- Charles Campbell
DANCING WITH CHARLES
Charley Campbell told me he had grown up in China in the 1930s, in the then booming, cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. For foreigners, at least, the city was a bustling hub of fun, the arts, and business.
Thriving in this atmosphere, Charles became the entertainment director at his high school. He heard that Teddy Weatherford, an internationally-recognized, black American jazz piano player was in town between cruise ship gigs. Charles, enamored with jazz, hired Weatherford to play a concert at his all-white high school. The head of the school was less than pleased—a story Charles, with his infectious humor, loved to retell half a century later.
During World War II, 20-something Charles was drafted and posted to Los Angeles. It was a dream assignment, like a day job, which left him free to roam the city in the evenings—which he did, hearing and meeting jazz musicians, including pre-bop talents, and as yet undiscovered traditional jazz greats like members of the Kid Ory band.
Campbell had a way of not only meeting such artists, but becoming their friend. More than once, he lamented to me that he had lost his wonderful taped interview with Jelly Roll Morton, which evidently no one else had ever heard. But he never lost the memory of Jelly, who drove him around in his car—which was far bigger and fancier than the great, proud, but down-on-his-luck pianist could afford—and in a manner, including sudden impromptu U-turns, that scared Charles to death.
The 1950s found Charles living in the bohemian haunts of San Francisco’s North Beach. He opened a frame shop there, and soon became close friends with the leading members of the Bay Area’s Traditional Jazz Revival: Lu Watters, Turk Murphy and many of their associates.
My friend and traditional jazz novice, the young trombonist and writer Jim Leigh, moved from L.A. to the Bay Area in that decade, as did I. Jim ensconced himself in North Beach, drove a taxi (later writing a short story about that experience), took basic music lessons from Turk, for a time slept on a cot in Turk’s North Beach apartment, and would eventually graduate from Turk’s tutelage.
Having joined the far straighter world of Stanford’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, I occasionally brought a date to hear Turk’s band, playing nightly downstairs at the Italian Village on Columbus Street. Selling tickets at the door was none other than Charles Campbell, a close friend and super-fan of the band, moonlighting from his framing and gallery business. Leigh was usually there, glued to the music so, of course, never talking, like me (to the boredom of my date, sipping her Tom Collins bought via my fake ID, and checking the time because she had to be back in her dorm before 2:00).
The Charlestoners on the dance floor included Jim’s future wife Carol, a spectacular dancer, and Campbell, temporarily AWOL from the door. He was a limber, joyful hoofer in his own right. Half a century later, I would again see Campell Charlestoning with equal fervor, upstairs in the big ballroom, which Charles had rented to celebrate his 80th birthday with John Gill’s Watters-cloned Stompers onstage. The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation, of which Campbell was long a board member, gave out red buttons reading "I Danced With Charles Campbell."
Personal and Professional Life
Charles Campbell was born January 10, 1915 in Santa Cruz, California into a second-generation family of gold-miners. As a child, he lived in Siberia with his parents, who were smitten with the prospect of operating a gold mine there, until the mine was appropriated in the Bolshevik Revolution.
As a gallery owner in 1950's North Beach, Charles Campbell was known for showing works that displayed his own eclectic and idiosyncratic tastes, heedless of fashion. When he happened to admire artists later identified with the region’s signature art movement, Bay Area Figuration, he was among the first to exhibit the work of Nathan Oliviera, Paul Wonner, Joan Brown and others identified with the movement. In 1990, Campbell partnered with Paul Thiebaud, and his frame shop-cum-gallery evolved into the Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, a showcase for such extraordinary artists as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn.
Charles Campbell was 99 when in died October 8, 2014.