“That’s my life,” whispered the old man, pointing at a wall full of photos, “hard to believe when you look at me now.” Jimmy Campbell whispered because Emphysema had stolen his breath. An oxygen tank that had become his constant companion made getting around difficult, so he brought the world closer to him. Memorabilia from his career as one of the world’s top drummers during Jazz’s golden era was now stuffed into every nook and cranny of his den. Records and music books filled the shelves, press clippings, portraits of musicians and of course, photographs, covered the walls.
Some of the black and white photos are of Campbell with friends and former bandmates, young, vibrant and in their prime, arms around each other, smiling in front of exotic landmarks. Others are action shots with his buddies Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson making music together on stages from around the world.
Campbell motioned toward a thick stack of old albums leaning against another wall in the den. “Those are the records I played on,” he said proudly, “we used to jam pretty good.” The fact that Campbell “jammed pretty good” is well documented. During his prolific career he was consistently named among the best jazz drummers in Down Beat’s annual Critic’s Choice Awards and his drumming can be heard on scores of hit records. Renowned for his versatility, Campbell was equally stellar when simply suggesting time with silky smooth brushwork or popping an in-the-pocket beat that pushed even the hardest be-bop band to the limit.
“Pushing the limit” was his style. Campbell ran away from home at age 16, joined the merchant marine and traveled the world. On board he did whatever sort of menial labor he was told, when he was in port he partied hard in bars and red light districts, a fun loving kid with a wild streak and boundless enthusiasm.
After a couple of years sailing the seas, “Jase” (as his friends were now calling him) enlisted in the Army and wound up playing drums for a military band. At age twenty, Jase was out of the Army, not only an exuberant young man that had developed a taste for the nightlife and everything that went with it, but a veteran who had seen the world.
During his two year Army stint, Jase honed his skills at the drum kit, playing frequently at base parties and officer’s clubs. By the time he was discharged in 1948, Campbell was a seasoned drummer and easily passed the musician’s union entry exam in New York City. At that time, New York’s jazz scene was exploding with the new be bop rage and the kids on the scene were hell bent on having a wild time.
“I went to the Hartnet School of Music. Charlie Parker was a teacher in there at one point. Imagine that,” said Campbell. “There were some heavy beboppers around and there was always jazz being played in the rehearsal rooms. The permeation of marijuana smoke was all over the place.”
Although some of his pals liked to burn the demon weed, while others popped pills and snorted powders, and a few shot Heroin, the scourge of any creative spirit, Campbell generally steered clear of that action. Jase was known to enjoy a drink or two and his reputation as a man who liked to chase the ladies was well earned.
As much as he loved to party, Campbell lived for the music first and foremost, and working as a jazz drummer was his strongest passion, “I did all kinds of club dates. I remember carrying my drums on subways, pushing them under the turnstile. I’d throw one over the turnstile and kick the snare case underneath the turnstile. Throw the bass over. It was ridiculous, but I was young then, in my twenties. It was all I wanted to do and it was fantastic.”
From the late 1940’s through the 1970’s Campbell lived the life of a world class jazz drummer, a fast and loose lifestyle that suited to him. When Campbell moved to Las Vegas in the early 1970’s, he was still in great demand, and he enjoyed the flexibility of playing freelance gigs on strip with some of the best players in the world as they passed through town. Jase was simply a great drummer and a fun guy that everybody wanted in their band.
But deteriorating health limited Campbell’s physical ability to keep up with the demands of being a drummer, not only the workout every time behind the kit, but also hauling around the gear. From the mid 1970’s through the 1980’s Campbell, worked on and off, gradually easing his way into retirement.
Although his body could no longer keep the pace, his mind never missed a beat.
“Be sure to tell ’em not to smoke,” he said last December, sitting in his upholstered chair, surrounded by memories, philosophical and full of emotion after a long talk about his career and adventures. “When you’re young and havin’ fun you take good health for granted. So please tell ’em I what said, have fun but don’t smoke.”
On March 27th, 1998, Jimmy Campbell passed away at age 69. He died of respiratory failure, attributed to a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit that four lasted for over decades.
Jimmy Campbell’s music touched millions of people over the span of his career, but the people that were lucky enough to meet him personally remember Jase best for the passion he brought to life, his sense of humor and tolerance of others, not to mention the way he could swing the beat like nobody’s business.
“There’s only three things Jase didn’t do in his life,” jokes Carol Campbell, who married Campbell in 1967 and was always his number one fan, “play with Duke Ellington, play with Count Basie, and get shot at age 90 by a jealous husband.”