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Jeff Hamilton: Sound Painter

By Published: May 9, 2006
AAJ: It's probably easier on the wrist too, less carpel tunnel-y?

JH: Actually, no. Sticks are where it bounces—off metal, off plastic—while the brush is wire. You gotta manage every beat with the brushes; with sticks, it's just hard surface to hard surface.

AAJ: I figured I'd get you to weigh in on that endless controversy: the street versus academic jazz thing, which also feeds into whether jazz is dying or not. For example, some people say that if you learn jazz in school, then you're not playing the real stuff, and it's dying because it's getting very intellectualized and academic.

Is that hard for a tired person to ruminate on? (laughs) You're sinking lower—let the record show that Jeff is sinking lower in his chair.

JH: I'm weighing in.

AAJ: (Groans)

JH: (Grins.) OK. Let's talk about a student of the music. He's heard music somewhere that gets to him, and he wants to do that, he wants to emulate what he heard. Say it's Gene Krupa on TV. So you start buying Gene Krupa recordings—and now, you get DVDs, and you can download anything on the computer, and create your own curriculum for what you want to study.

Today's student doesn't have to go through the university curriculum to be a good player. Most of them probably would be better off if they didn't. Schools are four years of babysitting you, just like conservatories in Europe—which are worse, it's like six years, and you're 30 years old before you get out of school. Half your life's gone. It takes that long to finally do what you want to do.

So I don't see anything wrong with monkey see, monkey do; you emulate, you're like a sponge, you take everything in. And you learn from them, you ask them questions, and you get the information directly from them about what works on the gig. Especially with jazz drumming, it's like being a blacksmith or a cobbler: it's a trade you need to learn from somebody who does it for a living. You can't learn jazz drumming in a school. Most educators pass information to the students that's the best they can do, but they don't know. They've never gotten their teeth kicked in on the Ellington bus.

My favorite players are either people who learned on the street a long time ago, or have enough college to enhance what they learned on the street so they can read better, they can arrange, they can compose.

AAJ: Do you teach?

JH: Not anymore. I don't have time. I'm one of the owners of the Bosphorus Cymbal Company. I book my own trio. And the Clayton/Hamilton band is getting busier than ever. I left Diana Krall so I could concentrate on those things. I don't have time to teach.

I also decided I don't want to spend my day this way, to teach brushes to a USC Marching band student who's never going to use them and can't play them because he was at the Cal game blowing his chops out this weekend and he can't even hold them.

AAJ: So they can't even kiss the hem of your robe or anything?

JH: No, absolutely not.

AAJ: Just checking.

JH: Don't touch it. (More laughing.)

AAJ: Well, we have some time left. Do you want to comment at all on the jazz is dead thing?

JH: What are we all doing here [on the jazz cruise] if it's dead?

AAJ: Good point. I think a lot of the "jazz is dead" thing is from people who are worried about their own mortality—people getting older—and a little bit of ego, like..

JH: ... we had it. Those were the days.

AAJ: Yeah. We had it, you'll never have it, and when we die we're takin' it with us!

JH: I think there will always be people who want to know the information, who want it passed down to them, and they're going to seek it out and keep it alive. As long as there's an audience for it.

The schools are helping keep our audience. That's why I can't bash the curriculum too much, because not every one of the students is going to be a professional musician when they get out of college, even if they have a performance degree. But they are going to understand what you're playing, and they're going to want to hear it...

AAJ: So the schools are spawning a whole new generation of informed audiences...

JH: Right.

AAJ: But some people are focused on the other part of it: all these highly trained people coming out, and a declining number of gigs...

JH: But if you're good...that's all it's ever been about. If you can hit your butt with your hand, youâ??Ëœll succeed. Because people are going to talk about you.

AAJ: You almost have an outsider's way of looking at it. Where did you get that independent, single-minded thing?

JH: From my father, and sports [baseball and basketball]. It was just 'do what you do, stick to it and you're gonna get better.'

Then John McMahan was a real disciplinarian—my first snare teacher—he'd stand behind me with the butt end of a marching stick, tapping the tempo between my shoulder blades so I wouldn't rush. I'm eight years old and tears are streaming down my face—he was a tough guy. 'And if I ever hear you bragging about what you do, or telling someone else that they're not as good as you, you will not get another lesson!'

Growing up with that attitude was kind of tough because nobody else was like that. Everyone thinks you're an asshole because you're so focused on what you do, like 'what's the matter with him?'

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