The Bisiach became Campesi's favorite fiddle. "What attracted me to it is the very dark, Italian sound," Campesi says, cradling the instrument in his hands, as if it were a newborn baby.

Campesi, 82, is one of the few remaining jazz violinists of his generation, a rich heritage that includes Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. He was born at the beginning of the jazz age, and his playing

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Sebastian Campesi performs with his Bisiach violin. Photo by Melanie Rush-Davis
swings elegantly through the songbook of American music. Campesi's story spans from his New York birthplace to Africa and Italy, where he spent part of the second World War, to San Antonio, where he has lived for 50 years, performing and imparting his gift to subsequent generations of aspiring players.

Born in 1921 in Jamestown, New York, close to Lake Erie, Campesi grew up in the foothills of the Alleghany Mountains. He was drawn to the violin at an early age. "As a kid, I learned from friends who would help," he says. "I also learned a lot from listening to the radio. It wasn't the conventional way, but if you worked at it you could get it." Campesi took music lessons from his father, a clarinetist who immigrated to the United States from Enna, Sicily.

At age 17, Campesi went on the road with an orchestra run by Meyer Davis, who booked music for society functions in Philadelphia, Washington, New York City, and Boston. After a year, Campesi wanted to improve his musical skills, so he headed to New York City, where he had a scholarship to study with Samuel Applebaum. "When I went to Applebaum, I didn't even know what a pizzicato was, but I knew I could get the sound," Campesi explains, "because I'd heard it on the radio. Applebaum was such a fine teacher and wonderful human being; he wouldn't laugh at me, or ridicule my technique. He'd say, 'Well, you did it wrong, but it sounds right.' He was so nice about it."

While Applebaum served an important mentoring role, Campesi's greatest musical influence was Joe Venuti, who in the early 1920s was among the first group of classically trained musicians to become involved in jazz; many fans and critics still consider him to be America's best jazz violinist. Campesi was 14 when he met Venuti, who spent time with the teen, not in formal lessons, but as a mentor, working on specific aspects of violin playing.

In 1939, Campesi received an offer from Venuti to play at the Claridge Hotel in New York City. "At that time I didn't feel ready for that kind of job," Campesi says. "I felt it was a little too much responsibility for me. So I told Venuti that I'd rather go study with his teacher, Thaddeus Rich at Temple University in Philadelphia. Venuti thought that was a good decision."

Campesi went to Temple to audition, hoping merely to be accepted as a student, and was surprised when Rich granted him a full scholarship. It appeared as though Campesi was on course to complete his formal music education — until the outbreak of World War II.

Campesi served in the Army's 88th Infantry Division. The "Blue Devils" were mostly made up of draftees and conscripted soldiers from New England and the mid-Atlantic states. In December 1943, the 88th landed in Casablanca, French Morocco, and in February 1944, after a period of training maneuvers in Africa, they arrived in Naples, Italy, where they became the first WWII draftee division to enter a combat zone. "That's Sidney Gabin. He was from New Jersey," Campesi says, gently pointing to a face in an old

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Campesi was on course to complete his formal music education — until the outbreak of World War II.
photograph of young soldiers. "He was our first casualty." Drifting back into memories, Campesi gives the name and place of birth of every man in the photo, and what he knew of their lives.

On June 4, 1944, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Campesi and the Blue Devils entered Rome: the first Allied troops in the Eternal City, the first European capital liberated in WWII. D-Day overshadowed the victory two days later. Allied forces in Italy eventually drove the Nazis north into the Alps. By the time Germany surrendered in May of 1945, the Blue Devils were in Bolzano, Italy, close to the borders of Switzerland and Austria, and less than 100 miles from where Leandro Bisiach had made his violins. For the 88th, the cost of the journey came to 2,298 dead and 9,225 wounded. Campesi was discharged from duty on December 16, 1945, with a Bronze Star and a strong desire to get back home to his music.

"When the war ended I thought, 'Well I've been gone so much, I think I'll go to Cleveland to get my music degree.' Cleveland was only 150 miles from home, and I felt like I wanted to be close to home for a while."

(Here the story of the 1890 Bisiach is less certain. We do know that someone brought it across the Atlantic, and to America, to the Pacific coast, and north to Vancouver, British Columbia.)

After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Campesi stayed in the city and attended Case Western University, receiving his masters degree in 1950 — the same year he got his first music work in San Antonio. "I always liked San Antonio. I guess I played there five or six times before I came down permanently in 1955."

Campesi has had a full life in San Antonio, spending 22 years with the San Antonio Symphony, and 28 years in education as a teacher, principal, and supervisor for music and fine arts programs. In that time, he has played violin in local performances ranging from Count Basie to Bach to Spanish boleros.

"There's not anything he can't play," says longtime San Antonio musician Hank Harrison. "There's no one like Campi anywhere else in the United States. It really amazes me that we have someone

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of his caliber right here in San Antonio. Even in New York or Los Angeles you aren't going to find somebody who can play swing fiddle the way he does."

Many musicians and music lovers throughout San Antonio and the rest of the country echo Harrison's appreciation for Campesi — both the musician and the man. In 1997, in Austin Downtown Arts, Lisa Schneider wrote: "When I studied with him in the early '80s, he was a pipe-smoking, second-generation Italian with an equal love for classical and jazz. He wouldn't teach me jazz, though, because he stressed the benefits of a good foundation in classical technique." Schneider continued, describing Campesi's music as "luscious melodies and improvised phrases with a tone beyond compare, and a passion that belies his seven decades of fiddle playing."

In 1970, Campesi crossed paths with an instrument dealer in Houston. An old violin caught Campesi's eye. The dealer didn't know much of the violin's history, but said he had found it in Vancouver, British Colombia. Campesi was drawn to the instruments "dark, Italian sound."

"Campi plays violin in a bel canto style," says Joe Gonzales, a classically trained guitarist who has played, off and on, with Campesi for about five years. The literal translation of bel canto from Italian means "beautiful singing," and is defined as "an elegant Italian vocal style characterized by florid melodic lines delivered by voices of great agility, smoothness and purity of tone." Historically, bel canto is shrouded in mystery and lore, actually originating as a teaching technique for singing that dates back to Italy's Middle Ages.

"You don't play the violin," Campesi notes, "You sing the violin."

And Campesi is still singing. Health permitting, he performs every Saturday night, with Gonzales, at Capparelli's on Main, a warm Italian restaurant with good food, and a friendly staff. Every Saturday evening, at about 6:45, you can see Campesi fill up his coffee mug and walk across the dining area to the corner where he begins to fill the room with the magic of Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington — played on a beautiful violin that Leandro Bisiach made more than 100 years ago. The songs you will enjoy, and the masterful way they are performed are the riches of Sebastian Campesi's lifetime. •

More by Dennis Scoville



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