Interview: Camara Kambon, pianist and composer

Camara Kambon, pianist and composer, has performed for Jazz Pensacola both at our Jazz Jams and Jazz Gumbos. Many of our members and guests do not have knowledge or appreciation of the extent of his talents. Imagine jamming with jazz greats even before entering high school and winning an Emmy Award at age 23!

Camara Kambon—unusual name.  What’s the background?

Camara Kambon is an African name, full name Camara Yero Kambon, which, in Swahili translates as “teacher, warrior of the people.”  I guess you could say I definitely grew into my name.

Riff a bit about your schooling. I know your home was Baltimore and that you were enrolled in Peabody while in high school.  How did that work? How did you get to Berklee?

I was born in Northwest Baltimore. From an early age, my education was twofold, attending one school for academics and another for music. My studies at the Peabody Preparatory of Johns Hopkins University began at age 10. Although my high school years started at St. Paul’s School for Boys, I transferred in my junior year, accepting a scholarship and graduated from Friends School and Peabody with honors in both musicianship and classical/jazz piano. I received several scholarships to subsidize my academic and musical studies, namely the Eubie Blake Scholarship. 

Besides piano, what instruments are you proficient on?

Piano is my main instrument, but I am also a percussionist.

Were you in a band or other musical group during youth and schooling?  Riff a bit about Berklee, inspiration, drawbacks, your fellow music students.

I was in my first band at age 6, playing at local fairs, skating rinks, etc. around Baltimore. At age 11, I performed with several musicians, Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Bartz, Greg Thomas, Max Roach, as well as local musicians, but I performed as a soloists more during my grade school years. Ever since being introduced to Berklee as the alma mater of many of my musical heroes, I was convinced I’d also attend one day.  In fact, when it came time to apply for colleges, although I’d visited several, I only applied to Berklee. I was the recipient of the Jesse Stone Scholarship, sponsored by Atlantic Records and funded my schooling by composing music for documentaries.

How did you get started in working for films, composing?

I’d been composing music since I was 5 years old. I attended Peabody for musicianship, theory and performance. During the summers in my middle school years, I attended The Walden School for Young Composer’s camp, which was a wonderful platform introducing me to the music of Roger Fripp, Brian Eno, John Cage, Penderecki, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and the list goes on. My first experience writing for TV was on the NBC TV hits, “The Cosby Show” and “Living Single,” starring Queen Latifah, while I was a high school student. After moving to Boston to attend Berklee, I began writing music for documentaries.  

Give a couple of examples of your work with films/composing. For example- one really challenging project and another which is more routine—just busy-work.

In the fall of my senior year in college, I was contacted by HBO Sports, after producers heard my score for the Emmy-winning PBS documentary, “Malcolm X: Make it Plain,” to compose the score for a film entitled, “Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life of a Champion.” I composed this score while completing my last year in college, so life was quite hectic between senior projects and deadlines. I would later receive an Emmy Award for this score, becoming the youngest composer to have received a national Emmy Award at age 23.

After moving to Los Angeles, I’d always questioned how to embark on my career as a film composer. Although I had credits on my resumé, I didn’t have the credits needed to turn heads, so I hoped I would cross paths with someone who recognized my potential and acknowledge my track record as proof of reliability and ability to deliver. That opportunity came when Oliver Stone was producing and directing his film, “Any Given Sunday,” starring Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, James Woods and many others. It was during a conversation with Oliver that he expressed the importance of “living” because of its influence on how the artist expresses himself.  This was a concept I would hold onto as I maneuvered my way through the business.  Oliver is known for adopting a process that is extremely unpredictable, playing off of the daily interactions of creative minds. During this project there was a composer cattle call in a sense, and each composer had to prove his value through the work he produced. Composers were eliminated left and right. Attending screenings was a bit uneasy, never sure if my music was still in the film, constantly uncertain whether it had “made the cut” just like a football player in a game. I realized Oliver’s process was conceptual and applied to every aspect of his filmmaking. Nevertheless, I kept producing music, never knowing if it was “right” or “wrong.” Oliver was really excited about Macy Gray at the time (she was also an acquaintance of mine), so I pitched the idea of bringing her on to write a song for the film.  So, I co-wrote and produced a song for the film entitled, “Dinosaur.” At the end of it all, there were five composers credited in the film and I was one of them. It was such a liberating feeling to see my name on the silver screen of a studio film. When working with such a filmmaking genius, people will always have varying experiences with Oliver Stone, but I can truly say, mine was awesome. Although the process was ambiguous at times, Oliver was never wishy washy about whether something was working or not. It either was or wasn’t so there weren’t any gray areas with his opinion. So, I knew where I stood in all the ambiguity that defined my experience. This approach of brutal honesty allowed me to present not what I thought Oliver was expecting, but what I thought was best to give him. This was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime.

How did you get to Pensacola? Your statement:  Now I can work anywhere.  So tell me about that and how you spend your time at Pensacola Beach.

Ironically, my work as a film composer actually brought me to the Pensacola area. And the fact that I can perform my work and have since the beginning of my career makes it easy to work anywhere. As technology has developed, it’s also made the ability for film composers to create on-the-go just as easily as in a home studio. This also gives the composer the chance to experience different environments during a process that can be very insular and isolating at times. 

Remembering Laurindo Almeida, a musical giant

September 2, 1917, was the birthdate of jazz and classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida. So, on the occasion of his birth, it is appropriate to share some wonderful personal recollections. As a jazz fan and amateur guitarist, I was familiar with some of Laurindo’s recordings on Capitol and Concord Jazz.

Laurindo Almeida with Harvey Etheridge at the Pensacola JazzFest, 1985. Photo by Norman Vickers

The first Pensacola JazzFest was held in spring of 1983 and was held under the auspices of the Pensacola Arts Council with radio station WUWF-FM and newly formed Jazz Society of Pensacola. Our only out-of- town jazz artist was guitarist Chuck Wayne, who was playing his last year with pianist/ composer George Shearing’s Quintet. The rest of the performers were local professional and amateur jazz musicians and local high school and college jazz bands.

Laurindo Almeida. Photo by Norman Vickers

For the second year, the Arts Council Committee elected to bring Chuck Wayne back and to invite harmonica/guitarist Jean “Toots” Thielemans and classical/jazz guitarist Laurindo Almeida. I was designated the contact person for both Thielemans and Almeida. The committee was working on a tight budget so our artist budget was necessarily small. I called Thielemans and Almeida, introduced myself and asked if they’d be interested in coming to our young festival for the relatively small fee which we were able to offer. Both answered in the affirmative. It was a wonderful festival. When Wayne or Toots was the leader, he’d invite the other one as a guest and the fact that Toots was also a chromatic harmonica player, it didn’t seem that we had too many guitarists. Laurindo played from charts, usually with a drummer and bassist, so we used our local artists, drummer Jim Servies and string bassist Harvey Etheridge, as Almeida’s back-up musicians.

Laurindo and I became friends and over the years he returned to Pensacola three more times to perform for the Jazz Society and, during those visits, performed at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church for two special concerts. I visited in his home a couple of times in Northridge overlooking the San Fernando Valley. My last visit to his home was Labor Day weekend 1994. His home had been damaged by the previous earthquake and, because he had foresight to have appropriate insurance, he was living in another home while his was under repair. The earthquake had damaged his five Grammy awards and he’d just gotten replacements from the academy — much larger and elegant than the original awards. I encouraged him to take one out of the case so we could photograph him with it.

Laurindo Almeida. Photo by Norman Vickers

Laurindo performed music behind the opening scene in Clint Eastwood’s western movie, “Unforgiven.” The reviews of the movie were mixed in that there was considerable violence. However, because Laurindo told me that he’d done the long guitar theme, I attended the movie. That opening pastoral scene was lovely — horses, blooming meadow in a Canadian spring and the classical guitar piece was appropriately beautiful. However, in watching the movie credits, Laurindo’s name didn’t appear. I later mentioned it to Laurindo and he replied: “Yes, Eastwood requested that I play for that scene, walked through while I was recording and gave me a ‘thumbs up,’ and then sent me a BIG check!”

He succumbed to a malignancy July 26, 1995, at age 77 but he was teaching, recording and performing until a week before his death. Laurindo’s archives are at the U. S. Library of Congress. He had composed more than 1,000 separate pieces including 200 popular songs. His legacy lives on in recordings and music books. Any piece he recorded, he published the score for sale. There are also multiple YouTube offerings that I encourage you to sample.

CD Review: ‘Nothin’ But Love,’ Kathy Lyon

Pensacola jazz activist and vocalist has just recorded a CD entitled “Nothin’ But Love — featuring Houston Person.” This was recorded in April 2019 in studios in Teaneck, N.J.

Kathy tells us that tenor saxophonist Houston Person was helpful in getting this project to completion. Her other artists include pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr., guitarist Peter Hand, bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Vince Ector.

Kathy is featured on all 12 numbers but all the musicians all have their opportunity in the musical spotlights. Veteran saxophonist Person, of course, is strongly featured. All the tunes likely will be familiar to even the casual jazz listener. Kathy’s vocalizing will be familiar to Pensacola jazz fans, of course. But for those who are not, she delivers the vocals in a precise, delicate and melodic way. Some of the selections: I Remember You; Come Rain or Come Shine; Good Morning Heartache and Everything Happens to Me.

Kathy will be a featured performer at the Roswell, N.M., Jazz Festival Thursday-Sunday Nov. 17-20. And I understand that she is to be a featured performer on a Jazz Cruise later in the year.

For Kathy’s local schedule, see her website KathyLyonMusic.com. There, one may sign up for notification for her upcoming engagements. Kathy appears locally approximately monthly at the Seville Quarter Sunday brunch. To purchase a CD, contact Kathy through her website or directly at her gigs. This CD soon will be available for check-out at the Jazz Room in downtown West Florida Public Library. A previous CD of Kathy’s, “Here’s to Life,” already is in the collection.

Book Review: ‘Superstride: A Biography and Discography of Johnny Guarnieri’

SUPERSTRIDE
A Biography and Discography of
Johnny Guarnieri
by Derek Coller
pp. 253, Jazzology Press $24.95

This 6”x9” book, like the subject, is small in size but packed with good things. British author Derek Coller has done an excellent job of summarizing the life of pianist/composer Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985.) Baseball was Johnny’s sport of choice and each of the nine chapters in the book is entitled with a baseball theme.

Please allow a personal reference: Little did I imagine when I was a teenager just at conclusion of WWII and dancing to Summit Ridge Drive–small group recording at Artie Shaw’s address of same name as the tune with JG playing harpsichord–that I’d get to see/hear him perform in person in Mobile, Alabama, in 1983, two years prior to his death.

JG was born to an Italian immigrant family in Manhattan. His father was a classical violinist and musical repairman and was descendant of the famous Guarnieri family of violin makers. His father hoped he would continue in the family tradition as a violinist, but, instead, JG took to the piano with his father’s blessing. JG had small hands, which make for a disadvantage in playing stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller. But Johnny overcame the small-hands disadvantage. In the ’30s and ’40s, he had opportunity to perform with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

Johnny had poor eyesight, which got him a deferment from draft during WWII, during which time he made many recordings for Armed Forces Radio. During the ’40s and ’50s there were recording engagements, radio work as well as performances. Johnny’s personal habits were of clean-living, so he was spared some of the difficulties of drugs and alcohol that plagued many of his colleagues. He was an inveterate pipe-smoker, however. And, during those times, he could smoke on the job. One of the “tricks” mentioned in the book — and I observed it myself during his Mobile, Alabama, stay — he’d re-light his pipe with a match while his left hand played arpeggios. Unless one were looking, it would be unlikely that the ear would detect that only the left hand was playing.

There was a second marriage during JG’s New York and subsequent New Jersey residence. Then he moved to the Los Angeles area in the ’60s. It was hoped that he’d get more studio work, but it didn’t meet his expectations. However, performing and recording opportunities came his way and there was opportunity to tour both the U.S. and Europe. One long-time engagement was a restaurant-lounge on LA’s Ventura Blvd. called Tail of the Cock. The book details some of JGs regular attendees — musicians, movie-stars and others. Pianist Johnny Varro, now living in the Tampa area, was one of his substitutes when he toured. In my recent conversation with Varro, JV reported, “Yes, and Johnny G. would substitute sometimes for ME when I needed to be away from my gig for a while.”

During the Los Angeles years, JG was a frequent visitor to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (and its subsequent slight name-change). There was a special event called the Pianorama where the jazz pianists with the varying bands at the festival got to play solo piano for short periods. Sometimes JG might be the master of ceremonies or share with pianist/bandleader Bob Ringwald. As an occasional visitor there, myself, the Pianorama was a special treat for me.

The biographical portion of this book is only 125 pages, but it is packed with interesting facts and has multiple photos of musicians and bands with whom JG performed. The remainder of the book contains discography, tributes from fans and protégés including Herb Mickman, “Vinny” Armstrong and Jim Turner.

For the musical scholar, pianist virtuoso Dick Hyman has a short piece about his interactions with JG and has included some musical transcriptions as examples of JG’s expertise.

Author Derek Coller, now in his ninth decade, has produced a valuable and interesting addition to our jazz history. Somewhere up there, JG must be smiling and playing great jazz piano.

A chance encounter with Blind Willie McTell

While in medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, I discovered a blind guitarist named Blind Willie McTell, who played at a drive-in near my rental apartment.

He was an interesting singer who played a 12-string guitar, the first I’d ever seen and heard. I was intrigued by this man because of many reasons. For example, how does a blind man navigate to the various cars at the drive-in to find willing customers for his vocal and guitar performance? The answer: His walking stick was metal-tipped. His tap-tap with the cane both helped him locate the parked autos and advertised his availability for hire. He would sing and play your requests for tips, a drink, or both.

So, my pattern would be to study until about 10 p.m. and then drive to the nearby Blue Lantern Tavern on Piedmont Avenue. I’d then hear Willie’s tap-tap and invite him to play and sing for me. Normally, he would stand by the car window and sing for tips. As I got to know him better and request a longer session, I’d open the rear car door so that he could sit with his feet on the pavement; this being satisfactory to accommodate him and his large 12-string guitar. For a session such as this, I’d buy him a beer in addition to the usual tip. He had an unusually large repertoire of songs. He’d composed Statesboro Blues, a lament about Statesboro, Ga., where he spent time while growing up. A favorite song of mine was Talkin’ Blues. This had been recorded by many but, as far as I can determine, not by Willie. I’d take notes when he performed this because he’d added verses I’d never heard.

I related my discovery of the blind 12-string guitarist to my uncle, Dr. Frank Norman Gibson of Thomson, Ga. He had also attended Emory Medical School in the 1930s and he had heard him in that era when he was performing at the Pig ‘n Whistle drive-in (opened in 1927 and operated continuously until the 1960s). At that time in the ‘30s, he was performing as Pig ‘n Whistle Red.

Over the two year period (’54-’56) in which I’d listen to him perform for 15 to 30 minute intervals about twice weekly, there was not much time to take a detailed “medical history” but we did talk about his travels. He had performed along the eastern seaboard and had spent a short time in New York. There was never mention that he had recorded on various occasions. In the early days of recording, equipment wasn’t so elaborate that it required a studio. Many field recordings were made by putting the equipment on a truck and going to the folk-artist instead of vice-versa.

My next revelation about Blind Willie came when I was visiting a jazz museum in New Orleans. Part of my medical training was on Tulane service at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital (’59-’61). In going through a stack of LPs, I found an album with Willie’s photo on the cover. It was astounding, because in our meetings over a two year period, no mention was ever made of his having recorded anything. Then some further research uncovered a number of recordings from the late ‘20s until 1956. So I saw him in the last good year he had. He died in 1959 of diabetes and dementia.

The last phase of research on Blind Willie came when I discovered a biography by Michael Gray entitled “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes; In Search of Blind Willie McTell.” This was published by Chicago Review Press © 2007. In that book, Gray covered areas from his birth in Happy Valley, Georgia, to his time in Statesboro, his attending blind school, two locations, including the same school attended by vocalist-pianist Ray Charles. Willie was recorded in Atlanta in the 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax.

It turns out that Willie and my mother were born just before the turn of the century—1898, she in Thomson, Georgia, and Willie in Happy Valley, a rural area near Thomson. It is unlikely that they ever met as Willie moved with his mother to Statesboro during his youth.

I wrote Gray and briefly outlined my encounters with Willie and offered to speak with him should he desire. The author called me from a vacation spot in France. He was able to fill in some of my areas of interest and, he was interested in hearing from someone who had seen and heard Willie. Gray asked about Willie’s appearance, dress and speech. His speech was articulate and more refined than the average man of his age and background. We both agreed that it was likely that this influence was from his attendance at blind schools, giving him a better education than average.

For the person who is interested further, there are a number of YouTube offerings that will give an appreciation of his vocal and guitar skills. A number of rock artists who have recorded his songs, notably the Allman Brothers Band which recorded Statesboro Blues and Bob Dylan recorded a 1983 song Blind Willie McTell. Also, one may get an overview from the Wikipedia section on Blind Willie.

Thomson, Georgia, has an annual music festival related to McTell.

The Joys of Jazz Parties

Perhaps the super-bowl of jazz parties was originated by Dick Gibson, a Mobile native. Dick was a football star at the University of Alabama and a jazz enthusiast. He went to New York as a writer and got involved in the world of finance. During that time, he joined the jazz scene and sponsored a group he called “World’s Greatest Jazz Band.” Some years later business ventures caused his move to Colorado. In 1963, he and his wife Maddie missed the New York jazz scene, so they invited some musician friends to perform for a weekend house party and invited some of their Colorado friends to help them enjoy the music and share the expenses.

Urbie Green (photo by Norman Vickers

Perhaps a word or two is needed to distinguish a jazz party from a jazz festival. A jazz festival usually is a multi-stage event, frequently held outdoors and of generally lower admission costs. A festival usually has patrons who come and go as their schedules and desires dictate.

A jazz party, on the other hand, usually is a one-stage event in comfortable circumstances such as a ballroom with tables for food and bar service. Jazz party patrons are committed to the entire event and, of course, the number of attendees is smaller and the charge for the event proportionately larger.

Norman Vickers Jr., Al Laser, J.C. McAleer, Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

By the time I was privileged to be a part of that Dick Gibson Jazz Party in 1985, the Labor Day weekend event was held in a downtown Denver hotel with 60 world-class musicians performing for 600 paying guests. After reading about the Gibson jazz parties, I contacted some Mobile jazz friends and inquired about the details of getting an invitation. Gibson graciously extended me an invitation and at my first party took about half an hour to give me the details about how he managed inviting the musicians and how the guest list worked. Many members of the “Tonight Show” band were regularly invited as were Benny Carter, Milt Hinton, vocalist Joe Williams, Bob Haggart, Phil Woods and Peanuts Hucko. Some European artists were invited as well as some Americans residing in Europe.

Joe Williams (photo by Norman Vickers)

The guest list also was impressive. Jazz writers Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler always were in attendance. Jean Bach, the woman who directed and narrated the “Great Day In Harlem” video, also was a regular attendee. Jean’s late husband had collaborated with the widow of Johnny Mercer to do a book on Johnny and his compositions. When our Jazz Society was doing a program on Johnny Mercer, I needed a copy of that book, which was difficult to find. I wrote Jean and she kindly donated one to us. It, too, may be found in our jazz collection and the downtown West Florida Public Library.

Jay McShann, Plas Johnson (photo by Norman Vickers)

I attended the Gibson Labor Day weekend jazz parties annually from ’85 until it closed after 30 years in 1992. There were many happy musical memories and new acquaintances made.

This leads to our Jazz Society’s venture into sponsorship of three January Pensacola Jazz Parties, from 1989 to 1991. Things were going well with our new Jazz Society with a 1983 birthday coinciding with the beginning of Pensacola JazzFest — a cooperative effort of WUWF-FM, Pensacola Arts Council and our newly formed Jazz Society.

Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

Record producer Gus Statiras was a good friend. Gus, a native New Yorker, had married a lovely woman from Tifton, Ga., during WWII. He would organize jazz recording sessions in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or elsewhere and produce under his own label. His home base was Tifton but he’d travel wherever there was jazz. He had an extensive LP collection and as LPs were transitioning to CDs, he’d record in both formats. The Jazz Society board felt that it would be feasible for us to partner with Gus to produce our own Pensacola Jazz Party. It was held at the (then) Hilton Grand Hotel in downtown Pensacola.

Things went well with the jazz party. We had bassist/composer Bob Haggart, clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianists Dave McKenna and Ralph Sutton and drummer Gus Johnson, among many others.

Bill Watrous, Dan Barrett (photo by Norman Vickers)

Our parties were well attended by jazz fans from Maine to California; they recognized the talent and were pleased to pay the price of approximately $200 for the 2 ½-day weekend event. This was during the time of winter migration to Florida, so many of our patrons would make the stop in Pensacola to attend our event. Participation from our Pensacola friends, however, was slight. In fact, I’d have people who were not jazz fans or members of the Jazz Society stop me on the street and ask, “Norman, how can the Society charge $200 for that jazz party?” My response normally was, “That’s what it costs to produce a quality jazz party. If you can produce it for less, we’d be pleased for you to take it over!”

Our guests were interesting, too. We had Chester McClarty, M.D., who was William Faulkner’s physician among a group who came from Oxford, Miss. Having a common interest in Faulkner, we struck up a friendship and I got some interesting background information on the famous author.

Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was a drop-in guest at our third Jazz Party. I had known that Slim grew up in Pensacola (most writers succumbed to the Gaillard BS about “I was born in Cuba and my father was a ship’s captain”) but we had never crossed paths before. The family brought him and introduced him at the door. We invited him to have a seat. He looked tired, somewhat subdued; although he was well dressed, it appeared that his suit was too large for him. He told me that he was on the way to visit his son in London. A few weeks later, we read that Slim had died in London. Research by UWF public history graduate students about Slim and other famous Pensacola jazz musicians, including Gygi Gryce and Junior Cook, is available in the jazz room at our downtown West Florida Public Library.

Our third Pensacola Jazz Party coincided with the beginning of the first Gulf War and the final collapse of Eastern Air Lines. Gus had worked for Milt Gabler at the Commodore Record shop and invited him down for a press conference. Gabler was famous for making his own jazz recordings and befriending many of the jazz musicians. However, because of the beginning of the Gulf War, no reporters attended as they were all assigned to covering the changes in security at our several area military bases, Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB and Pensacola Naval Air Station. But for the jazz party audience, Gus’ interview with Milt Gabler was most informative and entertaining. And I had opportunity to interview Milt privately for a Pensacola weekly published by Pfeiffer Printing Co.

The Jazz Society board decided, after our third Jazz Party, that we needed to focus our efforts in building our own membership. And the Atlanta Jazz Party began a 20 year annual event that following year. So, the Jazz Society began an increased effort to recruit new jazz members. And this was beneficial as we “inherited” the sole responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1998 and have produced the Pensacola JazzFest annually since 1999.