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KMSU Jazz Show Host Celebrates 10 Years on Air

Gary Campbell hosts "Maverick Slim Jazz Show" on Thursday nights on KMSU.

Drew Lyon, Special to the Mankato Free Press, 7-17-2014

(NOTE: The Mankato Free Press photo at left of Gary Campbell was taken by Pat Christman.)

Gary Campbell's love affair with jazz music was spurred by saxophonist John Coltrane’s landmark 1957 “Blue Train” album.

More than 40 years and several vinyl and CD copies later, the KMSU (89.7 FM) volunteer disc jockey is bringing it back home with Coltrane.

During an interview at KMSU’s studios, the affable host of Thursday night’s “Maverick Slim Jazz Show” considered his playlist for his belated 10th anniversary show. Fittingly, Campbell declared “Blue Train,” a classic in the jazz canon, was the leading contender to start the show.

“This is one of my all-time favorites,” Campbell said as he dropped the needle on his original vinyl of “Blue Train,” and Coltrane’s sax riffs filled the room. “Anything you bought with Coltrane on it was great.”

Campbell was introduced to progressive jazz via friends from Chicago at Gustavus Adolphus College in the late 1960s. He was drawn to Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman; Coltrane had caught his ear, leading Campbell to order “Blue Train” on a whim from a Schwann Record Catalog.

“The catalog just gave dates, and that was it,” he said. “There was no lineup of who the musicians were. I just ordered it on the basis of the title: ‘Blue Train.’ I thought, ‘That should be pretty cool.’” Jazz, country, blues, rockabilly — Campbell is a veritable walking, talking encyclopedia of American music. In his musical universe, free jazzer Sun Ra, bawdy blues shouter Big Joe Turner and country yodeler Jimmie Rodgers all occupy the same orbit. But he’s no snob, just passionate about the music he loves.

“The flow is important,” Campbell said of his playlist structure. “I’m very particular about it. To me, it all makes sense. I like to sprinkle in some familiarity, and somehow link a song to something that’s supposed to be removed from that period, but yet there’s a chord there that connects them.”

Campbell spends six mornings per week carefully crafting his sets, both for the jazz show and “The Cosmic Hour,” his eclectic Monday afternoon (2 to 3 p.m.) program that usually steers away from the jazz idiom. Most mornings, he hunkers down in a studio editing intros, tweaking segments and talking shop with Shuffle Function hosts Tim Lind and Shelley Pierce.

“His opinion is something I hold in high regard,” Pierce said. “Gary has spent some time thinking about just what it is that he loves, and he can explain it to you so eloquently. That is what he brings to his radio shows, and why he is a treasure to KMSU.”

“What you hear on his shows is who Gary is,” Lind said. “One of the great things about a radio station like KMSU is that it is populated by people that truly love the music they play, and they understand the importance of an independent radio station like we have. Gary’s a prime example of that.”

Campbell’s jazz show debuted on June 10, 2004. Ray Charles had died earlier in the day, and Campbell played a block of Charles classics in tribute to The Genius of Soul.

“He was probably my favorite voice of all time,” Campbell said. “He covered such a panorama of American music — country and western, Broadway show tunes, of course the hard core rhythm and blues, and jazz. He was a hell of a jazz composer and arranger.”

Charles’ varied styles came to signify the show’s mission statement: jazz without borders.

“I break the rules every now and then, and I don’t apologize for that,” Campbell said. “Sometimes I get tired of straight jazz all the way through. There’s room for cross-pollination on the radio, and I think it’s fun to mix it up.”

Spreading the gospel

Campbell’s radio memories stretch back to when he was about four years old. He first remembers listening to radio comedies, “Dragnet” and, later, St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. He discovered music on the radio while hanging around the A&W Drive-In his parents bought in Harmony, Minn. in 1955.

“The rock and roll station when I was a kid came out of Rochester, but they were a little bit more restrictive as to what could be played,” Campbell said. “I never heard Little Richard out of Rochester, but when we got back to La Crosse, where we stayed during the off-season, some of the more raunchy rock and roll was allowed to be played.”

One of Campbell’s cousins was living with his family in La Crosse.

He was 10 years older than Campbell, a greaser in the Elvis Presley mold — handsome, sported a duck-tail haircut and above all, an ardent rock and roll fan.

“He and his hoodlum friends were listening to rock and roll radio in La Crosse,” Campbell said, “and when a song came on that they liked, they would dial a number at random out of the phone book and hold the receiver to the radio.”

Young Gary asked his cousin what he was doing. He says he’ll never forget his cousin’s reply or the song that was playing: “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent.

“He said, ‘Gary, we’re spreading the gospel.’ And that really stuck with me,” Campbell said, laughing. “So, here I am all these years later, spreading the gospel, so to speak of course.”

Campbell’s family moved to St. Peter in 1960, and he continued to cultivate a fervent love for music.

He started listening to country and blues (he hid his country records around friends when it was deemed “square” music) and became a fan of underground radio.

“I always kind of fantasized about (doing radio),” he said, “but ambition of any kind was not my forte back then. And as you got more into the 1970s, even the so-called underground FM radio became formatted. I can remember going, ‘Here we go again.’ Then I just stopped turning on the radio.”

But you could find jazz on the dial, at least on the public radio side.

“Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, jazz was a staple on public radio, and it sure was on KMSU,” said Campbell, who also appears occasionally with childhood friend Mark Halverson on Sunday night’s “Blues Before Monday” program.

“But there’s not a whole lot of jazz on the radio at all anymore.”

The dearth of radio jazz could partly explain the “Maverick Slim Jazz Show’s” local popularity.

There’s an appetite for jazz in southern Minnesota, Campbell believes. But it’s not the most vocal demographic.

“I like to believe that people who listen to my show, tune in specifically for that show,” he said, “and they’re there for the whole ride.

I will go weeks or months before I get feedback from anybody, but those little strokes help.”

Campbell rarely records the two-hour show live, affording him the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor. And self-critique, too.

“I like to sit back with a cocktail and listen to the show,” he said.

“When I started the show, I was giving more information about the music than I do now. But now that I’m also a listener, I kind of feel like I want the music to be 99 percent of the show. So I just stay with the basics.”

He caps every jazz show with the “bed warmer’s set,” a batch of romantic pleas to Mary Campbell, Gary’s wife of 35 years. It started in the show’s infancy, when Gary recorded live.

“I just wanted to do something for Mary,” he said, “because here I am, another night of the week that I’m not at home. And that started catching on; people would tell me that they stay with the show so that they can catch the ‘bed warmer’s set.’ I think it’s a charming way to end the show; it really does click. And it does help warm the bed, too.”

‘A great healer’

Two years into the jazz show’s run, Campbell was diagnosed with cancer. He sought refuge in the solitude of the recording studio.

Radio took on a more profound meaning. There was more gospel to spread, jazz to blow, blues to moan, rock to roll.

“The best thing for me to do was to come up here and just work on shows,” he said. “I would do that, and I forgot about all my personal problems. This kind of saved me.”

A year after his cancer bout, Campbell suffered a heart attack.

He repeated the radio-as-therapy process.

“Once again, it was a calming, soothing healing thing,” Campbell said. “And now, as I sit here, I’m probably healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. I know from experience, when you’re recovering, radio is a great healer.”

Still, he admits, sitting alone in a studio, speaking into a microphone several hours a day for six days a week can play mind tricks.

“Radio is transient. It’s like there’s this time warp thing that goes on,” he said. “I’m here by myself, talking into that mic, and in a sense you’re just talking to yourself. Sometimes, I think I’m like Travis in ‘Taxi Driver,’ just talking to myself.”

This summer, Campbell secured a chance to speak in-person to an audience. Along with poet and fellow jazz buff Philip Bryant, Campbell co-hosts the St. Peter Arts Center’s fledgling “Hot Jazz For Decent People” series.

“I feel really good about it,” he said. “I love being involved in it, because I can promote it on the radio and be ‘Maverick Slim’ at a live event. And the musicians love playing there, because the audience is a jazz audience and they know their stuff.”

Campbell has more radio projects in the works. As a novice classical fan — though one with a considerable collection — he’d like to host a one-hour classical show.

“I would be doing it not from the chair of expertise,” he said, “but of learning it with my audience. It could be at 11 p.m. or 4 in the morning. It would just be fun to do that.”

He also has plans to devote an entire show to incorporating spoken word poetry, literature, letters and essays from the likes of Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, combined with country and blues music from the mid-1900s.

“I’m really interested in when the music styles crossed after World War II,” he said. “When rural whites and blacks converged on cities all throughout America, and they brought with them their guitars, and harmonicas and their songs and I just love that.”

But first things first: Will Campbell ultimately stick with Coltrane as the opener for his 10th anniversary show? Find out Thursday, Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at

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