A Conversation with Victor Campbell

Victor Campbell. He has lent his sound to many of Milwaukee’s finest musical organizations for years and is a direct link to many of the masters of Black American Music. His sound is deeply rooted in the West African and  Afro Caribbean traditions. Victor’s teachers and mentors read as a who’s-who of jazz and latin icons. He cites Freddie Waits, Richard Davis, Teddy Dunbar, Eddie Baker, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Billy Cobham, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Herman Matthews , Alan Dawson, Joey Hereida, John Santos, Chief Bey, Mamdy Keita, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Famoudou Konate, to name a few.

His performance credits, indeed reflect the breadth of his knowledge and ability: Lachazz, Manty Ellis, Berkeley Fudge, Will Green, Willie Higgins, Eddie Gozmels, Carlos Santana, The KO-THI Dance Company, Brian Lynch, Delfeayo Marsalis, Craig Handy, Ron Blake, Eddie Mathews, Paul Robeson, Frank Morgan, Bobby Broom, Ronald Mulgrew, Melvin Rhyne, Wes Anderson, Ron Blake, Craig Handy, Nicholas Payton, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters, Ray Blue, Roberto Vizcaino, Tim Ries (Rolling Stones), members of Batacumbele, Richie Cole, Gray Richrath (REO Speed wagon.), George Braith, Von Freeman, Richard Davis, Jerry Gonzalez, Eddie Rodriguez, Bob Crawshaw, Jeff Littlton, West African drummers such as Mamdy Keita, Mor Thiam, Chief Bey, Famoudou Konate, Mar, DouDou N. Daye Rose.

Victor and I sat down over a burger and a beer on the evening of October 13th, 2015 at Mason Street Grill.

Victor Campbell: I am still trying to find… there is a article…

Jamie Breiwick: yeah, you mentioned that. I haven’t had a chance to dig too deep to find that one.

VC: Yeah. From… its got to be anywhere, I was… 8th grade? Going into high school. Tony King, Manty Ellis, Jabbo Smith, ah… somebody else. I think Martha Artis. When this article came out, it was on the front page. I had it, but it got destroyed in a flood.

JB: Its got to be in there somewhere. The google news archive has newspapers dating back to the 1890’s… every newspaper, almost. Its got to be in there.

VC: Its got to be there.

Mark Davis: When do you think that was? You said you were in high school?

VC: Yeah, 1970 to 1974.

MD: Where did you go to high school?

VC: Homestead. Yeah.

JB: So, talk about how you got interested in music. Was it in your family? Or was there a particular teacher? Or?

VC: Well, my dad got me into music. Three things he got me into: Green Bay Packers, music, and sports. Music was first, Green Bay Packers was second… When I was six, I remember this so well, sitting in the living room and he had on Miles Davis, “All Blues” and he told me, he said, “You sat through the whole song. You didn’t move till the song was done.” Then he said, “You got up and you took off, but you had a look on your face, like…” (raises eyebrows) *laughs

JB: Like, what kid would sit through that whole song! Foreshadowing.

VC: Yeah, so then he started playing more different music. Always had me tapping on… one day he got me a snare drum. You know, a little kid snare drum, and I tore that up. That didn’t last long, so he started, you know, kind of guiding me and showing me some stuff. As I got a little bit older, he realized that I was really into music, so…

JB: Serious about it.

VC: He would take me out, go down to certain clubs, you know. Sit and check out all these different people. Don’t know anything… check this out, check out the drummer. So he was the one that got me started.

JB: Your father.

VC: Yeah.

JB: Did he play at all too?

VC: Yeah, he played congas, timbales, and a little drums. A little drum set.

JB: So, did he actually sit you down and show you things on the drums?

VC: Yeah!

JB: Like certain patterns, things to practice…

VC: Yeah, and he noticed I was picking them up. So, then he said I’m going to take you to somebody who’s going to blow you away. And that was Dick Smith.

JB: Yes! Ok, that was the first name I wanted to bring up to you because Manty had mentioned him in our meeting. From what he said, Dick was ahead of his time and was at sort of a higher level. What he said was, he sounded like Elvin Jones did, but in the 40’s… as early as the 40’s and 50’s.

VC: Yeah.

JB: Kind of modern. That cats like Max Roach and Art Blakey knew about him.

VC: Knew him. Yeah.

JB: By reputation.

VC: Yeah. Right.

JB: So he was your first teacher?

VC: Yeah. Dick… when I met Dick, that first day… He had this Sonor, a red Sonor set. Come in… “Hey, sit down. Let me hear you play.” I said yeah man. He said, “Ok, now play me some rudiments.”. I was like, ahh… So what he did, he took the snare from behind the set. He said, you want to really learn how to play the drums? First thing you gotta know how to do is the rudiments.

JB: Yeah.

VC: And that opened a whole… whole door.

JB: How old were you when you started studying with Dick?

VC: I started with him when I was 8.

JB: Ok. Pretty young. Thats very young.

VC: Yeah. So then, ah, he turned me on… he said, double stroke, single stroke… We started going through each, you know…

JB: Paradiddles…

VC: Paradiddles. The whole thing. He said, man, you gotta practice. For.. a year? Almost two years, man, it was just strictly snare. Going through the rudiments and reading. And then after that, sitting behind the set.

JB: So only after you had that foundation and technique… he wasn’t showing you anything other than just that until he thought maybe you were ready to get behind the set.

VC: Yeah. And then he saw that I was picking it up, then he was like man, you gotta know this… You gotta know this. Frontwards and backwards. He said, you want to know this you gotta know all the rudiments where somebody comes up to you, says hey man, play me a five-stroke roll.

JB: Yeah.

VC: Play me a seven… Your response was supposed to be, “How do you want it, frontwards or backwards?” *laughs And you know, that has happened to me. Quite a few times. I was playing at The Oasis, sitting in at The Oasis and a guy came up out of nowhere, he said “Hey man, play me a five-stroke roll.”

JB: While you were playing?

VC: Yeah! He says, “Hey man, play me a five-stroke roll.” So I did it four different ways. *laughs You know. Dick showed me… taught me… you do it on the snare, but then he said think what else you would do with it. He took me on the set and showed me what to do and that opened up a whole ‘nother door.

JB: Amazing. What do you know about Dick personally? Like, as far as his background? Was he originally from Milwaukee?

VC: Yeah, he was originally from here. I knew Dick from 8, until he died.

JB: Do you remember when that was? Early 2000’s?

VC: That was… that was in the 90’s. Yeah, that was in the 90’s.

JB: Ok. But he wasn’t playing much toward the end, right?

VC: No, cause he had a stroke. he used to stay out in Brown Deer. So after he had the stroke he couldn’t play, but he would still talk about drums, talk about music… Yeah, you know. He was in to… the spiritual, you know. So, he talked to me about that. At that time, you know, everybody has that left side of the street, if you will. But, you know, little by little… when I would come back from off the ships and go visit him, you know, I’d share some stuff. “Yeah man! Yeah!”…

JB: So, he’s still giving you feedback.

VC: He’s like “Yeah man! Man, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

JB: How would you describe his playing, when you would hear him play?

VC: Aww man, incredible.

JB: Stylistically, was he “like”… I don’t know, Manty mentioned Elvin Jones. Did he sound like Elvin?

VC: He had a mixture of Elvin, Max… mixture of Elvin, Max, Philly Joe Jones… You see, he used to play a lot with Will Green. He played a lot with George Pritchett. He’d play a lot with Mary Davis, which I recently played with and she’s got some stories!

JB: It would be great to talk to her.

VC: I mean, she was just, all during the rehearsal *snaps fingers* She was just… She knew me when I was a kid.

JB: Was she working at the Packing House?

VC: Yeah, yeah… Dick was… rudiments, you know. He was… my dad… It starts like this, my dad and Dick opened up the door, I studied with him for over 13 years.

JB: So all through high school…

VC: Yeah, he told me one day, he said “Man, I done showed you everything.” You have to move on. He was on me. He made me cry a couple times. “Naw man, get it right!”. “That’s not it!”

JB: Then you’ll get it!

VC: Yeah! My drum lessons with him would be every Saturday morning. My dad would come get me, and we’d go. Lessons would be at 10:30… 10:30 and we’d go for a couple hours. 10:30 till 2:30, you know. He stayed on 1st and Palmer. Sometimes I’d get there early, he’d say “Come on in.” or he hadn’t gotten home yet, but his wife Francis would let me in. I barely remember names. “Come on.” I’d sit down and watch television and he always had a bowl of peppermints. Peppermint candy. I’d grab a couple. I’d come and walk in the house, he had the front room. Then he had the middle room with the drums and stuff. He comes in, “Yeah, man! How you doin’!” Blah, blah, blah. So, after a while we became really, you know, cause he knew my dad. He and my dad were close, so you know, like getting a lesson from uncle Dick.

JB: Right. You were close, like family.

VC: Yeah, yeah… So, every Saturday. It wouldn’t be too often I would miss. Now, being a kid, you have your tonsils taken out… but, the day I left the hospital, the first time my dad took me, he said we’re gonna go see Dick. Low and behold, “Hey man! How you doin’!”. “Gettin’ there. Gettin’ there.” Then practice, practice… so, you know. He was a stickler, but I mean… I got to practice. Man, don’t come to this lesson if you haven’t been practicing.

JB: Right. Don’t waste my time.

VC: Yeah. I’m going to know the difference.

JB: I’m curious, maybe you know. How he got that influence of, like, Elvin, Max, Philly Joe. Was he just… did he study with somebody around here?

VC: He studied with… ah, he had studied with some people.

JB: Because, how did he get to that point? You know what I mean? Like, here? He had to have somebody that influenced him.

VC: Well, you know, him and Victor Soward…

JB: Were they around the same age? Or, kind of the same era?

VC: Yeah, same era, yeah. Jimmy Duncan, uh… Bob Hobbs.

JB: Yep, Bob, I love Bob.

VC: They were all …

JB: They were a group. Yeah.

VC: Yeah. So, ah, Bob Hobbs would tell some stories, you know, and… when Jimmy Duncan was living he shared some stories.

JB: So they were checking out those guys, Max and Elvin.

VC: Yeah. All of ’em… each one … like I said, started off with my dad, then Dick Smith, and Dick said, Jimmy, Baltimore,

JB: Bordeaux

VC: Yeah, Baltimore Bordeaux… Rudiments. Bob Hobbs, rudiments. But, they knew how to take the rudiments and apply it to the set, apply it to playing jazz.

JB: So, it’s not just for the sake of the technique, its also applying it to the whole set.

VC: Whole set, yeah. You know, Dick would say, man, check out Elvin, check out Art, Philly Joe, Alan Dawson, you know. And we would, beside going through the rudiments, besides reading, we would also get into the music. But, you know its like, listen… be able to play a 5-stroke roll, or a press roll. Long stroke, he’d say, “You gotta know how to roll.” It’ll get you out, in case you get lost, you know, drop a roll. *laughs*

JB: Yeah, there you go.

VC: Bam!

JB: *laughs* Come back in, yeah.

VC: Come back in, you know. So… and it was constant. Now. I got tag teamed quite a bit by my dad and Dick. You know, cause, hey man, you gotta practice. My dad would take me if somebody was in town, or you know, like somebody was at the Jazz Gallery. He’d take me. Now, I have been very blessed to meet Elvin, Max, Alan Dawson, ah… Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Roy McCurdy, Mickey Roker, uh… you know, all these..

JB: Masters.

VC: Yeah, all these masters. Now, my dad, I got all these albums. I would take the albums, looking at reading the notes, looking at the pictures, aw man. My dad also would get Downbeat magazine and I would cut out the pictures and put them up on my wall.

JB: I did the same thing. I used to take the Downbeat magazines from my middle school library because no one would ever look at them and bring them home. I would cut out my favorite players and my whole wall was cutouts from Downbeat magazine.

VC: Yeah.

JB: Thats crazy.

VC: So, all of that, and years later as I get a little bit older… Roy Haynes, Elvin, Max… All these guys… getting to see them in person, and getting older and being able to talk and meet each one of them… hang out. The one, now, Dick Smith, kind of talking around a bit now, he told me, he said look man, its a commitment, its a sacrifice, and it takes years and years. And my dad said the same thing. But its like, man, yeah! You hit the walls every now and then. But…

JB: Keep pushing.

VC: Keep pushing. And then all of a sudden, all these guys are like, damn! Elvin… watching Elvin play! Up close. Watching Max.

JB: Where did you see Elvin play?

VC: Ah, I saw Elvin play in Chicago. And I saw..

JB: With his band probably?

VC: Yeah. Not once, but quite a few times. At the Jazz Showcase. I’ve seen Art. In fact, Art I met… Brian Lynch introduced me to him.

JB: Oh yeah. Because he was with him.

VC: Yeah. That’s kind of funny cause the bass player missed the first set, and there was another bass player there filling in. Brian said, hey man, you want to meet Art Blakey? Yeah! Art comes up. At the same time, the bass player from the band comes in. So, just before Brian says, Art, this is Victor. Art says, “Hey man, you missed the first set man. Don’t be late to my gigs!” And then he turned around, “Hey man, how you doin’, man.” Art was short, but he wouldn’t take no… he was no pushover, you know what I’m sayin’? So, meeting him and then like, Roy Haynes.

JB: Yeah, that was one… and I know that you have an association with him, you’ve met him through the years, and I wanted to ask you about how that came about and maybe his influence on you too, as a drummer. Obviously, cause when I hear you, I hear Roy. I hear Elvin. I hear all that. But especially Roy.

VC: Yeah.

JB: In how you play the hihat and your ride cymbal. So, maybe talk about that a little bit.

VC: Luis Diaz told me… he went to go see Roy Haynes in Chicago and came back and he called me up and he said, Victor, he said man, you gotta go see Roy Haynes. So, I went and I got there early and sat right beside where the, you know, where the drums were by the stage. Now, Donald Harrison, he comes and sits next to me and we kind of introduce one another. He said, man thats the shit right there! You better get that. Man, sitting and watching Roy play that first set… Damn! Now, Roy said something during the… in between songs. He said, yeah man, I’m feeling good. I haven’t had a drink in a while. I think I might gonna have a drink tonight. So the light comes on, ok.

JB: Get him a drink! *laughs*

VC: Get him a drink. But it was at the end of the night. So, after watching him… this guy play… the end of the night I went up to the bartender and said, “What does Mr. Haynes drink?”. Cognac. I said ok. So, the bartender takes a snifter glass, fills it up all the way to the top.

JB: *laughs*

VC: Pay him. Ah, Mr. Haynes, I bought you a libation in your honor… and Roy looks at me, he says, “Man, what am I supposed to do with that?”. I said, “Man, take it home with you! Do something with it! Here!”.

JB: *laughs*

VC: So, he took it. So, right after, I said hey man, can I get your phone number? So, he gave me his phone number. I got it in this phone. So, that night I drove home and I recorded it. You know, cause at that time you had little, you know… When I got home, I called Flaco, I said, Flaco… and Flaco said, I told you. So, after that, I started getting all the CDs I could get. I saw him again in Chicago. Let me back up. Two, three weeks later, after seeing him, I called him. I said, hey man… say, I really enjoy your playing. I want to get what you got. He said, well you got it! Its just, you just gotta find the right key to get it. Its already there, you just got to… I said, but the way you got it. He said, it’ll happen, it’ll happen. So, he said stay in touch. I tried to get him to do a gig in Milwaukee. So, stay in touch. Meantime, I’m getting all these CDs. Early stuff, he played with Stan Getz… you know, he played a little different then. It was a thing you mentioned about the hihat.

JB: Yeah, yeah.

VC: Now, actually there’s a term for that, its called “itching”, and that came from Philly Joe Jones.

JB: Ok.

VC: Because, and Roy told me this. Roy told me this personally and then there was an article, an interview in Downbeat. Miles Davis told Philly, cause Philly is a little bit older than Roy, so… Miles told Philly, and then… “It’s all about the itch.”

JB: It’s all about the itch.

VC: I asked Roy one night. See man, tell me about the hihat. He said, the sock cymbal’s got it’s own voice. You know, you don’t have to necessarily play it on 2 & 4.

JB: Right. Locked in the whole time.

VC: He’ll open it up. See, its all about the ride. So, by watching him play, its about the ride and its about playing the melody on the ride.  And marking, you know, if its a blues or AABA… in the swing in the ride.

JB: Right. Its in the ride cymbal.

VC: Yeah, so… I listened, I’d take all the CDs man, and I listen. Every time he would come, I would watch him, and we got this running joke, “Did you bring your notebook with you?” Yessir, I got two of ’em.


I got two of ’em. So, there was one night we went the The Apartment. This was the night we had a conversation about the sock cymbal. We both… we sat at the bar. We talked for… about a half an hour, 45 minutes and then we went to The Apartment, with Von Freeman.

JB: Oh, in Chicago. Ok.

VC: Now, there was Ron Blake, David Kikowski, myself, and Roy. David and Ron went in a cab and Roy and I drove there. So we get there, walk in the door and Von says, “Man, y’all look like brothers!”.

JB: *laughs*

VC: I said, yeah that’s my… Now, Roy is short. I said, “That’s my big brother.”


So they go in the back and I’m up on stage playing. Make a long story short, three people came up and said, man, you caught Roy Haynes’ attention. He was checking you out.

JB: Nice!

VC: Von was the last person that said, “Roy told me to tell you, come down to the club Friday night.” Talking about, we’re going to go see Roy Haynes on Friday, we’ve been invited…

JB: Wow! That’s incredible.

VC: Each time, Roy shared, man. He shared a lot. I asked him, I said, hey man, “How much do you charge to do a concert in Milwaukee?”. He said, “Well, talk to my manager.” I said, “Man, I’m talking to YOU!”. “We sitting here right now!”.

JB: *laughs*

VC: I said, I’ll tell you what. I’ll get you $10,000, I’ll get you the key to the city. So, that night I drove back from Chicago and the next day I went down to the Pabst Theater and talked to Gary Fischer. Told him, I said, listen man I got an inside track…

JB: Yeah, for Roy Haynes…

VC: And at that time they had the Hal Leonard…

JB: Of course, the Hal Leonard Series.

VC: Now this was August? They pulled it off. I set it in motion. Now I had to leave to go back out, I had a contract with one of the ships… so I had to leave, but while I was out I was emailing, calling, hey… what’s up what’s up?

JB: Following up, yeah.

VC: Do you know, that was the last concert of the series? It went and it came together. Now, it was so cool… Roy brought in Dave Holland, Nicholas Payton…

JB: Was it like a tribute to Charlie Parker?

VC: Charlie Parker, yeah…

JB: Yeah, I remember that album of his.

VC: David Kikowski on piano, Dave Holland on bass, Nicholas Payton, Kenny Garrett… and man, woooo! Roy got the key to the city, he got his money. Now Roy told me, he went downstairs and said, “You wasn’t fuckin’ around!”.


I told you! And he asked me  he said, did you get paid? I said, naw I got what I wanted!

JB: To see you…

VC: To see you, and all the whole band. He said, I’ll be in Chicago for Charlie Parker month, let’s stay in touch, man. You come down, so… That came, I went down early. Went to the hotel. Sat and talked with him. Actually made him late… Joe Segal calls up, “Hey man, aren’t you supposed to be at the club?!”. “What time is it?”, “Oh, its 4:30! We’ll be right there.” So I drove over there. Roy gets out of the car, I go park the car and he waits for me. All of this, by me reaching out to him. He has his voice, and he taught me, said hey man, “You got your own voice. I got my voice.”  Its a concept. Now when I play, at first when I did it  – I played around here, well, anywhere, 2 & 4 on the hi hat…naw… You supposed to…

JB: The time is there…

VC: The time is there, yeah yeah. But sitting and watching a master. He used to have his foot, just…

JB: Not even on the cymbal.

VC: Yeah, so I learned .

JB: So he learned that from Philly Joe Jones?

VC: Yeah.

JB: Because that is what Miles liked.

VC: Yeah.

JB: Interesting. Because he didn’t always do that.

VC: No. From the early period its…

JB: 2 & 4. On the record with Monk, “Thelonious in Action” with Johnny Griffin, he’s on that. He was in Monk’s quartet with Griffin for a while. *claps hands* It’s 2 & 4. its interesting that he picked that up from Philly Joe. It seems like he really put his stamp on that concept though. People kind of associate that with Roy, I don’t think they associate that with Philly Joe as much, do they? Or no?

VC: No, ’cause Roy just took it to another level.

JB: But itchin. They called it “itchin’”.

VC: Yeah. Itchin’.

JB: It’s just moving it around or not playing it at all. Right. Or like on the off beat.

VC: Yeah, sticking it in there. Its a voice! Each drum.

JB: Like another instrument.

VC: Yeah, another instrument.

JB: Talk about your early playing experiences in Milwaukee, like who you worked with. I know there was a photo I found with you and Hattush (Alexander) and Melvin (Rhyne).

VC: Well, there’s a bunch.

JB: What were some of your more memorable

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