was when I heard Albert Ayler, when I heard that album “Live in Greenwich Village.” I had seen Sunny Murray with Byard Lancaster, and then, I think, around 1968 or ‘69, there used to be a store called The Gramophone that was on 42nd Street.
I remember they had ESP albums for 99¢ at that time. I didn’t even know who the guys were; I just bought these records. I bought Frank Wright, and I knew Sunny Murray, so they had Sunny Murray’s album there, and then when I heard Sonny Simmons, that really linked something for me. I heard “Staying on the Watch,” and there was this other album he did; man, I could hear the tradition and the outside music all together. I really dug those albums.
And then Pharoah Sanders: He had that tune, “Um-La-La,” and he played that solo after the piano solo, and it made a lot of sense to me too. And then when I heard that tune “Change Has Come” by Albert Ayler, I began forming a concept about avant-garde jazz and just the music, period:  It’s like it’s all in a circle, and when you study, you have this cycle of fourths and cycle of fifths that’s in a circle, so you take all the different periods of jazz, and you put them in a circle as they develop. And I said, “This guy, Albert Ayler, is doing the beginning and the end in the same time.”
How did you connect with the community of musicians you now play with? How did the hook up with William Parker happen?
First time I saw William was at the Jazzmobile years ago. We all attended the Jazzmobile, some of the guys that I’d known for years, at the same time, and that was like in the early 7O’s. I think I saw William in 1971. I happened to go by the bass room one day, and I saw this guy there, and he was really serious, and he had an intense look about him. Well, I was a shy person at that time, too, and I think William was probably shy, so we didn’t meet each other then.
They had workshops with whatever instrument you played. I think Richard Davis and Wilbur Ware were teaching up there at that time on bass, and Lee Morgan and Joe Newman on trumpets, and Kenny Dorham. And I used to just wander around different rooms, you know, just checking out different things that were happening in the rooms, because within a year or two I started forming bands with some of the young musicians who were in the rooms.

And then you were recruited in Jemeel Moondoc’s band, Muntu, right?

Jemeel called me, and he said, “This is Jemeel Moondoc. I got your number from William Parker, and I need a trumpet player to play with me at Ali’s Alley, an’ we gon’ be workin’ for the door.” So he said, “You into it?” I said, “Yeah.” So when we had the first rehearsal, it was at William’s house, so I said, “Ah, you were right. You said I would be hearing from you, and you were right.”

Because he led you to the type of music you were seeking?

Not only that, but when we played that gig with Jemeel, all the senior guys of the avant-garde were there, like Rashied Ali, Charles Tyler — ‘cause we were there for a week — Frank Wright, Sunny Murray. I remember Eddie Jefferson came by there. And they all loved my playing. And within about two years I was playing with all those guys in bands, you know. I was telling William the other day he was like an angel; he was responsible for the second renaissance of my career when we started playing together and we were in Jemeel’s group.
Earlier I had a band for about two years, in ‘74 to about ‘76, and a lot of young musicians who became well known in the future played in my band. Charles Neville was playing saxophone in this band, Bobby Jones was in there at one point, Kenny Washington, Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Robert Watson. And all these people came within two years. We used to do standards, and then we had commercial tunes. I was working a lot. And then in ‘76, all this stuff fizzled out. I mean, one time, there I was, working in the post office while also doing gigs. I’ve always been hustling. But I got disillusioned in ‘76, so I went to City College, and I was thinking about becoming a music teacher in ‘77 and ‘78. One day I realized that wasn’t for me. This was.
What was distinct about this group of musicians?
They improvised, but with respect. A lot of groups that were playing free music just came in and were making a whole bunch of noise. And see, I come from a traditional background, and I’ve been listening to jazz since I was a little kid. My father used to play, and I like traditional music. And so I like traditional music as well as free music. Groups that are just screaming? That bores me after a while.

How did Other Dimensions in Music come about?

We formed Other Dimensions in 1981, because Jemeel was in Europe. At the time he was living over there, and William and Rashid [Bakr] and I had been playing together with Jemeel’s band. We used to do rehearsals with Jemeel, and a lot of times we would just hit before we’d actually do the tunes. So I suggested to Jemeel, “Look, why don’t we start doing this on gigs?”  He was reluctant to do that. Even though Jemeel’s music at that time was free, he was still a traditionalist.

You mean you wanted to improvise the whole introduction?

Yeah, you know, and just do a set, and we’d eventually go to tunes like we were doing. But he didn’t want to do that at that time. He said, “Naah, man, I still wanna play tunes.” So I said okay. And I met [saxophonist] Daniel [Carter] in 1974 too. I liked Daniel’s playing. He can play traditional music, he knows changes, but he didn’t want to play heads at the time. Years ago, he didn’t want to play any written music.
He used to come by a jam session I used to lead at Studio 97 in the early ‘80’s, an after-hours jam session that started from 2 till about 9 in the morning. And so I told all of them, “Look, we’re going to form a new group.” And I said, “We’re going to call it ‘Other Dimensions in Music.’” I was the one who had the idea about this group, and I said, “We ain’t gonna play no tunes.” That’s how that started.

How did and how do things work musically in the group, then? What do you use for starting points?

We listen to each other, man. I mean, when we first started it was rough. But after a while we formed the concept, and then after doing it for a while I called it “compositional improvisation,” because people started asking me, “Well, who writes the charts, because on this or that tune it sounded like composed music.” And see, I could listen to Daniel and I listen to William and Rashid, and we all listen to each other, and that’s how the music is formulated, more or less.
I used to have arguments with my father about this, too. He said, “You’re supposed to know what you’re going to play before you play it,” and I said, “No, you come to the music with a certain knowledge of harmony and chords and whatever, but there’s a certain point at which you let the music take you.” Mingus also said that. I’ve always said, “If you can play a whole bunch of runs and whatever from exercise books, that’s fine, but to me that’s memorizing or playing a ‘classical’ piece or whatever, and that’s not jazz. Jazz is what you play at the moment. Even when you’ve learned patterns, you don’t play the patterns. Some people, when they play, you can hear when they start a pattern how the pattern is going, and you can hear the whole thing, the routine, and, hey, that’s fine. They memorized that, but I feel that you need to break those patterns up and interlock them and change them or do something different with them. Creation is in the moment. It’s like I said about Other Dimensions one time: I said, “It’s like sailing on uncharted waters. You know, we just sail, and whatever you play, that’s the compass.”
So has your father, like some other listeners, come around?

Sometimes even he listens to stuff William and I do, and he says, “Man, there’s a hook-up between you and William that’s very unique.” I say, “I know.” And he says, “When y’all start that chant sometimes, y’all are right together.” Sometimes we’ll do that and there’s a point where you can’t tell whether it’s him or the horn or vice-versa, you know.
I call him Brother Parker, because we’re like ministers, you know, our music is like a religion, and we take our music very seriously. He plays with different people, I play with a whole lot of different people, sometimes we are together with some of the different people, and then he has his own individual things he does, and I do a lot of things with different people too. And then there are the times when we come together to do something, and that’s always special. When William and I are together in a group or an ensemble, they know something special is going to happen right away, and, you know, they’re drawn to that.
I imagine the Vision Festival is a very tangible representation of what you and William and others have experienced through music.

It’s very important, that what we were struggling through in the 1970s and ’80s bore fruit to the Vision Festival in the ’90s. That’s the long and short of it.

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