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.

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?'

AAJ: It's a reproach to other people, to see somebody like that...

JH: ...and it's a curse to have it. So everybody I was seeking out had that same drive. Like John Clayton: I saw him conduct his life in the way that he wanted it to go. He made it quite simple: who do you want to play with? And I told him. And he said 'OK, then you will.'

You're going to piss some people off because they don't really get you. And I don't go out of my way to do it; I think I'm nice with people, I'm patient with people for the most part. I do what I do, and I've spent my whole life trying to do what I do as well as I can do it. From the time I was 8—I'm 52—so that's a lot of years to be honing your craft, and being so clear-cut on what it is you want to do for a living...

Back to the big band thing—I didn't answer that. John and I had talked about doing that in college. He was planning it as early as late college, early Monty Alexander days. When we did our first gig in '85 at the Hyatt on Sunset, it wasn't like OK, we've reached the dream, it was, 'we can't live off of this, but let's do it as much as we can.'

You used the term 'amazing.' The only thing amazing about it today is to realize that we've been doing this for 20 years, and just now people are starting to sit up and take notice of who we are. That's the amazing part.

We're contented that it's gone this long, that we're playing this well, and there are still people who want to be in the band that we adore, and they're family. This is what it oughtta be.

AAJ: So, where do you go from here?

JH: Keep doing what I'm doing: play great music with people I love to play with. Ten years ago, who would've thought I'd be playing with Tamir Hendelman and Christophe Luty?

AAJ: What else do you do besides music?

JH: Collect wine. Study wine. I work with a personal trainer twice a week, try to stay healthy. I just started playing tennis again, reasonably, instead of diving for balls. I love great meals, and great bottles of wine with the meals. I'm co-owner of the Bosphorus Cymbal Company. I'm a consultant with Remo Drum Company. I book my own trio, and try to keep my head above water. I try to walk every day, except on this thing [the ship].

AAJ: Is there anything you want to expound on, anything you'd like to see changed?

JH: I think our youth generally are not as hungry as we were to get this information, because everything's handed to them. We have so much available now. Before, to see Jo Jones, there was one 33 that you could spin, and you'd have to put the needle in the same spot to hear what he was doing every time, to transcribe it. Now you just slip on the DVD and you see exactly what he's doing. And I think because everything has become so easy, people don't really cherish everything they're getting.

If you hear Jo Jones play a lick on a record, you're imagining what he's doing. It's like listening to baseball on the radio. I played what I thought he was doing. When I finally saw him play it, he did it another way, so now I had two ways to play it.

And nobody wants to sound like anybody else right now. Well, how else do you get your sound? You study the ones you're crazy about. As Jeff Clayton says in clinics all the time, people are arguing with [having to do] transcriptions because they don't want to sound like anybody else. But as Jeff says, it's better to sound like somebody than nobody.

AAJ: Amen to that. Well, I think we got it.

JH: Good. I need a nap.


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