His early obsession with jazz might have been out of step with the rock ’n’ roll dreams of most kids his age. But his commitment to the art form has worked to his advantage—and to that of some of the greatest artists on the world stage.
While his playground peers were spinning stacks of the latest rock ’n’ roll 45s, young Jeff Hamilton was immersed elsewhere. “I was weird,” Hamilton says. “I wanted to be back in the mid- ’40s, riding around in a band bus. I was born in ’53, so that wasn’t possible. But the music I loved and listened to at twelve was big band music—the Basie band, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich—and at ten years old it was Oscar Peterson.”
Since hitting the road with the New Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in his youth, Hamilton has never looked back, staying the course as a robust, precise swinging force steeped in the classic sound. His childhood dreams while growing up in Indiana were eventually realized as he swung behind many of his early idols, with an emphasis on his first-love formats: big band and piano trio.
Jeff played stints with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd, Lionel Hampton, Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Oscar Peterson, the L.A. Four, Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Rosemary Clooney. Along the way his full, round sound and grabber pulse have graced more than 200 albums, including twenty Grammy nominees (nine winners), with the likes of Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Benny Carter, and Michael Bublé—and even a session of standards with Willie Nelson. Other artists in his impressive discography include Mel Tormé, Milt Jackson, Diane Schuur, Frank Sinatra, Lalo Schifrin, Terry Gibbs, Charlie Byrd, Dr. John, and Laurindo Almeida. Somehow, Hamilton also manages to don his business hat as a part owner of Bosphorus Cymbals.
Today the L.A.-based drummer’s stellar status has afforded him the luxury to pick and chose. Although Hamilton still finds the time to book record dates and squeeze in appearances with top jazz names, his current focus harks back to his roots. “I’ve kind of whittled it down to my own projects,” Jeff says. “The older you get, that’s really where you want to be: playing your own music. I made that decision, and one of the reasons I formed the trio was because I didn’t want to always be a rhythm section for everyone else. I wanted the trio to be able to stand on its own.”
That resolve has rewarded Hamilton with two labors of love: the Jeff Hamilton Trio, featuring pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty, and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, a thrilling big band co-led with saxophonist Jeff Clayton and bassist/conductor John Clayton. The trio has an extensive U.S. touring schedule ahead and a new CD, Red Sparkle, while the orchestra is slated for an upcoming European tour. Hamilton will also be playing with the big band on collaborative appearances with singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli, in support of their popular CD, Dear Mr. Sinatra.
Due to his classic roots, Hamilton is frequently cited as a torchbearer. But he doesn’t view it that way, being acutely aware of the depth of history preceding him. “It’s odd,” he explains, “that a lot of people now come up to me and say, ‘I got into jazz because your record is the first one I heard.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re kidding!’ It’s a weird position, because I was used to going to Mel Lewis or Shelly Manne to discuss things and ask questions. Now it seems that more and more I’m the guy people seek out for that jazz information.” Asked if a special responsibility comes along with that, the drummer is thoughtful. “The responsibility is to myself,” he says, “to play the music—which so many people have shared so much information with me about—and to honor the respectability of sitting down at the instrument and giving it one hundred percent.”
All philosophizing aside, Hamilton ultimately prefers to get down to the core of things—much like his drumming, which is rooted in the primal elements that move people. “Basically,” Jeff says, “I’m still simply doing what I was doing at twenty years old when I hit the road: playing great music with great musicians. That’s always been my focus.”
MD: When you were growing up, what was it in your environment that got you so deeply into big band music?
Jeff: My two older sisters brought home an Elvis record, and my dad wanted nothing to do with it. So he went out and bought a cut-out at the record store: “Give me any big band record!” He didn’t even know what it was. It was Count Basie. Jo Jones was on it. I heard it and said, “That’s what I want to play.” Also, my mother was a church organist. She had a little Hammond organ at the house that she practiced on. I realize now that I learned the keyboard at five years old by lying on the floor while my mother told me when to press the bass pedals.
She would buy music books that combined sacred music with secular tunes like “Satin Doll.” My two sisters, my mother, and I would sit around the organ, and Dad would tolerate it. We’d sing the tunes with pretty good pitch and then break into four-part harmonies. From there, a neighbor down the street said, “Have you heard Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson?” And I started listening to records with him after school. It was a fertile musical home and town, with great music programs in the schools.
MD: Throughout your career, you’ve been highly in demand with the biggest jazz singers on the planet, including your long, successful association with Diana Krall. Jazz vocalists can be notoriously finicky with drummers. What’s the quality that puts you in that rare position?
Jeff: On the bandstand, you have to be aware of everything that’s going on around you, listening all the time. Those who listen better are going to be the better players, because they know what to do to add their talent to the mix and offer what they have. A lot of times, players may be confident in what they do, but they’re not really hearing everyone else.
Vocalists really know and appreciate when you’re listening to them. And they know that I’ve listened to many, many records over the years and have had the experience of being on the bandstand with people like Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, and Tony Bennett. Applying all this to the vocalist’s singing—while having total respect for their voice and the gig—comes out as a pretty good package in the end, because they’re getting the best of what I can offer. Total awareness and concentration on the bandstand and big, open ears are essential in any group you’re playing with, vocalist or not.
The thing I learned early on playing as a fifteen-year-old kid in Richmond, Indiana, at Elizabeth Parker’s Restaurant, was the bandleader saying, “Make sure you can hear my wife, Katy”—and there was no microphone! So I pulled out brushes. I couldn’t use all my rudiments and astound the diners with my talent, because I had to listen to Katy. [laughs] And that was a great lesson to learn.
I had a one-day lesson with Papa Jo Jones that brought it all to total clarity. I was playing with Monty Alexander and John Clayton at Charlie’s Playboy Lounge in Philadelphia, and Papa Jo came in to see the band. I asked him for a lesson, and he spent the whole next day with me. It was an unbelievable opportunity. I asked him what he thought of my playing the night before—what I needed to work on. He said, “Challenge the players more. Bring yourself to the music more; don’t just lay there like a doormat and play time.” I said, “Challenge them? But I don’t want to cover up the bandleader.” He said, “I didn’t say, ‘Play loud,’ I said challenge them.” The rule is, if you can hear everyone on the bandstand at all times, your volume is perfect.
MD: A drummer has to lay down the law but be sensitive as well. When playing with vocalists, do drummers sometimes make the mistake of forcing it down their throat, overstating their position?
Jeff: All musicians tend to strong-arm vocalists. Piano players can play a lot of substitution chords and make vocalists go someplace they don’t necessarily want to go, or make it hard for them to hear their pitch. Bass players can be too loud or forceful with vocalists. It’s not just drummers. Vocalists appreciate musicians listening to them and giving them what they need.
Now, on the reverse side of that, there’s a list of vocalists as long as my arm that I won’t climb on the bandstand with because I don’t feel I’m getting that from them. I don’t want them to be turning around, snapping their fingers, glaring at me, shoving a microphone in my face, like, “Are you listening to me?” We’re all up there to play music together, so once you get that democracy, then you can make some music.
Ella Fitzgerald was perhaps the nicest of the legendary singers I ever worked with. I worked with her for one year in ’84, and the only thing she ever said to me was after the first tune we played. I was playing kind of lightly, like I would for most vocalists, and she turned around and said, “Give it to me, honey!” [laughs] So, in my head, I immediately went to those recordings with Gus Johnson on drums, where he sounded like he was playing with the Basie band on stage with Ella. I went to that, and she turned around and winked at me. She never said another word about my playing or complained about it. She just always asked us when we got off the bandstand how she did that night.
So when you come from that to a singer who turns around and starts telling you, “Brushes! Sticks!”… There are name artists I could really hang out to dry. They need to know: “Let me play the drums. I studied this instrument, I studied your genre—let me do my job. Don’t tell me to put a stick in one hand and a brush in the other.
I’ll tell you what needs to be done on this, and you can’t imagine how great this is going to sound if you just give me a shot to make you sound like a million bucks.”
MD: Unfortunately, that does happen to drummers. But it seems especially baffling if they specifically hired Jeff Hamilton—a drummer who has a name, a signature.
Jeff: It’s due to artists not knowing exactly what they want and what’s possible, yet they want to be in control of the situation. So they have in mind their favorite recording of that song and want you to sound like that. They don’t know that you can bring something better than that, because they’re not the singer on that recording, and you’re listening to what they really need to make it sound like it should, instead of trying to re-create another recording.
MD: But when you’re going into a huge high-profile project like Barbra Streisand’s 2009 record, Love Is the Answer, aren’t you braced for getting more direction than you might like?
Jeff: In that particular case, I accepted the work because Diana Krall was selected by Barbra Streisand to produce the record. Diana said, “I will produce it, but I want my rhythm section on it.” Barbra said, “Okay, you’re producing—it’s your rhythm section.” So I knew that I only had to answer to Diana. Barbra would work things out with Diana, and it would trickle down to me. Barbra had never worked like this. She was getting used to it and was having input as the project went on.
Actually, she ended up asking for my input. We’d do several takes, and she’d ask which ones I preferred. I thought, Hmm! This is…nice. [laughs] On one take I said, “I think on the take before this you were more relaxed with your lyric—the tempo was slower, and I felt you just relaxed more.” She said, “No, I like the one we just did.” I said, “Okay,” and that was that. The next morning I did my three-mile jog along the ocean, and when I got back there was a message on my machine from Barbra, saying, “I stayed up late and listened to all the playbacks, and you know what?
You’re right—that one was the best.” That’s when you get those enjoyable little moments of, “Yeah, we’re all coming together with this thing.”
MD: You’ve said that after your initial early influences, Mel Lewis became a huge inspiration.
Jeff: It wasn’t until my ears matured that I figured out what Mel was doing. I realized, “Okay, this is what musicians want to play with.” It’s the relaxation that they want to feel on the bandstand, instead of having the drummer going after everything, making everything a drum solo. I was also fortunate to have had Mel as a dear friend.
MD: You’re recognized as a brush master. It’s been said that brushwork is the most personal and individual of all drum techniques and sounds.
Jeff: I would agree that the brushes—for those who want to get all the way in there—allow you to be one hundred percent of who you are, [to reflect] what you’re thinking at the time and what you’re feeling, to bring everything right to the core of who you are.
The sticks don’t allow us to do that. That’s a staccato sound; the brush can be a legato sound. If you just want to drop everything and say, “How am I feeling right now?”—maybe in a meditative mood—then pick up a brush and make a sweep across the head. The hair’s going to stand up on the back of your neck. It allows you to experience whatever you’re feeling inside at that time and to express it on the drums. A lot of people shy away from brushes because they feel they don’t want to go that deep with what the brush can offer. If you sit in a dark room with a pair of brushes and just try to create sound and relaxation, it’s like going into a meditative state. The brushes afford us that luxury of finding out who we are.
MD: Why would drummers resist getting that deep?
Jeff: Because they’re coming from rudimental snare drumming or the “hottest beat” of the day. For a lot of young players, drums are an aerobic exercise. So brushes would make them calm down and play music, and a lot of players don’t want to know about that. Then again, Tony Williams didn’t like brushes. He said they were invented by club owners. [laughs]
MD: In your clinics, you stress the importance of a lateral movement for brushstrokes, even for short notes. I tried your tip, and the result was immediate. It seemed so obvious that I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before.
Jeff: That’s also what I said when my teacher John Von Ohlen showed me. I came up on military snare drumming, so I had the rudimental chops, and I played brushes the same way. John, who is proudly not a rudimental drummer, showed me how he approached the stroke from the side. I heard the sound and said, “Holy cow—that’s it!” So I applied the rudimental approach with the side-to-side motion, and that started to evolve.
MD: Do you have a signature from band to band, no matter what the format?
Jeff: People point out to me that I know my beat, I know where the feel is, I know what I can give to the music. And I have a very strong inner beat, so I offer that. I don’t shove it down anybody’s throat. I offer it, to everybody on the bandstand and everyone in the audience. And it’s their choice to come into that—into my mental state of playing time. There’s something you can’t touch about that. It’s a feeling that I hope makes people want to move or tap their feet or get up and dance, which I feel a lot of jazz players have lost in their beat. If you just play the ride cymbal, it should dance—it should be strong enough to make you want to get out of your seat and dance. My favorite drummers all have that ride cymbal beat.
MD: Why is it missing?
Jeff: A lot of people haven’t had the chance to stand in front of the live Basie band and experience the feeling of them changing your entire life. Or the experience of dancing to the Basie band or the Ellington band or any older big band. Because those bands were playing dances. And to keep their jobs, they had to keep the dance floor filled. And I’m not talking about having a “stodgy old-man beat.” I’m talking about getting that infectious beat, in whatever genre it may be, and making sure that’s the focus of it—first! The basis of it is very primitive. You pick up an object, you strike another one, and you move people. It’s that primitive.
It’s the way this whole thing got started, and I think we’ve gotten away from that. Jazz education is great. But sometimes you can get too much into that field and forget about having that danceable beat. The younger players in their twenties I’ve talked to lately say that people their age are bringing in their own original compositions featuring various time signatures and are wanting those to be played. That seems to be more the mainstream, instead of learning the American songbook. They don’t necessarily even want to learn it.
I taught as a substitute at an institution with drumset majors focusing on jazz. And these people didn’t even know where the clubs were in L.A.! But in their combo classes they want to bring in their own compositions for people to play.
It reminds me of a line that Jeff Clayton, my good friend and coleader, said. At a clinic he was talking about standards and transcribing Cannonball Adderley. A kid said, “I don’t want to sound like anybody!” And Jeff said, “Well, at your age, isn’t it better to sound like somebody than a nobody?”
Too many people have made the mistake—maybe out of laziness—of not researching the music, to bring it up to where they can say what they want to say. I don’t sound exactly like Mel Lewis. I don’t sound exactly like Jake Hanna. I don’t sound exactly like Philly Joe Jones. But there are elements of those gentlemen’s playing in my music, and I am always beaming when somebody comes up and says, “Man, that one thing you did sure sounded like Mel.” Because nowadays, when someone says, “That sounded like Jake Hanna,” the drummer will get bugged and shoot back, “I’m no Jake Hanna—I’m myself!” I don’t get that departure.
MD: You spoke of how the dancing pulse should be elemental. I’ll never forget seeing you with the Ray Brown Trio. I had never heard Ray live in a small club before, and I couldn’t believe the strength of his sound and pulse going straight through the audience.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s bouncing off the walls. When I was having elbow surgery, a known drummer subbed for me with Ray’s trio. And he asked me, “How do you play with him?” because it was so forceful and strong. My reply was, “How can you not play with him?”
MD: Of course, that’s a direct compliment to you as well: You have to be right in it.
Jeff: Right, you have to have that strength in your own beat to bring to that. I’ve seen Ray turn his back to several drummers who thought they could just ride his coattails—just following. That’s the last thing Ray wanted.
MD: You’ve mentioned enjoying extreme tempos, especially very slow ones. How do you approach them?
Jeff: On the slower tempos I tend to “groan” a little more; I have an internal groan, which I encourage everybody to try. It brings more intensity to your time. A lot of us do it without knowing it. Louie Bellson called it the fifth limb—the limb of independence. It’s an undercurrent throughout. John Von Ohlen described it as an infinite line, like a fishing line from corner to corner in the room. You get up on that, and you’re on it through the entire piece until the cutoff. As Mel Lewis would say, “Concentrate from count-off to cutoff.” Think the groan throughout, and there will be more intensity in your ballads than there is in the up-tempos.
On the up-tempos, I go the other way and think of a downbeat every four bars. It’s a longer phrase. And I throw the stick down on 2 and 4 and get three bounces. Snap it up on 1 and 3 to make it clearer. Try to relax, and again, bring it to your mental state. I try to relax even more on up-tempos.
MD: You’ve really paid your dues as a sideman. What do you bring from that to being a leader now, musically or as a life lesson?
Jeff: I learned from all that experience to never consider anyone a “sideman” when you’re a leader. It’s so important to embrace everyone on the bandstand to get the most of what they can bring to the music. The minute you have a leader getting a little ego going, then you get a disgruntled sideman, and that definitely becomes a division. But once you’ve been kicked in the teeth by a leader, you start thinking, When I get my own band, I’m not going to do that. In my trio, it’s equal parts—three equal musical minds coming together. I’m the leader as far as calling cues, and when the gig doesn’t pay enough, I’m the one that takes the debt. [laughs] But psychologically, the guys in my trio would say it’s not a leader and two sidemen. I can’t do what they do, and they can’t do what I do, so we all need each other to make this music come together. It’s similar with the big band. Half of that band is still the original members from 1985, so that means we’re doing something right.
Also, what I’ve learned from the great leaders is: Everything you do, do it one hundred percent. Go after it, don’t be lazy, do what you want to do. If you’ve got a passion for something, an intensity for it, go after it. I could not have climbed on the bandstand with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis and just said, “Eh, I think I’m gonna relax tonight.” You’ve got to get up there and contribute. You’ll get rolled over by a steamroller if you don’t.
On my first night with Ray and Oscar, we opened with a ballad, and we were in tuxedos in July at the Hollywood Bowl. I heard something, and it was Oscar singing his lines, kind of groaning the way he did. And Ray is going, “Haoow! Haoow!” playing long half notes and growling. I was sweating through my shirt by the end of the first chorus, just from the intensity of that ballad. We weren’t playing loud; it was the intensity of the beat. And I thought, Okay, this is the way every ballad has to feel from now on.
MD: Your trio’s new record is Red Sparkle. That’s a title all drummers can relate to!
Jeff: Yeah, you hear them all giggle in the audience when we announce that tune. [laughs] It starts out with rudiments on the snare drum. It recalls how we had to get that together before we were rewarded a drumset. In my case, I spent five years on the snare drum. I had a Slingerland red-sparkle snare. The tune develops into a rumbling, rolling groove on the whole set that occasionally reverts back to the rudiments.
This CD is a little different in that its identity is more focused on my contribution in the trio. The theme of the record is to open each tune with an identifiable drumbeat that will be the signature. Also, I’ve written more originals on this; there are fewer standards.
MD: Drummer/leaders are the exception rather than the rule. It’s “easier” for melodic instrumentalists to stamp a signature sound on a jazz band. What is your stamp as a bandleader?
Jeff: It is easier to market bands led by melodic instrumentalists. But I’ll never forget something that Woody Herman told me. Toward the end of my second week, on the bandstand he turned around and said, “Don’t forget, this is your band, pal!” At twenty-four, I’m thinking, I don’t WANT this band! I just want to play drums in this band! [laughs]
We talked about it later, and he said, “Every band belongs to the drummer. And it’s up to you to make it work or not. The drummer can make a band sound great; therefore it’s your band. You’re the ‘arranger,’ you know what’s going on, you can shade what’s coming next, what we just left. You can fold up what we just did, seal it away. You can make everybody sound like a million, or make everybody sound bad. It’s your band.” You can’t share that with everybody, but since this is a drummer’s magazine, I’m here to tell drummers that every band you’re in can be your band!
Jeff Hamilton Trio Symbiosis, The Best Things Happen, Red Sparkle /// Ray Brown Trio Don’t Get Sassy, 3 Dimensional /// Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra Live at MCG /// Diana Krall Live in Paris
Oscar Peterson Trio The Oscar Peterson Trio Plays, Night Train (Ed Thigpen) /// Count Basie Chairman of the Board (Sonny Payne) /// Ahmad Jamal At the Pershing: But Not for Me (Vernell Fournier) /// Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra Central Park North (Mel Lewis) /// Woody Herman 1964, Encore: The Best Band of the Year 1963 (Jake Hanna) /// Buddy Rich Big Band Mercy Mercy (Buddy Rich)
Drums: Remo Gold Crown Bebop series in black lacquer finish
A. 5 1/2×14 snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 16×18 bass drum (16×20 for larger ensembles and organ groups)
Heads: Remo, including Fiberskyn 3 Diplomat snare and tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Fiberskyn 3 Diplomat on both sides of the bass drum
Cymbals: Bosphorus Hammer series
1. 14″ hi-hats
2. 20″ crash/ride
3. 22″ crash/ride with three rivets
4. 22″ China with two rivets
Sticks: Regal Tip signature sticks and brushes
Hardware: Hamilton snare and cymbal stands