University City

Jazz director shares musical tales

An old, scratched-up saxophone rests on a stand in the corner of Will Campbell's office. If it could speak words, the old relic would have plenty to say from just the relatively short time Campbell has owned it.

"That horn has got a few miles on it," said Campbell, a professional saxophonist and director of Jazz Studies at UNC Charlotte, who still relishes the luck he had of the pawnshop find two decades ago.

"Thank God this was before the Internet. Everyone wants to find a Selmer Mark VI. It's really the Stradivarius of saxophones."

Campbell has taken the 60-year-old horn to some extraordinary experiences in his career.

Its brassy shine has caught the glint of Broadway lights more than once, belted out fat notes a few feet away from Johnny Carson's desk, and even performed to a live audience at the Grammys.

It's been within earshot of Tony Bennett , Frank Sinatra Jr. and, for three years, on a gig with Harry Connick Jr. Each time, it spoke a sweet soulfulness that can only come from the heart of a jazz player.

Campbell doesn't remember exactly when he began his love affair with jazz, and he struggles to explain to put in words why he finds it so appealing.

"I knew pretty early on when I heard people like Charlie Parker play, there was something really special about that sound in my ear.

"I didn't know what it was, but it moved me."

He came from a musical family.

His parents were amateur musicians who sang and played the piano. His brother still has a successful career as a producer and guitarist in New York City.

Campbell started taking music lessons at the same age as other kids in school at Chapel Hill.

He first picked up the clarinet, which was required of students, then switched to the saxophone as soon as his music teacher would let him.

To Campbell, jazz is a perfect harmony between two opposites.

"It's a mix of super intellectual-type analysis of music, and then the furthest thing from that, all in one," he said.

"As Wynton Marsalis says, you need to have to have one foot in the gutter and one foot in the conservatory."

But many Americans don't understand or appreciate the music, which at times frustrates Campbell.

"If more people understood the soulful side of it, they would like it more," he said.

He thinks it's because people start out with jazz too advanced to comprehend.

"There were more popular type jazz artists that I listened to at first, and then as you become a little more knowledgeable of that, you're ready for something more adventuresome," he said. "You don't start out reading James Joyce."

"This is America's music. This is our classical music. It's something that our country is known for all over the world," he said. "It's uniquely American."