Scott Hamilton – tuned into Europe

    The saxophonist talks about his fondness for the European music scene and how he came by the Selmer Super Balanced Action he still uses today

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    Thomas Fletcher and Scott Hamilton (right)

    The first time I saw Scott Hamilton live was at Chichester Jazz Club and ever since, I have had a connection to his sound. He’s been based in Italy for the past 15 years but makes regular visits to the UK, and the opportunity to talk arose during his September visits to the familiar haunt of the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean St, London.

    We began by speaking about his affiliation with Pizza Express. Both of us agreed about the tremendous work Ross Dines (manager at the club) has done. Hamilton first met the late Peter Boizot, founder of Pizza Express and the jazz club, in New York at Eddie Condon’s. The restaurant owner had already welcomed Benny Carter, Ruby Braff and Bud Freeman to his club and was keen to invite Hamilton.

    Scott talked of how Boizot loved having famous jazz musicians from all over the world in his restaurant. Boizot and his staff went down to the basement in Soho and designed their jazz club. At first, the club seated around 50 people at the far end where the booths are situated today. Pizza Express usually gave the stage to more mainstream musicians than did Ronnie Scott’s. Ronnie tended to focus on leading younger jazz attractions. 

    Hamilton has always understood the healthy relationship between the two clubs. He mentioned that neither institution would poach musicians from one another. The last time Hamilton saw Ronnie was outside his club, when Ronnie said: “You know the reason why I never call you to play here?” Hamilton was pleased to hear Ronnie acknowledging his long commitment to the Pizza.

    Hamilton has, however, played at Ronnie Scott’s. He performed there for a couple of weeks in 1979 opposite Stan Tracey’s band when Clark was playing in his father’s ensemble at the age of 18. Hamilton described the room as being too big for his sound as well as accommodating too many people. “With Ronnie Scott’s, it depends on the act performing,” he added. Also, since the 70s, there has always been a tourist element to the audience members it attracts. But we both agreed on how they give a lot of work to local musicians.

    Hamilton sold his New York apartment in 1996 and moved to London. This was due to most of his work being in Europe as well as New York being too expensive. At the time, his band in London consisted of Brian Lemon (p), Dave Green (b) and Allan Ganley (d) before shaping into the UK rhythm section that he regularly plays with today, John Pierce (p) and Steve Brown (d). Hamilton praised his current band for the time they give to him. He described them as never losing interest and the sound at no time becoming tired.

    Our conversation gradually drifted to discussing the late Charlie Watts, who was a fond friend of Hamilton. A couple of years ago, BBC Four persuaded Watts, with the help of his long-term friend Dave Green on bass, to perform Night Train for their programme, Jazz 625. This featured Hamilton on saxophone alongside John Pierce.

    Hamilton first met Watts in 1975 at a club in Boston. It was Hamilton’s first big gig prior to playing for a few years in New England, his home. Roy Eldridge was set to perform with him after they played together in New York. It was the opening night, and the place was full. Hamilton looked over to the corner and much to his surprise spotted Charlie Watts. The Rolling Stones frequently recorded and rehearsed for US tours in Western Massachusetts so when Watts heard that Roy Eldridge was in town, he made the trip.

    Years later when Hamilton started to play with Dave Green, he had the opportunity to meet Watts. Watts remembered everything that had happened that evening, praising Hamilton’s saxophone playing. Hamilton admired how the British public never swarmed Watts when he visited Pizza Express Jazz Club or Ronnie’s – he was treated just like everyone else. In the US this would never have been possible. The cult of the celebrity is a particular American concept that was created by salespeople, said Hamilton. He later recalled the time when he was 10 years old in the back of his mother’s car. They were driving on the highway and suddenly, a large bus drove past with the Rolling Stones plastered on the side. The band were on their way to play a concert in Providence.

    Hamilton was inspired by many musicians growing up. He first picked up the alto saxophone when he was 16 but never became serious about it. By the time he was 18, he had bought a Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone and was listening to the likes of Gene Ammons, Lockjaw Davis and Arnett Cobb. In 1981, he bought the Selmer Super Balanced Action saxophone that he uses today. Hamilton met up with his repairman’s apprentice, Roberto, who later became the owner of Roberto’s Wind NYC. He said to Hamilton: “Get $900 and come down here right now.” So, he withdrew the money in cash from the bank and made the trip over. He was confronted by a man with a saxophone case. Roberto told Hamilton to hand over the money. According to the story, the man’s father had died and left this saxophone under his bed. As Hamilton opened the case, a beautiful Super Balanced Action from 1954 sat in front of him. The father clearly took one lesson on this horn and thought it was too hard. Every once in while Hamilton thinks of trying a new horn, just to see if the definition that you get from a new instrument would be appealing.

    As our conversation came to a close, Hamilton spoke highly of Jazz Journal. When he was a kid in high school living in Providence, he had a subscription. He said that it was the only jazz magazine that had any coverage of older players and was knowledgeable in what it wrote. Jazz Journal had presented him with the award of International Jazz Musician of the Year award back in 1979 when he moved to England. He spoke about how it ended up in his father’s studio all bashed up from when he had dropped it too many times.

    Hamilton anticipates returning to Pizza Express in January if all runs smoothly without any new interruption from Covid-19.