By Nicole King
A Benny Goodman-style band without a clarinetist is like a football team without a quarterback. It just doesn’t work. That’s why, if you’ve watched an After Midnight performance, you are no doubt familiar with the group’s leader and dazzling clarinetist, Roger Campbell. His command over the instrument and unassuming confidence make for powerful performances. He serves as emcee, as well, entertaining the audience with anecdotes and back-stories about the songs they play and the musicians who wrote them.
Roger also works a fulltime job as a Business Systems Analyst and handles all the marketing and booking for the band, not to mention arranging music. So yeah, he’s a busy guy, but I was able to get an hour of his time to discuss his passion for this music, how he got started, and what keeps him going.
What first got you into music?
No one in my family is musical. The closest was my mom, who used to sing a little bit and play some piano. I was in the fifth grade when I found a clarinet in my closet. It had belonged to my sister, who is five years older than me — she had picked it up at some point and then quit after playing it for a couple of years. My best friend in elementary school was going to join the band, so I decided to do it too, and I went with the clarinet because it was there.
A lot of my friends were in band throughout elementary, junior high, and high school. It was a good place to hang out with my friends and play. I was good at it, too, and wasn’t very good at sports. I had to have a talk with my parents at some point and explain that no, I didn’t want to try out for soccer, I wanted to try out for band, and was that okay? All my siblings were very sports-oriented, but my parents were okay with my decision and very supportive.
Why did you choose jazz?
When I was in high school, my dad played a record of Pete Fountain. My dad thought it was cool and wanted to know what I thought about it, but frankly I didn’t care for it, oddly enough. Then he took me to a concert in Colorado Springs by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That’s the first time I saw jazz live and that’s when it hit me that it’s exciting. They’re not reading music, they’re just improvising. My dad happened to pick up a record of Benny Goodman and gave it to me for Christmas, and that’s when I was hooked. I knew it’s what I wanted to do.
Rick mentioned in his interview that you two met in college, at CU Boulder. How did you end up choosing to go to school there?
Much to my father’s chagrin, I decided I wanted to go to college and study music. My dad is a physician, my mom is a nurse, and I think they felt like music is a great hobby but it’s very difficult to make a living. So after some negotiation we decided I would try to get a music business degree. I got into the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has one of the few music business degree programs in the country. After the first semester of college, I realized that I could just play music and get a business degree and be just as happy, so in the end I didn’t get a music degree. After graduation, I got into the finance world and through a number of career choices I ended up in IT where I’m a Business Systems Analyst.
When did you first start performing?
The first jazz band I started was in high school, it was called the Revelation Dixieland Band. I was 17 when I got my first paying gig — I think I made like 5 or 10 dollars. In college, I started the Pearl Street Jazz Band. Both were older style jazz bands, more traditional Dixieland jazz. I didn’t start After Midnight until many years after college. I was trying to do both bands at once and did that until 2003 or 2004. At that time I was also working with the Queen City Jazz Band, which is a traditional Dixieland band here in town. I had my “come to Jesus” moment when I realized that I was working in three bands and never seeing my wife and kids. So that was probably the busiest time for me. (Although “clarinet player” and “busy” don’t go together too often.) But it was a lot, between practicing, playing shows, recording, and so on. I first dropped out of Queen City and then a couple years later I stopped Pearl Street.
Tell us how you came to start After Midnight.
I met Rick in college my freshman year at CU. We were in marching band together. He was hitting on my girlfriend at the time because he was in the drumline playing the tri-toms and she was playing the cymbals. So that’s how we met and then I discovered that he played the vibraphone and so we started playing late at night in the practice rooms at CU. Then he and I met Fred Moldenhauer, and Fred wanted to start a Benny Goodman sextet. He was trying to find a vibraphone player and a clarinet player so we fit the bill.
That went on for four or five years. Then I remember that I got a call to do a cocktail reception gig, but they wanted a smaller group, so instead of hiring Pearl Street, I called just Rick, Jim Moore, and Bill Stevens and we played this gig. The agent asked me what to call us and we came up with the name After Midnight. That’s how we started out, just the four of us. The great part about Bill is he could do the bass line on the piano, and there aren’t many piano players who can do that. So when Bill wasn’t there, I had to find not only another piano player but another bass player. I had met Ced Forsyth through playing a few gigs around town and added him to the group. And then I really wanted the guitar sound like Charlie Christian, and asked Mike if he would be willing to come in, so that’s how it built up over time.
I was doing Pearl Street at the time and was always afraid a more jazzy swing band wouldn’t attract the crowds or draw the performance opportunities that a traditional Dixieland band does. But the other thing I was starting to see was that the traditional Dixieland band audience was aging. The likelihood of them really paying for performances over time would be diminished. So we started working together and things got rolling more and I decided that I really loved it.
What are some of your favorite songs to perform?
The best ones I think are the ones that are modeled after the Benny Goodman Sextet. Artie Shaw had a group called Gramercy Five, so some of those arrangements are great too. Some favorites are Rachel’s Dream, Get Happy, Temptation Rag, Grabtown Grapple, and Opus 3/4. The common thread that they have is that they are classical swing — they combine elements of classical music and swing music. The arrangements are complicated; they’re almost like chamber music in that regard, because it’s a small group, and you have different counterpoints happening in the melody. All the different elements make it challenging. It keeps you on your toes and keeps you interested in playing. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m bored, playing the same things over and over.
But it is interesting, there are a lot of hardcore contemporary jazz musicians who’ve studied Miles Davis, or Charlie Parker, or John Coltrane, and they are extremely talented musicians. It can be kind of difficult to listen to some of that contemporary jazz because it takes a lot of concentration and almost education. What I’ve found is that you get musicians coming out of college who are learning these things, emulating those styles, and then you have them sit down and try to play something like Rachel’s Dream and it’s just as difficult but in a different way. It’s extremely high tempo, a very complex arrangement, and I guess it’s just challenging musically because again it has that chamber kind of feel to it. That’s something I really enjoy and appreciate about this music. Especially because I’ve tried to do some of the John Coltrane and Charlie Parker stuff and I just don’t have a passion for it so I’m not good at it.
What are your favorite venues to play?
There’s always something about big stages that gets your blood pumping, to hear crowds appreciate what you’re doing. Some of the most memorable big venues that we’ve done are like the Lone Tree Art Center — that’s always a fun one. One of the biggest venues I ever played was with Pearl Street, it was the Bix Beiderbecke festival and we played a concert at LeClair Park one evening. When we got on stage the spotlights were on so we couldn’t see anyone, but we finished the first number and there had to have been five thousand people there, it was just a roar, so exciting.
Of course we’ve done lots of festivals, and those are probably my favorite, because people are actually there to hear what you do. People are there to explore and understand music and the complexities of music. As long as even just a few people are into it, it makes it a much better experience, much more interesting. Just like a conversation, if you’re talking to someone and they’re not listening, it gets old — it’s so much better when people respond. That’s one reason we like playing for dancers, because they react to what we’re doing.
You’re a Colorado native, is that correct?
Yes, I’m a native. I grew up in Colorado Springs, and I’ve lived in Boulder, in Denver for a few years, then Aurora, and lived in Highlands Ranch for 20 years. My wife and I just moved to a new home in Parker.
The move was feasible for us because we both work from home. She works part time for a financial planner — she’s been doing that for 12 years now. She has her undergrad degree and graduate degree in piano performance. She’s a classical pianist. She tried jazz briefly (in fact that’s how we met — she auditioned for my Pearl Street Jazz Band in college). Played it for three years and decided that improvising wasn’t her thing. Her last public performance was maybe twenty years ago. Her goal was always to play with symphonies, doing piano concertos, so the last one she did was the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra. Then she taught for a few years, but after she had kids she quit teaching and now just plays for fun. My kids never picked it up. Both took piano lessons from mom, which went well for a while. My daughter picked up the flute, my son the drums, but by the time they hit about 8th grade they were done.
And your kids are out of the home by now, I take it?
Yes, they’re ages 22 and 23, and they’re both out of college now. My daughter just started her nursing career up in Milwaukee, WI in a cardiac ICU unit at a children’s hospital up there. My son is in Ft. Worth Texas, he’s an engineer for Lockheed Martin. He can’t tell us what he does because he’s got top secret security clearance.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t have a whole lot of free time. The main things for me are obviously working full time, that chews up a lot, and then my wife can attest to how much time I spend booking the band, practicing, and arranging the music. She and I love to hike together — not fourteeners or anything but we’re pretty avid hikers.
The one sport I did take to was skiing. It’s kept me in Colorado, all these years, and I still enjoy it. I get that from my father. Ten years ago now we took my then 80-year-old father helicopter skiing up in Canada. It’s something he had always dreamed about his whole life. He and my mom live in Phoenix now, but come to as many shows as they can when they’re in town. They used to make it a point to come to the Evergreen Jazz Festival every year, but the altitude bothers my mom so they can’t come anymore.
What would you like to see happen with After Midnight in the future?
We would love to be at the point where we’re playing five festivals a year, at least traveling to a couple of those. I’d like to see us get back into a recording studio sometime. It’s difficult these days because people don’t buy CDs, and even fewer people buy jazz CDs, so it’s hard to justify the expense. But we’d like to record for posterity. The age of the band is in its prime; another 15 years, not sure that we’ll be in the mood to play anymore. Trying to finish out a strong career at this point.
Your fans are certainly pulling for you and hoping to see After Midnight back on the stage with more regularity as COVID restrictions are relaxed. Fans, don’t be shy about showing your support for your favorite swing band! They have some online performances coming up. And their exceptional Christmas album is available, either as a CD or MP3 download. Keep showing your support for these incredible musicians, and keep swingin’, Colorado!