Sunday, November 24, 2013

Jimmy Hamilton... In St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands?! In 1985?! Huh?!

A while back, I was thumbing through the bins at my favorite used record store, a disorganized dump that somehow manages to yield the most extraordinary gems of jazz history despite the complete lack of any alphabetical organization, any price tags, and any set times for opening and closing.  The proprietrix is a saintly little old lady with a pleasant Greek accent and, after becoming familiar with her complete lack of organization (beyond a generalized sense of "on this wall, you find jazz now") and her tendency toward spontaneous generosity ("your sister, I like her, I give her these Duke Ellington boxed sets as Christmas present, she pick some more and I give her what she want for ten dollar"), I have come to affectionately refer to her store as The Crazy Lady Record Store (not the actual name of the store, but as far as I and those I send to the store, it might as well be!).

As I passed over various albums for one reason or another (already have on CD, not an artist I have room for, reissue of common material, etc.), suddenly I was face to face with an album in relatively modern LP packaging with a picture of an older gentleman on the cover.  And the name of the artist was... Jimmy Hamilton.

Jimmy Hamilton, who, alongside Barney Bigard, is one of the two clarinetists who defined the Ellington clarinet sound?  Jimmy Hamilton, who played the rip-roaring multi-chorus introduction to Perdido as a tenor duet with Paul Gonsalves on the 1963 Great Paris Concert recording?  Jimmy Hamilton, who I had absent-mindedly assumed must have been one of the many Ellingtonians who died in 1974, the year that Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, and God only knows how many other men whose lives were inseparable from their leader's life gave up the ghost because they had, as Carney himself said, "nothing left to live for"?

But this LP was dated... 1985?  So Jimmy Hamilton outlived my main man, the Frog, Cottontail himself, the tenor man whose dulcet tone could melt any lady's legs from clear across a concert hall or a jazz club: Ben Webster?

Nah, gotta be a reissue of earlier material, I thought.  After all, Hamilton had recorded a few small group titles, so this was probably just a release of those.

I looked closer.  Recorded in 1985 at a club called The Buccaneer in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.  Okay, there goes the reissue theory.

Lo and behold, this album is the final recording of Jimmy Hamilton.  It came eleven years after Ellington's death, and finds Hamilton living out his retirement in a tropical paradise.  And yes, he's still got the sound.  The sidemen (Gary Mayone, Joe Straws, Delroy Thomas) are guys I've never heard of, but who cares?  It's Jimmy Hamilton!

Side A is less rewarding than Side B, but that's only because Side B is wall-to-wall Ellingtonia!  Side A features well-worn classic tunes.  Maybe the audience on the island was a more pedestrian crowd, and Hamilton didn't want to overpower them with any too erudite?  Regardless, I had to chuckle when the set opened with Stranger On The Shore and I recognized the melody as the (gag-inducing) tune that the eponymous music teacher taught his clarinet student in Mr. Holland's Opus.  But Hamilton gives it a very pretty clarinet presentation.  Then he takes out the alto and does a marvelous job with Misty, though no performance of that tune would be complete without tipping the hat to Erroll Garner, which pianist Mayone does well during a short solo.  Shadow Of Your Smile, As Time Goes By, and Departing Lovers follow.  During Hamilton's alto playing, I am really struck by how completely different his tone is from that of Johnny Hodges.  The airy, breathy fwa-fwa-fwa that one almost instinctively expects from an Ellington reed man is not present in Hamilton's alto playing; instead, his tone is almost a straight tone, and even when he uses a solid dose of vibrato it is still a much harder sound than the soft sound of the Rabbit.

Flip the record over, and we finally get to the real meat and potatoes!  Side B is nothing but Duke.  What a thrill to hear an Ellingtonian playing this set, from Don't Get Around Much Anymore to Satin Doll and traversing Warm Valley, C Jam Blues, and Happy Go Lucky Local in between (and he even manages to sneak the A section of I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart into the first two A sections of the final recitation of the melody in Don't Get Around Much Anymore!).  How many of those in the audience knew that this man had played those tunes thousands of times with Duke himself?

What this recording really made clear to me was just how young Hamilton was when he played with Duke.  Jimmy Hamilton was only about thirty years old when he was hired in the late 1940s by Ellington, and when Duke died in 1974, Hamilton was only in his fifties.  This recording was made when he was 67, and he would live almost another ten years, dying in 1994 at the age of 77.  And for the last twenty or so of those years, Hamilton lived in St. Croix.

Not a bad way to go.  Beautiful beaches, opportunity to play jazz locally whenever he felt like it, and all of the legal amenities of being in a U.S. Territory.  Much as I would have loved to have heard him with the Louis Bellson band or even Mercer Ellington's efforts at resurrecting the Ellington orchestra, it is nonetheless comforting and amusing to hear the elder statesman of Duke's clarinetists (Bigard died in 1980) still swinging away in relative obscurity. lists this one as having been released on CD at some point, but it is probably a lot easier to find it on the original LP.  Here's the album information, if you're interested:

Jimmy Hamilton
Rediscovered at The Buccaneer
Recorded In St. Croix
Virgin Islands U.S.A.
Sept 24, 1985
Who's Who In Jazz WWLP 21029
Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet, sax, alto saxophone
Gary Mayone, piano
Joe Straws, base
Delroy Thomas, drums
Side A
Love Song From St. Croix
   1. Stranger On The Shore
   2. Misty
   3. Shadow Of Your Smile
   4. As Time Goes By
   5. Departing Lovers
Side B
Jimmy Hamilton Plays Duke Ellington
   6. Don't Get Around Much Anymore
   7. Warm Valley
   8. C Jam Blues
   9. Happy Go Lucky Local
   10. Satin Doll

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