CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jeff Hamilton, Drummer’s Drummer

The lauded sideman for Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, and Monty Alexander—and current leader of not one but three working bands—reflects on his long and storied career

Jeff Hamilton
Jeff Hamilton (photo: Lauren Pressey)

In a video pulled together by Kendrick Scott and posted on social media during the pandemic, 39 top-notch jazz drummers play along, one by one, with Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” It seems entirely appropriate that Jeff Hamilton starts the video off with a typically impressive use of brushes on a snare. Hamilton has a reputation for both enviable technique and complete devotion to making everything swing. He developed that reputation quickly while apprenticing with several of the great bandleaders of swing and bebop, including Woody Herman, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander, and Ray Brown; the latter nicknamed him “The Hammer,” a moniker by which he’s still affectionately known to his fellow musicians and fans alike.

Settling in Los Angeles, he drew on all that sideman experience when forming his own groups. In 1985, with his lifelong friend John Clayton, he founded the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, a big band that has set the gold standard for large jazz ensembles. In 1995 he created a piano trio that now features pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Jon Hamar, with whom Hamilton recorded Catch Me If You Can, released by Capri earlier this summer. Just a few years ago, he formed an organ trio with Akiko Tsuruga and Graham Dechter, whose most recent album was Equal Time (also on Capri).

Over the years, Hamilton has also been a first-call studio musician for countless instrumentalists and singers, from pop stars looking to make their jazz statement, including Paul McCartney and Barbra Streisand, to legendary jazz singers like Ernestine Anderson and Rosemary Clooney seeking a swinging rhythm section. And if all that weren’t enough, he can claim more than a little credit for mentoring a certain young Canadian pianist who became one of the music’s most popular performers. As you’ll read in this freewheeling conversation, Diana Krall owes quite a large debt to the Hammer.

JT: Do you remember falling in love with drums?

JEFF HAMILTON: Yes, I remember seeing Gene Krupa on TV when I was five years old. That did it for me. I said, “I want to be just like him.” I was taking piano lessons at the time like everyone else in my family, but I hated it. So the teacher let me quit. He said, “He hates this, but he has good rhythmic ability and he should play an instrument.” They asked me what I wanted to play. “Drums or trumpet, but drums really.” At eight years old, I got into the fifth-grade summer band. They got me with a private drum teacher in Richmond, Indiana, my hometown, right after that.

A few years back, you told me a story about the Red Sparkle drum set that captivated you, and that you later named an album after [2012’s Red Sparkle].

Yes, it was an “a-ha” moment. Gene played Slingerland, and there was a Slingerland Red Sparkle set in the window of Hood Music on Main Street [in Richmond]. I kept walking by and thinking, “If we could just afford those, that would be great.” The drum teacher wouldn’t let me have a drum set until I won my first contest at 12, so I had to wait that long to get one. My father and mother surprised me with that Red Sparkle set that had been in the window. They got the full set for, I think, $462. They threw in a 22-inch cymbal because rock & roll guys weren’t playing bigger cymbals. And a pair of Gene Krupa signature Red Ribbon brushes.

That was a lot of money then. It had to be thousands in today’s dollars.

They would second that opinion. More than would have been in our budget, I’m sure. I had proven to them that I wanted a drum set because, one Christmas when I was really young, they got me a toy drum set from Sears. You could break those things real easily. I was determined not to do that, and I even dusted it off and kept it clean. They knew I was serious about it. I did the same thing when I got the new drums. My mother always said, especially about the brushes, “Now those were a gift, just don’t let them lay in your closet … you make something of that—don’t just throw it away.” That always stuck with me. That’s the way we were raised. I thought, “Yeah, it was free, I’m going to see what I can do with this.” That was the love of brushes.

That love is something you’re known for to this day. Did you do the usual school bands and camps during junior high and high school?

The camps were marching-band. I didn’t go to any jazz camps and our high school didn’t have a jazz program. I was invited to be in the Earlham College jazz ensemble when I was 15, because they didn’t have any Quaker drummers. It’s a Quaker school. The college director came over to my high-school band director, who said, “Take this kid out of my hair, he’s driving me crazy—I don’t know anything about jazz.” That was my first opportunity of being in a jazz ensemble.

When I graduated, I went to Indiana University. I was accepted at Eastman but I didn’t have enough money to go there. I really didn’t want to go to IU, because my sights were set on Eastman. Lo and behold, Peter Erskine is a freshman that year and Ken Aronoff is there and John Clayton shows up and we become best friends. You never know what destiny has in mind for you.

While you were at Indiana you started studying with John Von Ohlen, who was well-known around Indianapolis but less so nationally.

He played with Billy Maxsted’s band and Ralph Marterie’s band around Indianapolis before joining Woody Herman in 1967. Those bands he was in were more territorial, but insiders knew them. He came to fame with the Kenton band in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That’s who laid the moniker “The Baron” on him [Von Ohlen], because he looked like it and he sounded like it. He looked like he owned the band. I left IU after two years because I had been driving up to Indianapolis three or four nights a week to see him play in this club, and then making an 8 a.m. theory class the next morning down in Bloomington, an hour away. I thought, “You know, I think I can learn more from this guy than I am at Indiana University,” because the focus for my education there was tympani and marimba. And I didn’t make the jazz ensemble my freshman year. In eight months [after leaving IU] there was a huge turnaround and I was on the Tommy Dorsey band after studying with John.

John never taught at IU, though, correct?

No, he spent a few weeks at North Texas State as a student, and said, “Baby, that’s enough for me, I gotta get out of here.” He landed back in Indianapolis after the Kenton band and he started a couple of big bands there and they were as successful as big bands could be at that period without traveling. He moved to Cincinnati, where he started the Blue Wisp Big Band. He was a homebody, definitely.

What did you learn from John?

To not play everything I know in four bars. To relax when I played. To focus on the ride cymbal and on making the band comfortable with my beat. If I had to tighten up to play anything, then don’t play it. Those are all just things he would throw by me. He said, “I’m not a very good teacher, so you’re going to have to ask me questions.” That was what I needed. He said, “Just let the limbs flail, baby.”

Do you use that advice with your students?

That’ll be on my headstone, definitely.