During the 1960s, a certain big band would tour Europe. It was led by a classically schooled Belgian pianist and an African-American drummer best known for his part in the development of bebop. The 17-piece (sometimes 21) orchestra consisted of men from half a dozen religions and twice as many nationalities. Yet, despite being an assortment of personalities with different artistic backgrounds, the band succeeded in creating a unique sound and was simply one of the finest formations that jazz has ever known.
The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band (CBBB) was formed around the rhythms of drummer Kenny Clarke and the arrangements of pianist Francy Boland. It featured as soloists some of the top European jazz players of the moment: Dusko Gojkovic, Jimmy Deuchar, Ronnie Scott, Åke Persson, Fats Sadi and Derek Humble, as well as American expats such as Sahib Shihab, Benny Bailey and Johnny Griffin. In the decade of its existence, the group released almost 40 albums for highly-regarded labels such as Blue Note, Atlantic, MPS, Polydor and Vogue among others.
Holding together an all-star group of this size and of which all musicians have a solo career is not an easy task, to say the least. Creating the necessary funding, matching the schedules of seventeen people, booking the flights to get them all together in the same place and last but not least get a large group of top musicians with their own ideas and egos in the same musical direction: one would think that the Clarke-Boland Big Band had a team of managers, producers, roadies and assistants behind it. Not so with this band: it was held together by just one man: the Italian jazz enthusiast and café owner Gigi Campi, who supervised the orchestra out of his café in Cologne.
Pierluigi ‘Gigi’ Campi was born in 1928 in Cologne from Italian parents who, because of their socialist background, had fled their home country a few years earlier. Aged eleven, Gigi was sent back to Italy out of fear for Hitler’s upcoming regime. It was in those days that he learned to love jazz “without knowing it was jazz, in times when jazz was forbidden.”(1) As a young boy in a Jesuit college in 1940s fascist Italy, Gigi listened to the radio station of the American forces when lying in his bed late at night. He enjoyed the sounds of Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries and slightly started to develop a love for jazz that would grow into a deep passion when he attended live jazz concerts later on.
After finishing school, Campi returned to Cologne, where he took over his parents’ ice cream and coffee parlour, Café Campi. Thanks to the flourishing business, Gigi Campi was able to invest in his jazz hobby. He started promoting jazz concerts, set up his own label Mod records, and hosted concerts in Café Campi, which quickly became a hot spot for modern jazz where many European and visiting American jazz musicians came to meet and play. That gave Gigi the opportunity to keep an ear on the scene and discover the talent that would be needed to develop an idea that had been brewing in his head for some time…
After having seen a concert by Kenny Clarke, a drummer from Pittsburgh who caused a revolution in jazz by shifting the main rhythm from the bass and snare drums to the cymbals, Gigi Campi had already decided that his next project would be a band based on a great rhythm section. It wasn’t until he heard the orchestra of Kurt Edelhagen perform a Francy Boland arrangement of ‘Johnny One Note’ that the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. Campi was so amazed by Boland’s arrangements that he decided to form a band with Kenny Clarke and his then bassist Jimmy Woode as the rhythm section and with Francy Boland as the pianist, arranger and main composer.
In 1961, Campi booked Clarke, Boland and Woode for a recording session and added soloists who would become regular members of the band in the making: Dusko Gojkovic (trumpet, Yugoslavia), Derek Humble (alto saxophone, UK) and Carl Drewo (tenor saxophone, Austria). Enthusiastic as he was, Campi sent the tapes of the session to none other than Alfred Lion, who released the album on his Blue Note label in America as ‘The Golden Eight’.
Now the group had a foundation, Campi could put his dream of a big band to reality, and he made calls throughout Europe to find the right musicians: Sahib Shihab (baritone saxophone and flute) was an American residing in Copenhagen, Nat Peck (trombone) was an American who had been living in Germany, France and England, Åke Persson (trombone) was from Sweden and Jimmy Deuchar (trumpet) was one of the top players of the British jazz scene. Other artists that would join the band regularly were Francy Boland’s old friend Fats Sadi (vibraphone, Belgium), Joe Harris (percussion, USA), Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone, USA), Ronnie Scott (tenor saxophone, UK) and Tony Coe (tenor saxophone, UK) among others.
The CBBB had a unique sound with a recipe composed of a just a few elements. First and foremost were the genius arrangements of Francy Boland, who knew just which note to write for which musician and who was also “an enormous and highly original talent on piano. He has a forceful, masculine way of playing, yet manages to achieve a unique, subtle-but-distinct bell-like ring to the keys he strikes.”(2) Then there was the solid and powerful rhythm section, which was enforced with a second drummer, named Kenny Clare, halfway through the sixties. To top everything up, the solos of musicians like Sahib Shihab added unheard dimensions to the sound of the orchestra.
From then on, the band got together a few times per year for recording sessions, concerts and radio broadcasts. The group was received with positive critical acclaim and gained interest from many record companies such as Saba/MPS, Vogue, Atlantic and Polydor. In between the sessions with the full orchestra, Campi also recorded smaller versions of the group. These sessions were released as records by the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Sextet or as solo records from Sahib Shihab, Johnny Griffin or Fats Sadi, often with added vocals from Jimmy Woode. The jazz from these sessions is some of the finest music to have ever been recorded, yet remains little-known to the mainstream jazz audience of today.
THE THIRD MAN
When the band was in the studio or was on tour, the differences in nationalities, religions or artistic ideas were long forgotten. German jazz critic Joachim Ernst Behrendt once wrote: “It is the achievement of the two band leaders (and of Gigi Campi, the hidden third man behind the scene) that they have really succeeded in moulding their musicians into one unit despite the difficult conditions encountered by a free big band.”(3)
That the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland orchestra was something unique was also perceived as such by its musicians, who didn’t mind the substantial lower fees that Gigi Campi offered them compared to the fee they got at a solo gig. In an interview with Gerald ‘Jazzman’ Short, Campi said: “Johnny Griffin, with his trio, was getting $2500 a night; with us, he was getting $500.”(4) He considered the big band as a family and could offer his musicians something more valuable than money: artistic freedom. As musicologist Manfred Miller wrote in the liner notes of ‘Latin Kaleidoscope’: “Gigi Campi allows full musical freedom to the CBBB. He does not put on the A&R-man show, does not force upon the musicians commercial compromises.”(5) When the band felt like recording an Afro-Cuban jazz suite, that was fine for Gigi. When they wanted a specific American bass trombone player for one of their sessions, Gigi was already on the phone with someone in the USA, no questions asked. He believed in his musicians and put their artistic motives above his commercial incentives.
By the early seventies, the CBBB was ready to find new directions. The band recorded the album ‘Off Limits’ which included hints of a new and different sound. In the liner notes, critic Bob Houston wrote: “‘Off Limits’ shows that the CBBB has broken through to another era in its unique progress. If it’s anything like the one that went before, we can only rub our hands in anticipation.”(6) Unfortunately, the band ceased to exist not long after, in 1972. The main reason for the disbanding of the band was the death of Derek Humble, the leader of the saxophone section. After that “the band was never the same”(7), dixit Kenny Clarke. In a last attempt to revive the spirit of the orchestra, Gigi Campi tried to set up a large American tour, but found hardly any enthusiasm among the group members. The band’s last recording session (‘Change of Scenes’, with Stan Getz), even made him say that his once beloved band was “a sorry shadow of its former self.”(8)
About Gigi Campi, who sadly passed away in January of 2010, Manfred Miller wrote: “His friends know that he has only been able to supply a page of jazz history by respecting the integrity of each member of the Clarke-Boland orchestra.”(9) There are only a handful of people that despite not being musicians have earned a place in the history pages of jazz. People who could step away from their commercial motives and let their musicians do their thing. People like Alfred Lion from Blue Note or Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer from MPS. People like Gigi Campi, an Italian jazz lover who ran an international all-star big band out of his coffee house in Cologne.
Article written by Blast Kid. Music selected by Jazzman Gerald and Orsii, mixed by Jazzman Gerald.