Musician Brent Campbell was born in Edmonton, spent five years in Winnipeg, and then grew up in Toronto. But since his father was from Brandon and his mother from Elkhorn, he spent a lot of summers at his grandmother’s in Elkhorn. He attended university in New York, and when a job came open in Winnipeg, he took it and worked in Winnipeg for three years. Then he came to Brandon University to do a Masters’ degree, and never left. He started teaching at Vincent Massey in 1985, and right from the get-go, he’s been, as he terms it, “just the band teacher.” But Campbell has a litany of impressive accomplishments to his name, one of the most notable being the director of the Brandon Jazz Festival for 25 years. (COLIN CORNEAU / BRANDON SUN)
Before you got into teaching, you worked as a musician for a long time, didn’t you?
I played one summer with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. And it was a great experience because it made me realize that was NOT what I wanted to do for a living. Being on the road, the same show every night, the same jokes, the same lines, the same tunes. It was fun but it was not what I wanted to do.
And is that what’s appealing about education? The kids are different, the experience is different all the time?
Yeah. Every day is different. The kids are always different from year to year. There are always new challenges, new kids to work with. So that’s what I like about it.
You and I both worked with master musician, arranger, pianist and Brandon’s ‘Mr. Jazz,’ Les (Cham) Paine, for ages. Were there other groups in town that you were involved with as well?
No. When I first moved here, I’d just finished grad courses and I was still playing with the Brandon University band quite a bit, in small groups there. But Cham’s group was the group that I worked with the most. Him and drummer Doug Sullivan.
It was a wonderful time for me, too. Twenty-five years with Cham.
It was great.
You played bass when we worked together. But you don’t play anymore! You sold your bass, you told me! That kills me! But trombone was your thing.
Trombone was my main instrument, but I played bass. And I really just kind of fluked into that because I was teaching kids how to play bass but I didn’t really know how. So I picked it up and thought, ‘I’m going to learn how to play bass.’ And then Cham said, one day, ‘You have a gig with us this weekend.’ And I said, ‘No — I’m not good enough for that.’ And he said, ‘No, no — you have a gig.’
So I just learned to play gigging with Cham all the time. But you have to stay in shape, especially on bass. Because if you don’t stay in shape, you can start playing again, but after five minutes, your arm will lock up. And then the university program really took off, and they started to get really good kids in there playing bass, so I just packed it in.
So do you play at all anymore?
No — I don’t play bass.
But you play trombone to lead your school band.
Well, I’ll demo on trombone or trumpet or clarinet or whatever I need to.
Wow! You’re that versatile! That’s impressive! Now it seems to me like you’re a really well-organized sort and that’s why the jazz festival appealed to you, because it takes a massive amount of behind-the-scenes work.
You know, I DO like doing administration and those kinds of things. I don’t know why I just do.
Is it sort of like a big puzzle coming together?
Yeah — I just like to do that kind of thing — organizing and things like that.
But the Brandon Jazz Festival is a major undertaking because you have kids coming from across Western Canada, Northern Manitoba, the States…
We have groups from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. We’ve had groups from the States. We have adjudicators flying in from all over the world. Our guest artist this year is coming from Finland — Rajaton — an a cappella vocal group. The hottest vocal group in the world right now.
They do a lot of folk stuff but it’s a lot of jazz harmonies and stuff, so it’s really amazing.
And you’ve always had top notch headliners, too, over the years.
We have. We’ve had Tuck and Patty, we’ve had Rob McConnell. We’ve had great acts. In 2015, we’ve got Diane Schuur.
STOP IT! Holy man! She’s a legend! Sign me up for tickets now!
She’s going to come in and do the residency at Brandon University and then do the Jazz Festival.
That’s a COUP! But I don’t think I know about the residency…
Yeah, we started doing the residency with the Jazz Festival — bringing in a guest artist — four years ago. They come in on a Sunday night, they spend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday working with the kids at the university, and then they perform as guest artists at the Jazz Festival.
And the reason for that is to inspire the kids, too, I suppose? Because once you see the pros do it, there’s no going back.
Yes. The kids are meeting artists — even if you went to New York City and saw these people in a club or another venue, you wouldn’t get a chance to have face-to-face time with them. So the artists come here and the kids get to go up and talk to them and say hi to them and pick their brains. A lot of the times, they’ll get lessons with them. For some of the guest artists who come in, the kids will get a chance to go and have a private lesson with them. Greg Gisbert was here two years ago and a lot of the trombone players he was giving lessons all over the place.
You were telling me about where the student players come from. It’s thousands of them, right?
Yes. There’s 175 groups this year. It’s pretty full. That’s probably 4,500 kids.
That’s amazing! It’s been that way for years and years and years, I know. And it’s obviously a great economic generator for the city of Brandon, because they stay in hotels, they probably go shopping and they eat out.
I heard that for the Shoppers Mall, for the food court, this is their busiest weekend of the year. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what I’ve heard. It’s busy.
That’s incredible! Now I’m presuming you inspire your students in your own band and your own classroom every day, and other music teachers are working equally as hard. But all of us who are in education know that the same old voices get stale after a while. So the other teachers across the broad reaches of the Jazz Festival, they’ve come to know this as an extraordinary opportunity for their kids to be inspired, I would think.
Well, I guess so. They keep coming back. That’s how we gauge whether or not we’re doing a good job is they keep coming back every year. And vocal jazz fills up before the end of the June, 10 months prior to the festival, and we have a waiting list. So we have to turn groups away.
That’s unfortunate, but that’s a good problem to have! And what kind of feedback do you get from the adjudicators? Because it’s long days for them. You start at 8 in the morning and go ’til six. And then the concerts start at…
Seven. We have two concerts Thursday night, two Friday night — one at 7 and one at 9:30 both nights — and one Saturday night at 8 o’clock. All in the WMCA.
So it’s the University Jazz Band and then Rajaton for each full concert.
That’s right. And this year, we have a guest artist in from New York City: a trombone player. His name is Luis Bonilla. And he’s here for the residency from Monday until Wednesday and then he does the Jazz Festival as the guest artist with the Brandon University Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Michael Cain.
Fantastic! Now let’s talk a bit about the history of the Brandon Jazz Festival. Were you in on the ground floor?
I didn’t start it — I wasn’t in on the first one. Wayne Bowman and Dave Schmidt started it. I came in about the third or fourth year.
But it’s really become your baby over the years.
Roger Mantie did it for a few years, Sean McManus did it for a few years. But I’ve run it for probably 25 of the 33 years.
Wow! What keeps you coming back? I’m asking because it’s a crazy amount of work and it’s a big stretch of time, not only organizing it, but it runs from Thursday morning at 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Saturday. And that’s not even counting set-up and tear-down.
I do it because I like to see the kids’ reactions. I like to get the kids involved. And I think it’s great for the community.
I don’t think there’s any doubt about that! So outside of teaching and the Brandon Jazz Festival, what do you like to do?
I like to sail — that’s fun. I own the Brandon School of Dance.
So are you just an entrepreneur? What on earth would make you want to take over the School of Dance?
Well, when Barbara Ehnes was leaving town because her husband, Alan, retired from the BU School of Music, nobody was stepping up to take it over, so it was going to fold. And nobody else was doing ballet as strongly as Barbara was doing it. So I talked to Kelly Lumbard and I said, ‘I’ll buy it and run it and you be the head teacher and artistic director.’ And she said yes.
So here we are four years later and we’ve had to hire another teacher. We were fortunate to get Renata Vynikalova from the Czech Republic.
You seem to have the golden touch or something.
I don’t know. It’s a lot of work. It’s good.
Do you ever have free time?
And is that OK with you?
Pretty much. I’ll retire in a couple of years from teaching. And then I’ll have more free time.
To do more of this kind of stuff?
Maybe finish the basement.
The Brandon Jazz Festival runs from March 2022 at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium and at various locations in the Brandon University School of Music and on the BU campus. Admission to the entire weekend’s worth of student group performances and adjudications is $5.
Tickets for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are $32 each and are available at the WMCA box office or on the WMCA website.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 22, 2014