Jeff Hamilton: Sound Painter

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.
If Jeff Hamilton isn't the world's greatest living drummer, he's on the short list for coronation. For the past five years, he's been in Modern Drummer's top five (#1 in 2004 and 2006), and was #4 in the most recent Jazz Times readers' poll. Whether you think such polls reflect true quality or just recent visibility, the undeniable fact is that Hamilton is a reliably creative, classy and swinging drummer whose live shows contain a nearly balletic grace that few performers can match.

The title Sound Painter was chosen because Hamilton has a famously broad palette. An unrivalled brush player, he's always experimenting with different sounds—often playing the head of a tune, he bends pitches to make his drums melodic as well as percussive. Then there's his fabled hand-drumming, where everything, including his ring, can become part of the music. His rendition of "Caravan" features both techniques: while it's exciting to hear on CD, watching it is nothing less than transcendent.

On a 2005 Caribbean jazz cruise on the M/S Zuiderdam, I asked some of Hamilton's colleagues to describe him in one word. Fellow drummer Ed Metz, Jr. instantly said "astounding." Other speedy answers were "creative" (Ken Peplowski), "swinging" (Lynn Seaton), and "suave" (Bill Mays). Uberbassist John Clayton, Hamilton's co-leader in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his closest friend, needed a moment to distill their decades together into one word: Clayton finally came up with "remarkable."

And speaking of remarkable: when I separately asked the members of the Jeff Hamilton Trio the same question, they each came up with "exuberant" without any discussion between them. According to pianist Tamir Hendleman, the adjective reflects Hamilton's obvious enjoyment of life, people, and humor. "Exuberant" is also a good descriptor of his style on the bandstand, where his mischievous, dimpling, contagious grin frequently appears, as if he's just been tickled by some private delight.

Defying the usual laws of career physics, Hamilton's career started at the top, with the Dorsey band, and has only gone higher. [Note: Hamilton's first album, Live! Montreux Alexander (MPS, 1977)—with John Clayton and Monty Alexander—still stands as one of the greatest live trio albums of all time.] Part of the Thundering Herd, the Ray Brown Trio and the L.A. 4, among other configurations, he's been on over 200 recordings, including several Grammy winners. The most recent was the Good Night, and Good Luck soundtrack; on screen, there's a brief flash of trio bassist Christophe Luty, but Hamilton's face ended up on the cutting-room floor. He has his own busy trio and other entrepreneurial interests, drives the Clayton Brothers Quintet, and tours and records with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO). Recent doings include a fine new trio CD, From Studio 4, Cologne, Germany (Azica Records, 2006) and upcoming CHJO recordings with Diana Krall and Gladys Knight.

Our interview took place on November 3, 2005 after a long night of partying and jamming, so Hamilton was a bit less exuberant than usual. But, ever the professional, he kept our appointment instead of taking the nap he so clearly needed.

All About Jazz: I've heard you say 'when I played with Dorsey,' and 'when I played with Woody Herman'—and then there's Hampton and Basie. You must be a hundred and five, given all the people you've played with.

Jeff Hamilton: I just knew what I wanted to do very early. I saw Gene Krupa when I was eight. I grew up in a musical family: my mother was a Baptist church organist, and I have two older sisters who were also musicians. I was supposed to be the pianist—the Eddie Duchin/Peter Nero of the family—but Gene Krupa got me, on TV, on the Merv Griffin Show.

AAJ: What got you about him?

JH: The fact that he was having so much fun with what he was doing, and that he was so dapper. I'd seen marching bands before, but I'd never seen a drummer do all that—at that time, nobody was doing it like Gene—so it grabbed me, and I said that's what I want to do. If you do start that early, you get a leg up on everybody else. I was in the Dorsey band when I was 19.

AAJ: Really?

JH: I left school [University of Indiana] in 1974. John Clayton had played in Palm Springs with Murray McEachern, leader of the new Dorsey band, and he could get college kids for $200 or $250 a week to come out and play. So John said, 'I'll get a drummer for you.'

It was a ghost band, but it was OK, now we're off and running. And then Lionel Hampton hired me off of that band... He was the first live leader I played with. 'Hammy from Naptown' is what he called me, since I came from Indianapolis.

I wanted to play with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown and Woody Herman and Count Basie. Of course they're all quite a bit older than I am, but I've been an old soul since I was a kid. I related to my grandmother probably more than anybody else in my family growing up, [and] had a better time with my older relatives, aunts and uncles, than the kids I was going to school with. I thought those kids were morons because they were listening to dumb music and dressing stupidly. I was kind of like this 40-year-old high school student (grins).

AAJ: You might've been a dork if you hadn't been a drummer.

JH: Yeah, but I dressed nice... (We laugh. And note: he still does.)

AAJ: Given that you played with so many of the biggest big bands, it must be amazing to have your own big band now [Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra]. Was that your ultimate goal?

JH: It was a goal, but it wasn't amazing when it happened.

AAJ: OK, pick your own adjective. Wondrous? Spectacular?

JH: I want to come off right on this, and Clayton's the same way: if you want something, and you love it, and you know how to nurture your talents, and you're smart enough in your homework, and that's your goal in life—to get to this spot—then you're gonna get there. Because people are going to start talking about you working hard on stuff.

AAJ: And how much of a place does talent have?

JH: You've got to be able to deliver when you do get the opportunity. Somebody says all right, we need an alto player—and you go up, and if you can't hit your butt with your hand, you're in trouble.

At the same time, all this emphasis on technique is stupid, because technique is what you have to get your music out: your technique is your technique, my technique is mine. Buddy Rich can't touch my technique because he can't hear it, and I can't do what Buddy does. So technique is not this one thing that we're all aspiring to.

AAJ: It's more like a well that everybody goes to...

JH: That's it. It's not a competition for who has the best technique. I have the best technique for me, to get my music out. Forget about trying to cut somebody.

AAJ: I know you're a tired person, and I'll try to have mercy on you. But it's a good thing you mentioned technique, because I'm always so delighted when you do that hand drumming thing—which other people do, and have done—but it seems that the way you do it is unique.

JH: Using the hands is just another tool for me to get the music out. I've spent a lot of time getting a lot of sounds, experimenting—there are always more. And you have to be open to surprises.

AAJ: Like the other night, when your cufflink got stuck?

JH: Right. If I'm using my hands and it's dragging across the rim, I'm gonna make that work, make it a part of the next phrase.

AAJ: Do you know how you look when you do all this?

JH: Kind of. I had a day with Philly Joe Jones in '75. We did brushes for three hours, then we did sticks for three hours. He was so gracious, and I'm still thinking about things we talked about that day that were just priceless tidbits of information. One of the things he said was that 'you had to be pretty to play the brushes.'

He showed me a motion that was—the motion you see me do all the time—when you cross the right hand over the left. It's like cross, open, cross, open, and you're open on one, cross on two, come around three, four, one, cross, open. Well that's called the 'palm up,' because when you finish this stroke on one, your palm is facing the ceiling.

After he snapped his hand, though, he'd come up like he was combing the left side of his hair, then down his arm with the brush and onto the head again, so it was this really regal looking, I-own-the-world kind of move. But I thought, these guys are going to laugh me out of the room—plus, I had an Afro out to here.

AAJ: I remember that from the 'Montreux Alexander' days.

JH: Well, this was bigger. It kept growing.

AAJ: Like a chia pet?

JH: (Laughs.) Yeah. Right. I didn't want to get my brush caught on it. But he made me put my hand up there, and the sound was better.

My concept is, always stay in motion. Be on your way to someone else. Don't hit a drum and stop, don't hit a cymbal and stop in midair and then start your groove again, because your motion is going to keep your groove going and help create the smoothness of your groove and your phrasing.

And the dance-like moves that you were talking about? If you think of playing brushes, think of the greatest tap and soft-shoe dancers—it's not just visual, it's musical. Now I think I'm one of the few drummers who thinks like this. Mel Lewis was certainly one, John von Ohlen, and Shelly [Manne]; on certain things it was very noticeable. Adam Nussbaum has this going, and others I'm leaving out, but the majority of drummers don't think like this. I actually let the brush's motion get into the stick motion, so when I'm playing sticks it's the same technique. Those are little drums and I get a big sound out of them and I don't work that hard at it.

L-R: Lonnie Liston Smith, Red Holloway, Dick Morgan, Jeff Hamilton

The reason that most people don't let the brushes influence their sticks is that they don't have a brush concept strong enough to spill over into their stick concept. â??ËœCause everybody starts out with sticks, and goes to brushes later. It's such a different animal that they can't wait to get back to sticks; most drummers just tolerate brushes. They just play them; they don't really love them. I'd rather play brushes than sticks all night.

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.
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