If you’re a musician in New Orleans, you’re never far from the source. In the case of trumpeter/vocalist Mervin “Kid Merv” Campbell, he’s got it coming and going. His great uncle, Kid Rena, was a local star during the infancy of jazz in the early 20th Century, a rival of Louis Armstrong’s who replaced Satchmo in Kid Ory’s band in 1919. But Merv also is close to the source in the 21st Century as a member of the Treme Brass Band and protégé of that group’s lead singer and bass drummer, the late “Uncle” Lionel Batiste. Merv, whose father died without ever hearing his then 8-year-old son play a note, cites a lot of famous New Orleans musicians, including Danny Barker, Harold Dejan, Tuba Fats, Kermit Ruffins and Cyril Neville as “big brothers” or “father figures,” but Uncle Lionel clearly did the most to shape Merv’s performance style and personality.
“I met Uncle Lionel in the 1970s with the Olympia Brass Band,” Merv recalls. He had just finished his Friday afternoon set with the Jazz Cats at the French Market Café and reminisced about Uncle Lionel five days after his passing, even as a massive second line for Unc was gathering just blocks away at Tuba Fats square. “Him and Benny Jones was in Olympia No. 2. They had three Olympia bands back then. I was a little bitty boy, just picked up the horn. At that time, the Olympia Brass Band was the hottest band in town. They had to have three lineups because they had so much work, some of the jobs were at the same time.”
Merv says you can directly hear Uncle Lionel’s influence on his singing in several songs recorded for his just-released album Body and Soul.
“Clearly that’s Uncle Lionel’s influence on the song ‘Route 66’ on my CD. From my scat solo all the way to the end is Uncle Lionel. Actually, he was supposed to sing with me on that song, but when he heard what I’d done already, he said ‘I don’t wanna touch that, just leave it like it is.’ ‘Route 66,’ ‘Mack the Knife,’ I learned all that from him. The way I dress is 100 percent Uncle Lionel. I’ve been told I’d better wear my best outfit for his funeral ‘cause I gotta be the cleanest one on the scene. I don’t know if it came from him but I was told ‘Make sure you clean.’”
The 46-year-old Merv grew up at an interesting time, at the tail end of the old-school brass band revival, spearheaded by Danny Barker and the Olympia bands, and at the beginning of the new era of brass bands inspired by the innovations of the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth. He learned from both schools, but his earliest music training came from his mother, Millie Campbell, who was in the Fairview Baptist choir.
“I was at Fairview with my mother from before birth,” he laughs. “My vocal style comes from the church. My mother was a singer, so she sang to me even when I was in her womb. She sang to me when I was a little boy, she sang in the choirs, she was always in the choir, so I guess I was just born to sing is all.”
As a boy growing up in the Seventh Ward, Merv was stirred by the sounds of the St. Augustine marching band practices that took place close by his home.
“I was barely able to speak,” he says, “I was just learning how to talk and I told my mother I wanted to go to St. Aug. We were four blocks away from the school and I could hear the band playing from my back yard.”
Millie bought Merv his first trumpet when he was in fifth grade and the 13-year-old boy started hanging out with Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church brass band. “The Dirty Dozen wasn’t formed
yet,” says Merv, “so Efrem Towns showed me how to play ‘Down By the Riverside’ and all them old tunes. The band broke up and some of them went on to form the Dozen. Danny Barker tutored me through the rest of high school.”
Merv joined the Olympia Brass Band in 1981, where his education continued under the direction of Harold Dejan and Milton Batiste, who dubbed him “Kid Merv” after his great uncle Kid Rena.
“Mr. Harold and Mr. Batiste told me, ‘You’re not the first one from your family that played the horn. Kid Rena is your great uncle.’ Mr. Harold told me about Kid Rena, that he used to play on a cruise boat like the Creole Queen or the Natchez. As a little boy he used to play with Rena and hang out with him. Mr. Harold was in the Olympia band since he was like 14, 15 years old. Kid Rena wasn’t in Olympia, but he did play with some of them.”
Merv eventually realized his childhood dream of joining the St. Augustine marching band under the direction of Edwin Hampton. He went on to Texas Southern University where he honed his vocal skills as a member of the concert choir. When he returned to New Orleans, Merv played with Tuba Fats in Jackson Square.
“After college I was working at the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, which today is the W,” says Merv. “I had a problem with getting up at six in the morning, so I lost my job. At that time, Tuba was out there in Jackson Square, and he said, ‘You don’t need no job, just come out here and play your horn.’ Tuba was another one who was like a big brother to me all my life. Ever since I got into the Olympia Brass Band, when I was a little boy, he was there.”
As the youngest member of the Olympia band, Kid Merv was intended to bridge the institution to another generation, but as older members passed on or became too infirm to play, the band gradually phased out. Milton Batiste brought Merv into the Junior Olympia Brass Band in ‘87, but by ‘89, Merv was leading a yet even further revamped version, the Young Olympia Brass Band, which morphed into the radical young brass band the Soul Rebels, whose debut was the iconoclastic No More Parades.
“That was our first album,” Merv laughs. “We were more like Parliament/Funkadelic. We called ourselves the Soul Rebels by night and the Young Olympia by day. One time, we were in France for this festival and I was the king of the festival. We were there for the whole week, so one night we were the Soul Rebels, next night we were the Young Olympia Brass Band, alternating that way for the whole week.”
While working with the Soul Rebels, Merv also joined a group of young members of the Neville family, Deff Generation. They recorded the memorable “Running with the Second Line” and learned valuable music industry lessons from Cyril Neville.
“If it hadn’t been for listening to Cyril, I wouldn’t own this record today, I would have had no knowledge about owning your own record, paying for your own licensing. I also recorded with Cyril during that time, and on the Neville’s Family Groove record, I took a solo on that. Cyril is my spiritual big brother. I’d drop on one knee for Cyril.”
After the Soul Rebels, Merv rejoined old friends Benny Jones and Uncle Lionel in the Treme Brass Band.
“In 1997, I left the Soul Rebels, went out as Kid Merv, recorded my first album and joined Treme,” he recalls. The album, Kid Merv & All That Jazz, won a pair of Best of the Beat awards from OffBeat.
A few years later, Merv moved to the West Coast, returning to New Orleans in 2004 just in time to be displaced by the federal flood. But not for long; Merv understands how deeply New Orleans is ingrained into his life and is determined to reflect that in his music.
“I was taught this by Danny Barker and Milton Batiste and Harold Dejan,” he says. “You have to live this music in order to be able to play it. I lived the music. I don’t know no other way. You can hear that on Body and Soul. I clearly see the growth over the years.”
After a lifetime of apprenticeship and struggling to find his identity, Kid Merv discovered it right back at the source.
“This is the birthplace of jazz,” he concludes, “therefore we’re keeping the beginning alive. A lot of people say we’re in a tradition, but that’s not it. We’re keeping the beginning of jazz alive here
in New Orleans. It’s in us. It boils through the brass bands. So the tradition is not lost, it just needs to be nurtured. Traditional music, this is where I got started. I helped form the Soul Rebels. It’s all the same to me. And for me, to be Kid Merv at center stage, it’s better than all of it; to sing, to do whatever I want. If I want to do a brass band tune, I can play a brass band tune. If I want to play a funk number, I can do that. If it’s a traditional song, I can do that too. I can do anything I want as Kid Merv. Uncle Lionel taught me that, and that’s a job well done by Uncle Lionel.”