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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 rehersal
Jeff Hamilton in rehearsal, snapped by longtime pal John Clayton

When did you and John start the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra?

We had talked about it for quite a while. When we were with Monty, everything was location work, so we’d set up an apartment for a couple of weeks. We carried a portable turntable with us. We’d be listening to Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Quincy and Basie, and Ellington. The bug hit us. I was a natural big-band drummer from growing up and he wanted to explore the writing. We left Monty about a month apart. I went with Woody and John went with Basie. He stayed a couple of years and ended up in Holland. When he lived there he started writing and experimenting. He’d have student bands play his material and he’d send cassettes to me, asking me, “What do you think?” I said, “Yeah, it’s sounding good, let’s start our own band.” In 1985 he came back to L.A. and we started the big band, along with his brother Jeffrey [the saxophonist].

Did you originally envision it as a band in residence there in L.A. or as a touring group?

In 1985, it was hard to travel with a big band. Not many were doing it and if they were, they weren’t very successful. We started out by saying, “We want to play this music with people who love to play it and let’s see where it goes.” That was the only thing we were thinking about. Jeffrey Clayton, who’d been living in L.A., knew all the personnel that we should get. When you start with Snooky Young as your lead trumpet player, you can’t lose. Our first gig was the Hyatt on Sunset and we had 19 pieces in the band, and we outnumbered the audience on our opening night.

It kept growing and the popularity kept growing until 1998, when we were made the house band for the Hollywood Bowl summer jazz series. We had all these guests come in and perform with us every Wednesday. It was fantastic. Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Take 6, and so many others. John was the music director and he had free rein to bring in who he wanted. The nice part is that he would write one piece that would be new to the guest artist and we would play it on the concert. That’s jazz: Come in, learn it and do it. It ended after three years, but it goes to show you where you can go: from a band that plays for 15 people on its opening night to one that plays for 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.

You and John also played a pivotal role in the emergence and development of Diana Krall.

She came to the jazz camp at Port Townsend [in Washington] to study with me because she loved that record Montreux Alexander that you referenced. She wanted to know the inner workings of that trio. I talked to her about it. I later heard her play but I didn’t know it was her. It was a dark room and I was in the back. I heard her play “My Foolish Heart.” She was 19. I thought it was George Cables, the pianist who was teaching at the camp. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes and I applauded involuntarily. I hear this shriek from the other end of the room. I reached for the light switch and it was her. I said to her, “Come here and sit down. You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “What do you want to be?” She said, “I want to be a jazz piano player.” She had dabbled in singing, but I didn’t know it at the time. I said, “Who do you want to study with?” She said, “Jimmy Rowles.” I said, “He’s in Los Angeles, how serious are you?” I told John about her—he was tighter with Jimmy—and I introduced her to Ray Brown. She moved to Los Angeles and she house-sat for my wife and I when we’d go on vacation. She baby-sat for Gerald and Gina Clayton and lived with the Claytons for a while. Ray said, “I want you to train her as a trio piano player and I’ll produce the record, but Jeff, this is your project.” That’s how Stepping Out [Krall’s 1993 debut] came about.

Given her popularity as a singer, sometimes it’s forgotten what an excellent pianist she is.

She can really play. The focus has been on other things in recent years, but she was a helluva piano player even at 19. People’s mouths would hit the floor. She’d play in that swinging Nat Cole and Oscar style, with the block chords. She was doing that at a young age.

Did you also see her unique gifts as a vocalist?

When we did that record date, she asked for a boom microphone stand and I said, “Look, I’m seven feet from you, I can hear you talk.” She laughed because she thought I knew that she sang. She started singing “Frim-Fram Sauce” and I almost stopped playing. Afterwards, I said, “What the hell are you doing?” She said, “I’m going to sing a few tunes on this.” I said, “Well, thanks for the warning!”

It must be a source of pride for you and John to see her succeed as she did. Are there others whom you’ve mentored and seen rise to some success?

I do try to help younger players. I don’t know if there are any who have done it to the extent that Diana has done it. Nobody saw that meteor rising. When [artist manager] Mary Ann Topper came in to hear Ray’s trio at the Blue Note, she said, “I need a female artist.” I said, “Well, John and I did this record with a piano player that sings a little bit.” She said, “Have her send me an 8×10 and a CD.” I did, and that’s how she ended up on GRP and Impulse!

Look, if you play your butt off and there’s a connection there and we can play music and agree on things and be compatible on the bandstand and off, I’m all in. Recently Akiko Tsuruga is someone that Howard Stone [of Vail Jazz] put me together with. He said to her, “I’ve got a drummer for you,” and he told me, “I’ve got an organist for you.” Within eight bars at the Vail Jazz Party, I knew we had to start working together.

Also Graham Dechter, the guitarist in that organ trio.

Yes, I produced his CD that’s coming out [Major Influence]. He grew up wanting to be in the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. At 19, he came in and he didn’t even open the book on the first rehearsal, because he had it memorized. These are people that eat, sleep, and breathe the music and you want to help them because you know they’re serious. People helped me, so I’m turning that around and helping them as best I can.

Another of your great working relationships is with Tamir Hendelman, with whom you’ve played for more than 20 years. How did you meet?

I went to hear him with a vocalist at a club in Los Angeles. I was mesmerized by what he was doing. After the set he walked by the table, and I said, “My name’s Jeff Hamilton, what’s yours?” He told me, and I don’t think he knew me, but I said, “I’d like your phone number,” he said, “Okay,” and that was it. About two months later, Ray Brown hired Larry Fuller out of my trio and it was the day before Christmas. I had to go to Japan with my trio the next month. I called Tamir and I said, “Are you up to this task?” And he said, “Sure.” I gave him about six CDs and told him, “Listen to six tunes off these, whatever you want, and let me know which ones you want to do.” He called me in about two days and said, “I’m ready.” I said, “What tunes do you want to do?” He said, “We’ll just play when I get over there.” He came over and both he and [bassist] Christoph Luty had the entire book memorized. These are the kind of people you want in your band. That was 21 years ago.

Was the piano trio something you always wanted to lead?

My first love in jazz was the big band, because there were a lot of big-band records in the house and because the drumming captivated me at such an early age. I was listening to Jo Jones and Gene Krupa before the Beatles hit. My generation went that way and I stayed in the big-band realm. The bands were getting hipper at that time with Woody and Maynard, playing a little more modern music, and I thought, “Well, I can hang with this without an electric guitar and amps next to me.” I noticed that the trios had the same format as the big bands: There was an introduction, melody, solos, sendoff, shout chorus, melody, and outro. I could relate to that. To this day piano trios and big bands are my favorite settings in jazz.

There is something very special about the jazz piano trio.

If you have the right people and everyone is thinking how to make it sound like more than a trio. “Does this cymbal work in this situation?” Or “Is this drum tuned properly?” Or “If the piano player is in the middle of the keyboard, am I going to be playing the tom-tom?” You orchestrate so if somebody’s low, I go high, and vice versa. What sounds complement what you’re hearing? 

Was there any method to the song choices on the new album?

Songs that I love and that I’d played with other folks, and tipping my hat to John Von Ohlen with [his composition] “The Pond,” because so many people didn’t know that he could play piano. He was such a harmonic genius and he doesn’t get credit for it. He actually has a piano CD called The Pond that one of his colleagues made him record about two years before he passed. I wanted to pay tribute to him and put our treatment of that on the CD. With “Catch Me If You Can,” we needed an up-tempo bebop kind of thing that Tamir does so well. I turned him loose on it. And of course it took us forever to learn the impossible tune, hence the title.

Not a cover of the Dave Clark Five hit, though. You also tip your hat to Thad and Mel, and Woody Herman.

That’s right. I used to wake up every morning and play Thad and Mel’s “Big Dipper” before I’d go to school. If I did that, then the whole day was going to be cool and I didn’t care about history or flunking chemistry or any of that.

Looking back now, have you had the career that you dreamed of or has it gone beyond that?

It’s gone beyond that. When I was 19, I set my goals: I wanted to play with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Woody Herman, and the Count Basie Orchestra. When I was able to play with all four of those people that I had dreamed of, I realized, “Oh, I’m not 40 yet, so I guess I get to die when I turn 40.” The only person I didn’t get to play with was Duke Ellington, but he died when I was 20 years old and on the Dorsey band. 

I’m quite happy with where I am musically now. With the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra I have my big-band fix. And with my piano trio and with Akiko and Graham, I have three groups that I work predominantly with. I don’t want for anything more. I love playing great music with great people. I’m quite content. I know that sounds weird for a jazz musician to say, but it’s true.