Jeff Hamilton

Swinging The Band By Ken Dryden

Jeff Hamilton was focused on being a jazz drummer from an early age. Jeff says, “I was playing to Count Basie and Oscar Peterson Trio records, memorizing all the music and thinking if someday I get to do this, I’m going to be ready.”

Jeff enrolled at Indiana University as a percussion major, under the tutelage of John von Ohlen. Jeff says, “He was a major influence and mentor. He said, ‘Don’t read music when you’re on the bandstand, you’ve got to get all the way inside the arrangement, make everybody comfortable and make them want to play.’ So I had the book memorized and it made it a lot easier.”

Jeff was encouraged by the bandleaders who hired him. “I set goals of working with Woody Herman’s band, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and the Basie band. So I learned their music. When I met Ray, I felt like I knew his playing and so much about him – you go in prepared so you aren’t surprised by a lot of things when you play with these people. If you go in with the thought, ‘This is my chair and I’m going to play so they can’t think of anybody else. I want to own this chair.’ When I joined the LA4, Ray Brown stopped the first rehearsal and told me, ‘We know what Shelly Manne did in this band, we hired you for you. Now what are you going to bring to the music?’ He made me think more about what my voice was and what I had to offer.

“He and Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida were encouraging in letting me develop that in that group. I learned from Woody Herman as a leader to let the musicians grow and develop, don’t be a dictator, and make things go down a path that you think they should go and let the musicians find their way.”

Jeff also learned that there is more to being in a band than being a good musician, explaining, “You’ve got to get along with people and keep your mouth shut. That’s one thing I knew about Oscar Peterson before I joined him. I was with him from 1990 to 1995, and there was a time and place to let him speak his peace, whether you agreed with him or not. We got along famously. For Oscar, it was as much about the dinner after the concert as the concert. We’d know the restaurant where we were going to eat, but couldn’t tell you the name of the venue where we were playing. When you’re at the dinner, wearing tuxedos after the gig and he orders a $250 bottle of Bordeaux that’s thirty years old, don’t order a cheeseburger and french fries.”

Jeff reunited with his old friend John Clayton for a big band recording,The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: And So It Goes, for RMI Records last year. “Russ Miller is a good friend who designed my drums. He’s got a beautiful studio soundstage,” where Russ engineered the recording. “John and I have never been too far apart from each other since we met at Indiana University. We’re best friends and both live in L.A. John had arranged many things lately that were so fun to play. We went to Europe for three weeks in the fall of 2023 and Akiko was a guest artist of ours on that tour. We thought we needed to record this music, so we recorded John’s recent arrangements.”

Jeff chooses music depending on the personnel for the recording session or booking. “In my piano trio with Tamir Hendelman and Jon Hamar, we all contribute pieces: it’s three equal parts clicking at once. If one person brings in an arrangement, the other two get out a knife and cut a page or two and suggest something else or another chord change or melody line, so everybody is involved.”

It is the same way in his organ trio with Akiko Tsuruga and guitarist Steve Kovalcheck. Jeff says, “We suggest material. Akiko plays bass, melody and chordal support, so we give her leeway to what she is comfortable with, but not take her away from what she needs to do. It’s almost like the trio’s a quartet – she’s half of the quartet. We are getting ready to record this trio in May, we’ve got a west coast tour, then we’re going into the studio. The idea is to play the new music until you’re sick of it, then you’re ready to record.”

The Akiko/Hamilton/Kolvalcheck Trio, with Akiko Tsuruga, Jeff Hamilton and Steve Kovalcheck, will perform two shows at Dizzy’s Club on May 13 at 7 and 9 p.m..

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