The Sweetest Sound this Side of Heaven' could well be the theme of Gordon Campbell, whose talent is recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1994 I was in Los Angeles talking to some of the musical greats of the big band world for a Radio 2 documentary when I was taken by trombonist Milt Bernhart to the home of legendary saxophonist Benny Carter. When I left he gave me a piece of music "Slow Carousel", for Gordon Campbell, having written it when guesting with the Glasgow Jazz Festival Big Band in Glasgow in the early 1980's. So impressed had he been by Gordon's playing that he wrote a solo for him, originally calling it D.N., as he was reminded of top Hollywood trombonist Dick Nash, one of Gordon's idols.
In the early '80's, Radio 2 was taking input from the regional orchestras, often featured on the late night show "You and the Night and the Music" when I would rave about this marvellous trombone player in the S.R.O little imagining that it would not be long before I would be introducing him on stage and on the air.
The BBC Big Band had been a studio band featured on Radio 2's weekly Big Band Special for five years, when in January 1984 conductor Barry Forgie announced that we had been asked to give a concert independently of the BBC in Solihull. Then came a problem, the lead trombone, Derek Tinker couldn't make it and Barry, in a flash of inspiration called Gordon.
"The telephone rang at 8am and it was Barry Forgie. At first I thought it was one of the guys from the SRO having me on! Scotland was cut off by snow at the time and with the train taking the coastal route, it took me two days to get to Birmingham for this one concert. I really enjoyed it and as they were a trombone short for a recording session at Maida Vale the next morning, they asked me to travel back to London on the coach with them.
"Sitting next to Gordon on that session at Maida Vale studios, was Chris Dean, whom he had last seen in the early days of his army training in the Guards Depot at Pirbright having signed on as a fifteen year old in the Royal Corps of Transport. It was Chris who told him if he wanted to get anywhere he had to move down south and so six months later Gordon had sold his house and was living just west of London. Later that year the 2nd chair in the BBC Radio Orchestra became vacant and he auditioned for it.
"I really wanted that job and I got it. And when Derek Tinker gave up playing a year later I went for the lead chair and got that. I remember hearing Derek playing solos with the strings on broadcasts and thinking how I would love to do that, so you could say I'd fulfilled my greatest ambition. I love playing with the BBC Big Band although I also get a great kick out of playing tunes with just a rhythm section. I'm not a jazz player as such, as I'm much happier playing sweet trombone. But I like to play some jazz as I think it helps when playing lead in a band.
"Twenty-six years on, Gordon is still leading the BBC Big Band trombones but has, in the past couple of years, formed his own line-up to play the music of Tommy Dorsey, Billy May, et al, which were the sounds he heard from a very early age listening to his father's collection of Tommy Dorsey records. He readily admits fronting his own band is really a hobby as in these cash strapped times, bookings are hard to come by. Currently his diary is overflowing as he decided to take a West End show which allows him to record as usual with the BBC Big Band along with other daytime sessions, while most evenings will find him at the Drury Lane Theatre with the hit musical, "Oliver".
Added to that is his weekly commitment to the Royal Marines School of Music in Portsmouth where he rehearses their big band and also teaches, having taken over the post from Don Lusher. And it has to be said that Gordon has inherited the Lusher mantle with the same gloriously mellow sound. His room at the School of Music has a framed photo of Don alongside other players who have inspired him through the years, Tommy Dorsey, Urbie Green , Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino "I really enjoy my work with the Marines and I've got them all on Conn 88Hs which is the trombone I played when I was in the army and I think that's the best instrument for the job."
Obviously Gordon's ten year stint in the army now stands him in good stead as he has experienced the rigorous discipline of army life. "I know what they have to do. Sometimes on a Tuesday morning they've been on parade at 8am and then I've got to teach them at 9.15 and I know what it's like when you go on parade on a cold morning, your lips are not good for the rest of the day. I understand that and also the life they have to lead. They double on other instruments and have to play all kinds of music. I have to show them how to play in big band style which they seem to enjoy."
"We give a concert in November at St Mary's Church in Portsmouth and it's always packed out. They have a bandmaster's course and the concert gives them a chance to perform in public, so they conduct a piece of military band music in the first half of the concert and the second half is the big band from the School of Music and on one occasion we played all Glenn Miller. You see I know how to get a good audience." You see I know how to get a good audience"
"I've got some really good pupils and when one left at the end of last term, he played Don's arrangement of 'Without a Song' for his final recital with the big band and also played it on the Royal Marines School of Music Open Day concert. I love doing those concerts, it's such an honour to be allowed to conduct the band".
Gordon has recently taken on a teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music where the classical trombone professors are Denis Wick, Dudley Bright and Ian Bousfield but he teaches students on the Jazz Course, headed by Gerard Presencer.
"I just want to teach the guys what I do. I'm not a jazz player and Gerard will teach them to play jazz, but I want them to come out of there and do the things I do. I teach the Louis Maggio system, which I have used for many years after reading that most of the top Hollywood session men went to " Old man Maggio" for lessons.
Being a Scotsman, albeit a borderline one, coming from Berwick-upon-Tweed, it's appropriate that the highlights of Gordon's career have emanated from North of the border. As a small boy he first saw George Chisholm on stage in Edinburgh in the Black and White Minstrel Show, little imagining he would one day record and share a stage with him. I well recall a concert I presented with the BBC Big Band at Warwick University when George Chisholm was the star guest. Following the recorded part of the proceedings, Gordon joined George out front and accompanied by the rhythm section, put on a display I will never forget. Here were two brilliant exponents of the trombone, with completely different styles, blending together perfectly. Gordon now plays a Vincent Bach 6G which is the trombone that George Chisholm always wanted and has recently recorded a CD with his quartet as a tribute, which will be released shortly . He also has plans to record another CD with his own big band.
Having recorded extensively with Robert Farnon in the '90's, Gordon's career has taken everything in its stride, most recently leading the trombone section of the Matthew Herbert Band. If that name is unfamiliar to you, as it was to me, it's probably because the band plays mostly overseas dates including a one night stand in Shanghai!
"My daughter is a promoter of concerts for Vodaphone and she books bands like the Killers, a top American rock band. She was in Cologne for a concert when the girl on the next desk said she had booked the Matthew Herbert Band. When Joy said 'Oh my Dad plays with the Matthew Herbert Band', the girl couldn't believe it!"
"It is an amazing band. People ask me what sort of music it is and I can't define it. You can't say it's a jazz big band, just good music. Matthew plays his own originals, and samples some of the things that have happened on stage, recording while you're playing and about two minutes later you'll hear yourself again. It's all very clever. It's the sort of thing you've got to go and hear and it's very popular. We did a gig at the Camden Roundhouse which was sold out, as are all our European dates"
Gordon was a regular on TV's Michael Parkinson Show, was a member of the Allan Ganley Big Band, plays for Pete Long on his Benny Goodman Show and leads the John Wilson Orchestra trombone section, alongside Mark Nightingale, Andy Wood and Liam Kirkman. In fact he is first call for most of the top jobs. Add to that the many small group gigs with the likes of Bruce Adams, Paul Eshelby John Pierce, Terry Jenkins. He recently joined up with his old army colleagues from the Royal Corps of Transport, the Trombone section will be, Pau Sykes, Paul Dodge, Colin Porter and Geoff Pratt, to reform their original band for a concert at the Princes Hall in Aldershot and record a CD.
When Count Basie arranger Sammy Nestico came to London recently to record with the BBC Big Band, he was so impressed with Gordon, that he, like Benny Carter, wrote a special feature for him.
Gordon Campbell is enjoying a phenomenally successful career at a time when work for musicians is not as plentiful as it once was, so what advice would he give to students graduating from the music colleges today?
"If somebody really wants to play Trombone in the business they should do it. If they play well, they will always work. I really think players should be able to cover any type of playing from classical to Shows to Jazz . Every now and then I do Mozart's Requiem with the 2nd trombone solo Tuba mirum in a church and I love doing that, it's my sort of thing, great music, Mark Graham, who moved to Los Angeles some years ago, told me, guys there turn up to a recording session with a trolley of instruments, they'll have 3 trombones, a bass, large bore tenor and a small bore. Whatever's needed they can do it and our top studio players here like Richard Edwards and Andy Wood are the same, they cover everything, that's the way to do it."
At the end of last term one of Gordon's pupils at the Royal Marines, brought in a small package as a 'thank you' for teaching him for the past 3 years. In it was a Mount Vernon 11C mouthpiece, accompanied by an envelope containing an authorisation certificate from the daughter of Carl Fontana, stating 'Carl Fontana's mouthpiece now belongs to Gordon Campbell'.
© Sheila Tracy
Edited from a feature in Brass Herald