Red Camp, jazz pianist, was born Lafayette Berry Camp on December 8, 1909, in Laredo, Texas. Inspired by recordings of Louis Armstrong and his pianist Earl Hines, he showed an interest in piano in high school and learned chords and some of the rudiments of the instrument from an older sister. He also played drums. By the mid-to-late 1920s he had studied engineering at a junior college and then enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied engineering and shifted between three different majors, but his inclination to perform music drew him away from school.
Camp, known all of his life as “Red” for his red hair, performed throughout Texas with the bands of Ben Young, Dave Matthews, and Blue Steele. He also worked with Paul Whiteman in a Billy Rose show in Fort Worth. Camp was based out of a Dallas-area night club for two years and jammed with Woody Herman, Isham Jones, and others. He auditioned for Bob Crosby, who hired him for his band, but Camp’s inability to read music caused his dismissal less than a week later. This event prompted Camp, after about ten years of performing with dance bands, to return to the University of Texas in 1938 to study music. During this time he met Alvis Horn, a piano instructor on the school faculty. They eventually married and had four children. He earned his degree in 1942 and then spent the next three years in the United States Air Force.
In 1945 Camp and his family moved to New York, where he studied at Columbia University and earned his master’s degree in 1948. To support his family he also taught piano lessons and performed at several New York nightclubs. At various hangouts in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street, he jammed with the likes of Sammy Kaye, Pee Wee Russell, and Miff Mole. Tired of the hectic pace in New York, however, Camp moved his family to Laredo. He established the music department at Laredo Junior College and headed it for three years. In 1951 he moved to Corpus Christi. It was during a visit back to Laredo, however, that a chance encounter marked the turning point in his musical career. While performing at the Laredo Country Club, Camp met Emory Cook, owner of Cook Laboratories, a high-fidelity recording studio and manufacturing facility in Stamford, Connecticut. Cook, the only large-scale maker of binaural recordings, was impressed by Camp’s musical interpretations and the way he infused his various influences—from Dixieland to Swing Era to boogie woogie and progressive jazz styles. Cook hauled in recording equipment on-the-spot for an impromptu recording session. It was the first of a long association between Camp and Cook. Cook later recorded Camp playing an old barrelhouse, upright piano in Corpus Christi along with accompanists Chet Rupe on guitar and Arley Cooper on bass—resulting in the album Red Camp Upright: Mad Music for Tea-time in Texas. The album dubbed Camp as the “Fugitive Piano Smasher from Fifty-Second Street.”
Another album, Red Camp Horizontal, featured Camp on a nine-foot Steinway piano. Camp later recorded for Cook in New York and also released his performances on the clavichord. In 1958 he returned to Austin to play a benefit concert. His unique combination of seemingly opposite styles, matched with powerful and ambitious left-hand fingerings, prompted many critics to regard him as an enigma. Some of his renderings drew comparisons to Dave Brubeck with a modernist approach, while other performances were described as more traditional in the style of Dixieland. In anticipation of his 1958 Austin performance, the Austin American summed: “Camp has come up with a highly distinctive, highly personal composite of all of his experience, one that defies pigeon-holing into any one particular school and one that has made Camp an interpreter of jazz in a school all by himself.”
In 1958 he became the first jazz soloist ever to be selected for the Civil Music Association tour of 1959–60. The honor had formerly been restricted to classical musicians. In the early-to-mid-1960s he participated in the Columbia Artists’ concert tour.
Camp continued to perform as part of a trio in Corpus. He also gave private lessons and kept recording. He established a long association with Del Mar College, where he and his wife taught, and he was a favorite artist at Corpus Christi’s annual jazz festival. He retired in 1984. Camp, a Catholic, died on February 6, 1987, in Corpus Christi and was buried at Seaside Memorial Park.