Happy birthday, Andy Hamilton!

March 29, 2008 at 2:00 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D)

“And so I think it is a good idea to speak about the good musicians who are left, as quickly as we can, while they are still among us.” -Otis Ferguson

It’s all too easy as a political activist, to spend your time embroiled in disputes and acrimony: contributions to this blog (not least my own) often refect that. So it makes a pleasant change to be able to report upon an event that simply exuded affection, goodwill, harmony and all that is best about the human spirit: Andy Hamilton’s 90th birthday celebrations.

What do you mean, who is Andy Hamilton? Actually you could be forgiven for not knowing (or being amazed that that funny little comedian chappy is 90 years old): the Andy Hamilton is a quiet, modest man who has never sought the limelight. He’s a saxophonist, band-leader and music teacher whose motto ought to be that old jazz cliche, “I let my horn do the talking.”

For the record, Andy’s extraordinary life story (condensed version) runs as follows: born in Port Maria, North Jamaica in March 1918. In his teens he fell in love with jazz as he listened to American radio broadcasts by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie and heard the local Kingston bands of Redver Cook and Roy Coburn. He took up the sax (allegedly his first instrument was home-made!) and formed his first band, ‘Silvershine’ aged 18. In the 1940s he lived for a while in the US, working as a cook and labourer before finding work as a musician in the heartlands of Buffalo and Syracuse. During this period he familiarised himself with the work of  Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young and Charlie Parker – influences that have stayed with him to this day.

Returning to Jamaica he became Errol Flynn’s bandleader and musical arranger on board the film star’s yacht ‘The Zaza’ and composed his signature tune, the calypso-jazz ‘Silvershine’ for Flynn in 1947.

In 1949 (the year ‘Empire Windrush’ docked, though Andy came seperately), he arrived in London and then Birmingham, where he remains to this day. He worked in factories and gigged at night, often in the company of fellow Jamaicans Pete Pitterson, Dizzy Reece and Joe Harriot. When the Ellington and Basie bands visited Birmingham, Andy organised after-hours sessions where the US stars sat in with local musicians, to the joy and amazement of all concerned.

During this time Andy (like all working class West Indians in 1950’s Britain) encountered plenty of racism: at one point his front teeth were knocked out by teddy boys (a particularly serious matter for a saxophonist). But talking to Andy today, you’re struck by his lack of bitterness. He doesn’t talk much about racism, prefering to emphasise how well he got on with local white musicians and how unprejudiced world of jazz – even in 1950’s Britain – was. Not that all his gigs were pure jazz: his band played calypso (and a little later, ska and reggae) for West Indian social events throughout the West Midlands, and to this day he has a West Indian following made up of people who are far from your typical jazz fans, but who know good, entertaining music when they hear it.

During the 1950’s and 60’s Andy also acquired a cadre of close musical associates, black and white, who have stayed in his circle, in and out of his bands, over a period of forty to fifty years. Prominent amongst these is the incredible singer Vic Evans, best described as a sort of West Indian Nat ‘King’ Cole.

In more recent years Andy has devoted himself to teaching music and running youth bands. The number of young jazz musicians around Birmingham who owe their start in the music to Andy is probably incalculable.  Andy is not an overtly political man but, talking to him, it is clear that he regards his youth work very much as a means of promoting social solidarity and combating the effects of alienation.

Yet despite all this, Andy remained virtually unknown outside of the West Indian and the jazz communites of Birmingham until the wider world started to take a little notice of him in the 1990’s. He didn’t even make a recording  until 1991. Inevitably called ‘Silvershine’, Andy’s first CD featured him with his (then) regular band, plus guests including David Murray, Jean Touissaint, Jason Rebello, Andy Sheppard and Mick Hucknall . I don’t know whether it’s still available, but it’s well worth seeking out on ‘World Circuit’ WCD 25.

Well,  Andy’s 90 now and has finally received some of the recognition he’s long deserved. Politicians, big-wigs, the great and the good all now fawn over him. I can’t help wondering where these people were when Andy started his musical youth and community work back in the 1970’s and had to struggle to get even meagre funding for his various projects. Still, it would be churlish to complain about the belated recognition. At his “big” gig at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday, there was Lord Bill Morris, local historian and media personality Carl Chinn, the Lord Mayor and about half of Birmingham City Council. There were also musical contributions from the likes of Courtney Pine, Sonny Bradshaw and legendary dancer Will Gaines. The event was sold out weeks in advance and I didn’t have a ticket. But the next evening I attended a much more intimate gig in a local club featuring Andy, his band, and the US tenor sax star Scott Hamilton (no relation, except in music). It was a fitting celebration: the music swung like the clappers (Scott, probably the leading mainstream tenorist in the world today, graciously avoided stealing any of Andy’s thunder), and the audience was made up of appreciative fans and friends of all ages and backgrounds. Celebs were noteable for their absence. We even sang “Happy Birthday To You”, accompanied by Scott Hamilton. Andy made a speech that must have lasted all of two minutes – an unheard of first for him. Your reporter had a certain moistness in his eye.

Andy: thanks for the music; thanks for the humanity, decency and generosity of spirit. Let’s keep it going for many years to come.

2 Comments

  1. Jim Denham said,

  2. voltairespriest said,

    Here’s hoping Andy’s still playing at 100, the man’s a legend!

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