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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 in 2014
Jeff Hamilton at the Newport Beach Jazz Party, Valentine’s Day 2014 (photo: Art Pazornik)

How long did you play with Dorsey?

Nine months. I would have stayed on, except that Lionel Hampton hired me off that band.  Then the Dorsey band for another month and then Monty Alexander, through John Clayton. John had played with Monty after being put together with him by Ray Brown. When Monty wanted John to join, he said, “I don’t have a drummer. Do you have a drummer you’re comfortable with?” In June of 1975, that’s when we started with Monty.

It’s incredible how long you and John have known each other and played together. What was your initial meeting like? 

In 1972 I was in the second band at IU and he waltzed in. Ray Brown had sent him to Indiana to get his classical chops together. David Baker was thrilled with him because he was the star of the jazz program at the time. Everybody went to the rehearsals to hear John Clayton. I just walked up to him after a couple of weeks and said, “You know, I have a quartet that I’m in and the bass player is busy on the weekends, and it’s standards, and we’ve got a singer”—who was the third-string quarterback on the IU football team! We did five nights a week for the whole year at this resort, playing standards. John did the gig and we connected. I talked to him about my own direction. I said, “You’ve got so much experience, what do you think I should do?” He seemed like a wise old sage, even though he was just one year older than me.

Last year while crate-digging for vinyl, I found one of those early records with Monty and the two of you [1977’s Montreux Alexander] and I honestly don’t know whose Afro was biggest then.

Well, it was definitely a contest because we were on the road 50 weeks a year for two years and we didn’t trust anybody to cut our hair. I’d wait until we’d get a break and come home and have the guy cut my hair there. They just kept growing over time.

That was an interesting transition, going from the Dorsey band to Monty.

I actually had a vacation from the Dorsey band to play a week with Monty and John at the King of France Tavern in the Maryland Inn in Annapolis. I took my big-band drums, with my 24-inch cymbal and a 22-inch bass drum, and I got the gig. I knew that if I could get the gig with that equipment that Monty knew I had the touch to play in that trio.

Monty has such a unique rhythmic sense because he mixes swing with island rhythms.

Back then, in 1975, it was more geared to Oscar Peterson, and of course I knew every arrangement of Oscar’s. I was then hoping that one day I’d get to play with Oscar. Monty was in that same category and I thought, “I’ll never get to play with Oscar, so this is my Oscar Peterson dream gig, playing with Monty and John.” Fifty weeks a year for two years. I always wanted to go on Woody Herman’s band, because of those great drummers like Dave Tough, Don Lamond, and Jake Hanna. I wanted a shot at that band. There was an opportunity for me to go on that band, so I left after two years with Monty to go on Woody’s band. I would have stayed out for a year, but Ray Brown had heard me with Monty, Milt Jackson, and John Clayton and had remembered me and he hired me to take the void left by Shelly Manne in the L.A.4. I was only on Woody’s band for six months in 1977.

What an incredible series of gigs you had after leaving IU: Hampton, Monty, Woody, the L.A.4 with Ray, Laurindo Almeida, and Bud Shank, Oscar … I think it might be hard for people now to appreciate just how great those gigs were.

They might appreciate them more now because they don’t exist anymore! What I’ve always lived by is that you love the music and you do your homework. I know where Oscar Peterson is from. I know where Woody Herman is from. I know their wives’ names. You’ve got to learn everything about the person you want to play with going into the gig. That’s what I did with Monty. I got all of his recordings and I had listened to all of them before I got the job. I waltzed in and I knew most of the music. Players appreciate when you walk in and nail their music. That shows them that you want to be there.

What was it like for you to follow Shelly Manne into the L.A.4, since Shelly was a major influence on you?

Shelly was a good friend too. The first night I met him I asked him what I was doing wrong, and he put his arm around me and said, “Youngblood, you’re doing just fine, just keep doing what you’re doing.” He was one of a kind. At that time there weren’t that many around who were as versatile, holding orchestras together and then going in and playing music for The Love Boat and then hitting the bandstand with a trio and blowing it up with the brushes.

When I interviewed Sonny Rollins about Way Out West, his trio record with Ray Brown and Shelly, Sonny said that it was a magical moment with those two guys that couldn’t be replicated.

He’s absolutely right. André Previn came up and apologized to me after a concert he heard of Ray, Benny [Green], and I in his hometown. He walked up to me and said, “I think I owe you an apology.” I said, “But we’ve never met.” He said, “Well, I know you’re aware that Ray recommended you for these Telarc things that we don’t have drums on, and you would be great on them, but after Shelly Manne, I just can’t play with another drummer.” I said, “Mr. Previn, I understand that more than you know.” You weren’t just getting a drummer with Shelly, you were getting the whole package.

So was it difficult to follow him into that group?

With all due respect, Shelly and I had different concepts. I didn’t look at it as following him because I figured he was irreplaceable. This was an opportunity for me to tip my hat to him, but do the best I could to be Jeff Hamilton and see if it was going to work. The first rehearsal we did, I started doing more Shelly-isms, playing triangles and shakers, which was part of the repertoire of that group. Ray stopped the rehearsal and he turned to me and—remember, I was 24 years old then—he said, “Look, we hired you for you … we know what Shelly Manne sounds like, we want to hear what you sound like.” The lightbulb went on. He said, “We’ll tell you if something doesn’t work.” That relieved the pressure of trying to “follow Shelly.” Sometimes there can be a little too much respect going into a group like that. Ray said, “I want this group to go where you think it should go, that’s why I brought you in, so what do you want to do in this group?” They wanted me to write, they wanted me to arrange.

Is that when you started writing tunes?

I did. And you’ll never hear them again, except one was on a record, and I tried to buy every copy of it so no one can hear it. They liked it, but I didn’t. You learn by experience. The first thing I took in was when Ray wanted to do Chick Corea’s “Spain.” He said, “You [arrange] that, you’re in that age group of young guys.” I thought, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.” I take the charts in and it’s going really well. And at some point in the rehearsal, Ray just stops playing. I thought, “Oh no, I did a bad copying job with his part.” He says, “Hammer, come here.” I go over and he puts one arm around me and the other arm is around his bass. He points to the page and he says, “What’s that note?” I say, “It’s a low D.” He says, “Uh-huh.” I say, “No!,” realizing then that the E string is the lowest note on the bass. He grinned and he said, “Hammer, I’m good, but I’m not that good.” Lessons learned in a loving way.

Was that your first time playing with Ray?

When I joined the group in 1978, I was invited to be a replacement for Jake Hanna at the Dick Gibson Jazz Party and I played with him there, but just one set. So the L.A.4 was really the first time, and it felt exactly like I knew it was going to feel—like I was walking in a good old pair of shoes. I had the same experience with Oscar Peterson. He brought back that group with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. I was the drummer that got to play with those old trio records.