This last Tuesday evening I was fortunate enough to meet up once again with one of my favourite musicians and former teacher, drummer Jeff Hamilton. Jeff sounded on top form as he performed with Osaka born and now New York based Hammond Organist Akiko Tsuruga and LA based Guitarist Graham Dechter. They were performing at a small jazz club in Bern, Switzerland. The whole event was captivating and it did strike me that Jeff really did have a depth of knowledge as a musician that was worthy of his status and what was immediately obvious was Jeff’s clearly identifiably musical contribution that was unmistakably Jeff.
On Wednesday morning I was fortunate enough to meet Jeff for breakfast and straight away I naturally assumed the student position, however this time our meeting did not totally involve drums. I was inspired by many aspects of our chat including the moments where Jeff described to me how he first discovered the great pianist (first and foremost) and vocalist Diana Krall at one of Jeff’s musical summer camps in the US. Jeff over the years had been a sort of musical mentor to Diana. He first recommended Diana to a New York based agent who was desperate to find a young female pianist/vocalist for a jazz festival happening in the New York area. It was from here that she found herself in the middle of a bidding war between major labels eventually signing to Tommy Li Puma’s then GRP/Verve label. This association lead to a Grammy award winning album Diana Krall - Live in Paris. Although Tommy Li Puma was always credited with the discovery of Diana Krall it was originally Jeff who mentored Diana and even negotiated payment for all to remove a self promoted album of Diana’s from the shelves of record stores at that time paving the way for Tommy Li Puma’s great find! Amazing to hear how that association progressed… Anyway, stories of this episode were really not what the basis of any sort of substance to this blog. The message that I hope to put across in my writing here was based on Jeff and my own observations of the global art form we call music.
Many years ago of course we referred to a specific art form called jazz as the pop music of the day… Many musicians came to the forefront at this time and they all had there own voice. Sadly today it seems that everything has already been said and at best we can only hope to reproduce something that had been created years ago and we may refer to it as retro or whatever hip label sprung to mind, but two things occur. 1. We love to pigeon hole by means of labels and 2. As stated earlier it appears that everything in music genres has already been said. I referred to jazz music earlier and why? Well of course given that Jeff is indeed a jazz musician and the basis of our conversion was this genre it threw up a couple of things that were abundantly clear in any genre however.
Jeff referred to the characters, the personalities and the close link between these characters and the was the music is related. Jazz is improvised music and so in many ways it is easier to see how these personalities manifest themselves in the music. The Duke Ellington Band was clearly different in style in the big band genre to modern days offerings of orchestras such as the the great Gordon Goodwin’s leading big band of today. As Jeff stated though, a warning of how character is almost lost in the perfection of the musicianship. How true in many of today computer created pop offerings… With Duke Ellington there was a kind of effortless swing and a big fat down beat anchoring proceedings well and truly to the deck as opposed to the surgical precision of that down beat of metronomic quantized quality.
Why? Well, of course the computer generation has something to answer for in this regard. This is not the whole story. Jeff used a phrase that musicians today seem to go at best from “college to limo” and miss out the little bit of guidance that everyone of those greats had benefitted from in the form of a mentor. I am a big believer in the benefits of such a person in my musical life… Jeff indeed did mentor Diana and continues to be a confidant today and what does this do? I believe it enables to a certain extent the confidence of true expression with correct form of relationship. Many young musicians today will only come into contact with their peers and whilst this is good and natural and an important networking opportunity it does limit the creative output to the extent that everyone has blinkers on to the same old drummers/musicians/bands that their friends enjoy and today these names come up time and time again. Snarky Puppy, VulfPeck, Benny Greb, Steve Jordan, Aaron Spears et al… This is fine but this created the same boring net result on the whole in that everyone has the same influences and end up using the same drums layout, playing the same old grooves and licks and sounding to a smaller and larger degree depending upon the level of effort the same. Look, if Chick Corea were looking to hire someone that sounds like Dave Weckl he would hire Dave Weckl. From College to Limo is all well and good but I am a big believer in learning from those that have seen this before… They can have a pretty good view having been in this business for a little while. Young musicians would definitely benefit from mentors and those people that are absolutely in the thick of the top level of the music business. Expanding horizons and learning from those people that have trodden this path is essential I would say.
What makes Jeff, Jeff? It is the war stories, the meeting of these old pros over the years… The learning from these musicians. I had a few mentors in early years and that experience in learning supersedes genre and holds true in all music played at a high level in my opinion. Granted that some people are not serious about being great musicians and their motivation maybe from some where else. Remember if you want to be rich and famous or rich and infamous, rob a bank but never let the pursuit of these two be at the expense of musical development if you are serious.
Jeff tells the story of one famous drummer many years ago rolling around outside Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street fighting with a customer who took offence at this particular drummer hitting on his girlfriend in an interval who happened to be a member of the waiting staff at the venue. I am not saying this is a good thing personally and but I am identifying a definite change in personality between the nearly sterile computer musicians of today and the characters of many years ago that shaped music. It was these edgy characters, the Jaco’s Pastorius’ the Buddy Rich’s, the Elvin Jones’ that defined certain styles. These were the rebels who created total paradigm shifts in music. Not the sterile recreation of that note for note perfection that seems to very much the ultimate aim in many ways today. I think we both identified a fearlessness that went with some of the fore fathers as opposed to the corporate perfect fear based psychology of today.
If you are serious, track down those people who have done this before. It is very hard to copy the results but take a good look at methods and you may just find that musical success is a by product of this. I personally felt once again spiritually grounded from a musical point of view by talking and spending time with a former teacher like Jeff. I will certainly over the course of 2018 be looking out for many more great musicians who have gone before to get inspired by, not in the pursuit of musical perfection but in the spirit of musical growth.
I hope this relays some of the thought provoking ideas that I gleaned through my time talking with Jeff at breakfast on Wednesday. Learn what your musical compass leads you to. Expand you musical knowledge outside of your own comfort zone. Be original and inspire others in the path of musical growth and excellence.