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"In Conversation with Scott Hamilton"
World famous, USA tenor saxophonist, talks to Northants Jazz Editor, Rupert Kendrick, about his career and the current jazz scene
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“It was my Dad who most influenced my early interest in jazz,” says Scott Hamilton, whose career in jazz now spans some 40 years or so. “When I was only very little, he played records at home and introduced me to such artistes as Eddie Condon and, of course, Louis Armstrong - and that generated my own interest in the music.
“When I was a bit older, I began to hear other types of jazz, Charlie Parker and Lester Young, in particular. I was very young at this stage, and was interested in the music even before I could read!”
In the 1960s, Scott began to play music with his friends. “It was a period when I was struck by pop music, you know, the Rolling Stones and so on, but by the time I was 16 and in High School, I was drawn back into jazz again.
“Throughout this time, my parents were always supportive and encouraging - I think they were just happy that I had an interest and something that occupied me!”
So closely identified with the tenor saxophone is Scott that it’s almost impossible to believe he was involved with a number of other instruments before finally settling on the tenor. “I started with piano lessons,” he explains, “I also played the drums for a short time, but I was never very good at lessons”.
“When I was 8, I took lessons on the clarinet, which gave me a background for playing the tenor later on. I also played harmonica for a spell while playing in an R&B band! Then I decided to play saxophone and tried the alto first - but an alto sax is not really suitable for R&B! So I changed to the tenor - the fingering for the saxophone is similar to the clarinet.”
Scott’s main influences have been tenor sax players - as might be expected. “I followed all the major tenor names - Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roland Kirk were all influential for me,” he continues, “I also listened to John Coltrane but somehow I’ve never been able to get to grips with his music - I’ve never really understood it,” he sounds slightly regretful.
We move on to his style of play. I suggest it’s difficult to classify him because he seems to draw from so many influences, and that as a generality, listeners tend to refer to his playing as ‘swing’. He’s quick to react to that suggestion. “I’m not really a ‘swing’ player, and I don’t really like being ‘pigeon-holed’ with a particular style,” he explains cryptically.
"My style’s been modelled on lots of other influences. That’s been a good way to learn. I suppose, playing-wise, my greatest influence has been Illinois Jacquet. I saw and heard him a lot in the 1970s and, in my view, no-one was playing as well as he was at that period."
His expresses his current favourites as Harry Allen, who has a not dissimilar approach to the tenor as Scott, and also Joshua Redman.
He passionately believes his style is grounded in, what he calls, the tradition of jazz. "I certainly wouldn’t want to be disassociated from the traditional roots of jazz music," he explains. "It’s a big part of what I like about jazz".
“People like to try and label you. But I don’t complain about that because I realise the need for people to describe you, even if it’s inaccurate."
We move on to the contemporary jazz scene. Does he feel that too much current contemporary jazz, in both the USA and Europe has now left behind the ‘tradition of jazz’ as he terms it? "To be honest," he says, "I don’t hear much of anything that is really very new. I mean, avant garde jazz is already very well-established and has been for many years".
"But, as I say, I do believe that all jazz has to be grounded in its traditional roots - it needs to come from the original roots of the music. Not all improvised music is necessarily authentic jazz. Some is just improvisation."
In recent years, Scott has migrated to Europe with spells of residence in the UK and, latterly, in Italy. "I’ve been playing in the UK and Europe for 20 years or so now I’m not all that familiar with the USA jazz scene. I’m only in the USA now for a few weeks at a time."
"I like the European scene very much. In fact, some of my preferred rhythm sections are now based in London." Scott cited the rhythm section of John Pearce, piano, Dave Green, bass, and Steve Brown, drums, who had accompanied him on a gig for Harborough Jazz Club only a week earlier. "I have different rhythm sections all over Europe," he explains, "in Italy, Germany and Scandinavia."
I wonder what his thoughts are on the future of jazz, particularly in view of the preponderance of audiences being of middle to late-middle age.
"I’m very familiar with this," he says, "and, in my view, it’s nothing to do with the music - it’s simply down to the question of venue. Young people have the impression that jazz is an old people’s music".
"The problem is that many venues encourage this perception. Most jazz is played in jazz clubs. They are organised and run by older people and many of the members and guests are their friends who are of similar age."
"But in the cities, it’s very different. Ronnie Scott’s, the Pizza Express and other similar venues in Copenhagen and Rome, for instance, all attract young people without any difficulty. I’ve played for lots of young people."
We end with his thoughts about his own future. His approach is simple, and much the same as many jazz musicians. "It’s all I know so I’ll just carry on - and anyway, I enjoy it, so why not?”