Royce Campbell Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

Royce Campbell is a well-known and respected Jazz Guitarist out of Virginia who – for 19 years – shared the stage with the renowned Henri Mancini as his primary touring guitarist. In this interview, Royce  shares with us his beginnings as a self-taught musician, his love of Wes Montgomery, his issues with the current state of Jazz Guitar and Jazz in general and he provides some practical and sound advice on what young musicians need to even consider a career in Jazz. An informative and entertaining read.

Enjoy!

“I used a clarinet book to learn to read because someone told me that clarinet technique books were adaptable to guitar. I used a percussion exercise book to teach myself to read complicated rhythms. I would buy songbooks of tin-pan alley songs—that was before the Real Book—I learned so much from reading through those songbooks…It taught me about reading music and taught me about melody… about harmony and song form.”

JGL: Thank you Royce for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

RC:  64

JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?

RC:  VA

JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who is Royce Campbell and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.   

RC:  A primarily mainstream jazz guitarist who has also done recordings in the smooth jazz and more modern jazz genres.

JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

RC:  I started guitar at 9, and the first jazz guitarist I was interested in was Wes Montgomery. But before I really got into Jazz, I was also interested in Blues and of course early Rock’n Roll. The reason I even play guitar rather than another instrument is that I saw Chuck Berry on TV and thought the guitar looked cool. I asked my mother to get me one. She did, of course, and I took guitar lessons at the local music store.

JGL: Were you 9 when you first heard Wes or did that happen at a later age?

RC: No, it was much later that I got into Wes. Around 15 I think. One of my uncles on my mother’s side, Carroll DeCamp, was a musician and arranger as well. He had an old reel-to-reel recording of one of Wes’ club dates in Indianapolis that he played for me. It was my first encounter with Wes, and it had a profound impact on me. Incidentally that recording was released fairly recently by Resonance Records.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?

RC:  I knew pretty early on. Through my uncle there was a little bit of a family legacy, and Carroll contributed in a major way to my development as a musician. He was the one who told me that to make a career in music happen, meaning to earn a living as a musician, I should learn to read music, so I taught myself.

JGL: How did being able to read music help you in your career?

RC: It got me gigs with a wide variety of artists, performing with orchestras and bands of all stripes. Making money as a musician is not easy, as anyone who has tried knows. Knowing how to read music was a sort of meal ticket. Of course, not all of those gigs were jazz gigs, but one has to eat, and there is always something to be learned working in different genres.

JGL: It sounds like you are self-taught. How did you go about educating yourself?

RC: I did a few things that might sound unconventional or even jerry-rigged from a formal music education perspective. For instance, I used a clarinet book to learn to read because someone told me that clarinet technique books were adaptable to guitar. I used a percussion exercise book to teach myself to read complicated rhythms. I would buy songbooks of tin-pan alley songs—that was before the Real Book—I learned so much from reading through those songbooks…It taught me about reading music and taught me about melody… about harmony and song form.  And I learned harmony from my uncle who didn’t formally teach me, really, but provided constant feedback, advice, and food for thought. The most I learned, I think, from gigging with older and more experienced musicians. I went to the college of musical life, if you will, and those musicians were my professors.

JGL: Wow, that’s wonderful! On the other side of the coin, do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you, and if so, is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

RC:  To be absolutely honest, I never really liked teaching very much. As a self-taught musician and one who is not trained, I don’t feel particularly comfortable giving instruction.

JGL: Understood. Let’s go back a bit, what was your first guitar and what are you playing now? Any guitar of particular note in between?

RC:  My first guitar was a Guild. I’m currently playing a ’70 Gibson L-5 and I also have a Benedetto Fratello.

JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?

RC:  I just use an Acoustic Image amp through a Raezer’s Edge speaker. I am a minimalist when it comes to gear and as far as stage set-up is concerned I have learned to be flexible. It all depends on the situation, who I’m playing with, where and for what kind of audience.

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

RC: Wes Montgomery is by far my main influence. Some other of my favorites are Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney and Pat Martino.

JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz guitarist, and why?

RC:  Wes.

JGL: What was it about Wes that affected you so?

RC:  There were many things, actually. His feel, his creativity, his sound, and his energy. Have you ever watched a video on Youtube of Wes playing? Watch his face when you do; he has the most serene expression, and he makes playing some really complex stuff look so easy. Reaching that point of ease with the instrument and the music became my goal, too.

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?

RC: Chet Baker or Miles Davis. I love their melodic styles. Dexter Gordon, too. Also Elvin Jones. And many, many more.

JGL: I’ve really enjoyed your playing in all that I’ve heard you do, from straight-ahead to some outside playing as well. What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?

RC:  The question of practice is always an interesting one. I never thought of what I was doing as practice. At one time, I was convinced that I never practiced at all. My uncle reminded me that I “never put the guitar down” when I was young. But I never practiced scales, I just worked on playing songs and improvising over the chords. I still do that, sometimes for hours.

JGL: What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components?

RC:  Harmony and melody. For Jazz soloing one has to know as much as possible about harmony, about how chords work. Likewise the more one knows about melody, the better the soloing will be. Making an improvised solo fit not only into and over the chord structure of a tune, but also making it melodic.

JGL: Good advice, and obviously you did it right ’cause you were Henry Mancini’s guitarist for 19 years, which is very impressive. How did you land the gig?

RC:  I was hired by a music contractor to do a couple of concerts with Mancini in Indiana and Mancini asked me to be his regular after those concerts. I must have impressed him.

JGL: Indeed! Was this only for touring or did you also record with him as well?

RC:  Touring only.

JGL: As Mancini’s guitar player, what was expected of you and were there any challenges that caught you off guard?

RC:  It was usually easy rhythm guitar parts. The challenge was just to blend in well with the full orchestra. It isn’t so much the challenges of that gig that I remember as all the opportunities it gave me to travel and meet other musicians and performers in general. It exposed me to the world. I was only 24 when I got the gig and, especially in the early years, it was very educational. It was also a lot of fun. Mancini had a wicked sense of humor.

JGL: Really!? Any particular story you want to tell?

RC: One of my favorite stories to tell is what I call the “I Give You Akron” story. Mancini’s touring group consisted mostly of musicians from Indiana, among them bandleader, arranger and sax player Al Cobine. We were having dinner before a concert in Akron, Ohio. Often fans would come up to Mancini during those dinners, so it was no surprise when a man walked up to our table. This one though went straight to Al Cobine and said, “you are Al Cobine, aren’t you. I played your arrangements and I love your writing,” then turns, walks away, and totally ignores Mancini. Mancini looks up from his salad, turns to Al and says nonchalantly “Okay Al, I give you Akron.”

JGL: Ha! On a less than humorous note, you have been very open about your health issues on Facebook and at one point it looked like you would be hanging up your guitar for good. How is your health these days and is it still affecting your playing?

RC:  It’s been a long road, but I feel like I’m pretty much back, discounting of course the ravages of age and time. I am learning to pace myself differently now, but I still enjoy playing very much. One of the most important lessons of the last few years has been to not look at how my health is affecting my music but how my music is affecting my health. The music has always been there for me in positive ways and I’m extremely grateful for that.

JGL: Glad to hear it. Apart from Mr. Mancini, you have played with a variety of super-stars including Marvin Gaye, The Pointer Sisters, Dave Brubeck, Quincy Jones, Pavarotti, Mose Allison, Gerry Mulligan, Brother Jack McDuff, Ray Brown, Rosemary Clooney and Sarah Vaughn to name the most popular of performers. Do any of these musical associations stand out more than others? (in a positive sense of course)

RC:  All those names are great so one doesn’t really stand out to me. The older I get the more I come to see every one of these associations, whether long or short, as an opportunity that allowed me to grow as a musician, learn my craft, and understand the business and industry side of it as well.

JGL: Speaking of opportunities and having worked with so many popular artists, you’ve been outspoken about not working as much as you feel you should. Given your status as a top-shelf musician and player, why do you think it is that work is hard to come by? Do you think it’s a sign of the times? Or is it a young players game now?

RC:  I know that some of my frustration with not playing as much as I would like or think I should can come off as self-involved whining. Yes, I’d like to play more because I love being in front of audiences; the energy of live performance is to an artist what oxygen is to the living organism. But I am also concerned on a broader level that Jazz just isn’t very popular and getting less so all the time. For lots of reasons, economic, cultural, maybe even political, live music in general and jazz in particular, is losing venues. If the trend continues even younger players might not have much of a game left to play. I know that there is no way I could make a living as a player anymore. I make my main income from composer royalties, downloads and streaming sales.

JGL: Speaking of which, you’ve been recording since 1983 and have more than 30 albums out as a leader. Sadly I am only aware of a few Six by Six , Project G-5 – A Tribute to Wes Montgomery and Elegy to a Friend. Are these albums still available and if so, how would one go about purchasing them from you? Also, do you plan on recording anymore?

RC: All my CD’s are available through the usual outlets: CD Baby, Amazon, or directly from me www.roycecampbell.net. Downloads are also available from CD Baby and Spotify. A few years ago I thought that I would not be able to do any more recordings. My health problems at the time were getting the better of me. But I recently recorded an organ trio album that I plan to shop around, and I have a list of projects I ‘d like to still do in the coming years.

JGL: Nice! Among your prodigious number of recordings are there any that you dig more than the others? Any special moments you would like to share from these sessions?

RC:  I like my Tribute to Henry Mancini CD the best. Musically it was a great performance from everyone involved, including the engineer. Also, I had just met the woman who would become my second wife a few weeks earlier and was probably particularly inspired by that. Lots of good memories associated with that one.

JGL: It seems like you’ve done it all! What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) and is there something that you’d still like to do?

RC:  I have pretty much done it all. I haven’t done anything with a string quartet. As far as my favorite situation, I would have to say trio.

JGL: Cool. Now, on the flip side, almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

RC:  I wish I had better technique to feel more at ease playing real fast tempos. The only way to get over that is to practice those particular skills a lot and, as I said earlier, I never did. Sometimes I wish I had.

JGL: Well, like I said, you’ve been doing something right because in 2010 you were inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation Hall of Fame. Wow, how cool is that!!?? What was that experience like?

RC:  It was a surprise and an honor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and was mailed my award plaque. I would have liked to have been able to go and see some old friends again.

JGL: As we near the end of this interview, what’s your personal take on the health of Jazz Guitar in particular and the genre in general these days?

RC:  Not good. As I said earlier, jazz is not exactly the sound track of our culture these days. And I don’t know what the answer is, how we can prevent Jazz from becoming a museum exhibit, or how to reach new, maybe younger, audiences. And guitar is, again in the general cultural consciousness, associated more with Rock than Jazz. It has always been a minor instrument in jazz, despite the tremendous talents we have heard over the decades. Every time I hear a young jazz guitar player, I hope for his or her sake that they have a back-up plan.

JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?

RC:  I think the business angle should be addressed in school. Young musicians need to know what is involved, otherwise they are at the mercy of agents, managers, and bookers. That’s not a good idea, ever, but especially not when the choice to become a jazz musician is a chancy one already.

JGL: What – if any – new technology (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…) do you incorporate into your looking to get gigs or get hired?

RC:  I try to use whatever is available. It is sometimes a bit of a learning curve, but if I can reach out to new audiences it’s worth it. However, there are a few disadvantages to booking gigs via social media. Often the people who want to hire a band or solo performer using social media are very young and inexperienced in what that all entails. It’s a bit of a challenge to try and educate them while trying to get and/or keep a gig. I guess it’s a generational thing.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar? 

RC:  Learn how to read music and study harmony, harmony and more harmony.

JGL: Good advice! Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

RC:  Photography or art.

JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?

RC:  If I had to do things over, I think I would have moved to New York at a younger age.

JGL: What does the future hold for Royce Campbell?

RC:  I’d like to do more recordings and hopefully some concerts.

JGL: Before I bring this interview to a close, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you have a fondness for funny word-plays, which I enjoy as well. Can you share a few with us and have you ever gotten into trouble for using such word-plays in public or on the job?

RC:  I’ve used word play in some of my titles such a In A Sorta Mental Mood and Bossa Me Mucho. I came across an old tune the other day called Bimbo Mambo. So far my puns haven’t gotten me in trouble. So far.

JGL: ‘Nuff said! 🙂 Thank you Royce for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best.

RC: Thanks Lyle.

Special thanks goes out to Elisabeth Royce for her much needed typing services 🙂

To learn more about Royce, check out his website at www.roycecampbell.net

2 Comments

  1. Royce, I enjoyed the interview so much……so much practical information for young musicians and loved the Akron story…..I have loved jazz all my life and agree when you say it is not popular right now…seems now people want to scream, yell and jump around and fail to appreciate the intricacies and improvisations of jazz….I’m giving away my age when saying that the first things I bought were Concert by the Sea and Modern Jazz Quartet. Your interview was so natural, down-to-earth, but informative….was wonderful!

    • Hi Margaret and thanks for dropping by 🙂 I’ll make sure Royce sees this comment.

      Take care and all the best.

      Lyle

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