A fantastic Holiday Book Pick for 2015 is “The Rebirth of the Cool,” this compelling story of Robert James Campbell as reconstructed by Jessica Ferber is a must for music and history buffs.
If you have never heard of the late Robert James Campbell, prepare to be introduced to a man who chronicled and recorded the history of America’s greatest jazz musicians and other notables of the era with his camera. Campbell was a New Englander who headed West, then retraced back to his native state of Vermont where he died broke and homeless.
His photos and ephemera left behind in a dirty bunch of boxes became the life work of a University student who was tasked with unraveling the quixotic life of a man very few knew, and who had recorded some pivotal moments in music history.
Jessica Ferber was a college student when she first learned of Campbell, with a professor asking her help in sifting through the property left behind of the deceased homeless stranger she came to know with each frame and shot discovered. Ferber was born and raised in New York. She has been the sole researcher and curator of Robert James Campbell’s life and photography since her graduation from the University of Vermont in 2002, the year of Campbell’s death.
Campbell was a freelance journalist for The Village Voice and Downbeat in the 1950’s and 60’s. His photos include iconic images taken at the height of New York City’s post-war cultural renaissance.
Until Ferber took on the colossal task of recording and preserving his work left behind, his photo archive was never printed or viewed by the public.
Campbell, who was a wildly talented artist, was brought down by mental demons exacerbated by financial hardship, and ultimately his health failure forced him to give up his passionate work at what should have been the prime years of his career.
According to Ferber, Campbell’s works cover an array of subject matter—including jazz, entertainment and the Civil Rights movement. His own life was tragic. After succumbing to numerous challenges that plagued him throughout his life, including mental illness, financial hardships and internal struggles as an artist, Campbell lost everything and returned to his home state of Vermont.
In 2001 he passed away in a Burlington, Vt., homeless shelter.
A visionary of the Greenwich Village nightlife scene in the 1950s and 60s, photographer Robert James Campbell vigorously documented New York’s jazz era, and its metamorphosis into the beat and folk movements. At the height of his photographic career Campbell captured the likes of John Coltrane, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Philly Joe Jones, Count Basie, Bud Powell, Richie Havens, Chuck Berry and more. Campbell left New York for LA and then disappeared into New England with little hope, but resolute to keep and care for his art he managed to diligently transport his negatives and images with him throughout his turbulent life, and ultimately with him into homelessness.
Rebirth of the Cool collects the best of Campbell’s work, shot at legendary clubs like Birdland, The Village Vanguard, and The Gaslight Café, as well as street photography, international work from his time spent in Germany, and tour photography. The era in which Campbell photographed was brief and precious, and the content he left behind represents a time capsule–a rebirth and regeneration–of a moment that was flashpoint for the culture and heritage of New York, and the nation as a whole.
Robert James Campbell was born in New York City in 1936, but spent most of his childhood in Vermont and New Hampshire. He took up photography at a very young age, and music soon after. He spent time in the army in the 50s and as the proprietor of a coffeehouse featuring music and art in the early 60s before moving to New York and beginning his photography career in earnest. By the early 70s he had left New York for good, along with his career. Battling mental illness aggravated by his mother’s death, and his own stroke, he began living in a homeless shelter in Burlington in 1995 where he passed away in 2002.