In an era dominated by shameless self-promotion, it seems anyone can post a song on YouTube, tweet it to everyone they know, then sit back and wait for the 15 minutes of fame that follows. But nothing replaces the hard work it takes to make a plan, follow it and forge a lasting career.
Just ask jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton, a legend in his own right who has shared his talent with the likes of Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall and, most recently, actor Wilford Brimley (“like playing with your favorite uncle,” said Hamilton of the veteran actor).
The namesake of two bands — the Jeff Hamilton Trio and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the former of which is the main act at the third annual JSU Jazz Festival on Friday — says headlining an event doesn’t faze him in the least. It’s been in his playbook all along.
“I agree that I was an oddball in that I knew what I wanted very early and I just followed it,” said the Indiana native.
A drummer since the age of 8, Hamilton came of age in the era of rock ‘n’ roll, and remembers witnessing the Beatles perform live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But it didn’t really interest him.
“I wasn’t really taken by them because the drumming, to me, wasn’t as sophisticated or difficult as what I was listening to,” he said, preferring instead the active-yet-refined style of the Big Band era that his teacher was fond of. “I always preferred that style of drumming from that generation ... instead of just banging out a rock beat. In jazz you were part of the band and you were asked to be a creative member of that band and contribute at all times — not just laying down a beat for everybody.”
While majoring in music at Indiana University in the early ’70s, Hamilton decided to take a risk and start playing full time. He left school under the blessing of his parents — on the condition that if his risk didn’t pay off he would return, “which I knew I was never going to do,” he said. “I always had the confidence that I was gonna do this.”
Eight months later he received a call to perform with the New Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, an ensemble created by the iconic trumpeter and bandleader. He spent the next four years on the road, moving from Tommy Dorsey to Lionel Hampton to the Monty Alexander Trio. He shunned the growing trend of electronic and fusion jazz music (think Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea) and stuck with the traditional acoustic style he had come to appreciate.
By the time he relocated to Los Angeles in 1978, many of the artists he admired, like Count Basie, clarinetist Woody Herman and Ella Fitzgerald, were nearing the final stages of their careers. But that didn’t deter Hamilton from accomplishing his goal of performing with them.
That period of his career is when he learned to be a bandleader and to perform with just as much energy as his cohorts. But surrounding himself with music legends, and even forming his own big-band orchestra in 1985 with brothers John and Jeff Clayton wasn’t enough to sustain his desire. So after two decades behind the scenes, Hamilton branched out in 1994 and formed his own trio, bringing the drums to the forefront.
“There is a role that you have to play as being a drummer in someone else’s group,” he said. “As a leader I felt like I had a voice that I wanted to contribute more to the music.”
Four decades after deciding to give his talent a fighting chance, Hamilton can count himself among the legends. Several recordings on which he’s featured have received Grammy nods and wins — most recently, Paul McCartney’s 2012 album “Kisses on the Bottom.” He’s part-owner of his own cymbal-manufacturing company, and thinks of pianist and vocalist Diana Krall, whom he played for at the beginning of her career in the early ’90s, as a little sister. But, he reiterates, his success didn’t come instantly, and that’s a message he hopes to pass on.
“You have to be honest with yourself, you have to know what you do, you’ve gotta be dedicated to the music if you want to do this for a living,” he said. “Jazz is such a different world that it takes a lifetime to play this music. You have to really want this — no matter what.”
Friday, he and the rest of the Jeff Hamilton Trio, which includes bassist Christoph Luty and pianist Tamir Hendelman, will keep it simple and let their welcoming, understated style of updated classics from the Great American Songbook shine.
“We’re honest about what we do,” he said. “We get the energy from the audience … and it becomes just a wonderful evening.”
IF YOU GO…
WHAT: JSU Jazz festival presents the Jeff Hamilton Trio
WHEN: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mason Hall Performance Center, JSU campus
INFO: $10 for general admission, $5 for students. Contact Andy Nevala at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 256-782-5883 for more info.