Scott Hamilton--In Swing With the Times

The time must come, in the career of any truly mature artist, when imitation of one's idols gives way to maturation and the development of an individual personality. Scott Hamilton can now be said to have reached that point.

Hailed as a sort of anachronism when he hit New York in 1977 and made his first record soon afterward, Hamilton brought to the tenor saxophone a sound and style that were hardly the dernier cri at a time when the explosive and prolix innovations of John Coltrane dominated the jazz world. But growing up in Providence, R.I., with a father who collected Swing Era records, Hamilton knew from the start where his destiny lay.

Of Coltrane, he says: "I listened to Trane's records, but never heard anything I wanted there. I've always played the way I do now and never gave a thought to emulating any other style."

Today he is firmly entrenched as a 33-year-old veteran of dozens of albums for Concord Jazz, of eight visits to Japan ("The best working conditions in the world!"), and so many to Europe that he has lost track ("I must have been to Sweden about 15 times").

That he is playing now better than ever may be related to an awakening in his personal life. The sudden fame that enveloped him led to the sort of offstage behavior that bedeviled too many great artists from Bix Beiderbecke to Lester Young. Talking about it the other day between dates at Alfonse's in Los Angeles, he said: "I just wasn't ready for what I stepped into in New York. It was scary.

"For years I could do a gig and drink all I wanted to. But after a while your health begins to suffer and you can't do it anymore. When I began losing jobs because of the drinking, I started to quit. Cold turkey? No. It took me about 50 tries and I finally stopped drinking and smoking. During your 20s you feel you can get away with anything, but when you get close to 30 you realize you can't."

Fans and fellow musicians who remember his pallid and bloated look of a few years ago are happy to see Hamilton today, completely adjusted and happily married. Manami Imura, a Tokyo-born classical pianist, came to New York to study music and met Hamilton, a neighbor, soon after. They were married in March of 1986.

What sort of life in music is available to a jazzman who (a) can barely read music, (b) shies away from fusion, the avant-garde and other popular forms and (c) plays almost nothing but old standard songs?

The answer: a very full life, composed largely of concerts and festivals in the summer; club dates with the quintet he has kept together off and on for a decade (with fellow-Providence musicians Chris Flory on guitar, Phil Flanigan on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums, along with pianist John Bunch); other jobs with pianist-entrepreneur George Wein's band; and frequent record sessions with Rosemary Clooney, Buddy Tate, Flip Phillips, and whatever other like-minded musicians empathize with him.

Probably because of his difficulties in reading and writing music, he has done very little composing. "I'm not much of a writer," he admits. "I may steal something from here and something from there and put it together once in a while, but that's about all." Oddly enough, "Freego," one of his better pieces, sounds more like early bebop than a Swing Era product. "Stealing Port" is simply a riff on the traditional blues. But Hamilton's pieces serve their purpose as a launching pad for improvisation, which is what his ethos is essentially all about.

As Hamilton soon learned when his reputation achieved international proportions, the mainstream of jazz presently is alive and thriving in areas that provide regular work for musicians who do not have to rely on attracting the generally callow followers of the fusion bands. A whole circuit of jazz parties, for example, has grown up as a result of Dick Gibson's Colorado initiative; Hamilton has worked at most of them.

Despite his personal predilections as a performer, he does not close his mind to other areas of music. Speaking of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, he says: "They're great musicians and I like what they're doing. At one festival in Europe, George Wein had Branford Marsalis sit in with me, playing soprano sax. We just played some blues and got along fine."

Rather than regard him as a young upstart, most of the senior artists with whom he has played evaluate him as a valuable keeper of the flame. He has taken part in innumerable sessions with men like Harold Ashby, the Ellington tenor saxophonist; Al Cohn, of Woody Herman renown, and his predecessor Flip Phillips, the 72-year-old tenor veteran with whom Hamilton was teamed on his most recent album, "A Sound Investment" (Concord CCD 4334).

"Flip is another guy I have always respected. I remember the wonderful records he made with Woody in the 1940s. I learned a lot from him, and I guess we both learned a great deal from the same people who were around before either of us, people like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster."

The saxophonist with whom Hamilton has most often been compared is the late Paul Gonsalves, who, like him, was raised in Providence and who toured with the Ellington orchestra from 1950 until his death in 1974.

"I listened to Paul every time he came to Providence with Duke's band," Hamilton says. "I was only 19 when he died, and I'll always regret that I was too shy ever to walk up to him and introduce myself."

Being compared to other tenor stars does not bother him. "I can't fault the critics, or anyone else, for hearing someone else in me, because it's there. If you listen to me long enough I suppose you'll hear influences of so many other people that it's hard to pin me down.

"No, I won't ever resent being compared to people I respect. When someone starts comparing me to someone whose playing I don't like, then I'll begin worrying."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World