Arts Listings

Hamilton, Longtime Leader of BHS Jazz, Takes Final Bow

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:15:00 PM

Charles Hamilton, retiring music director of the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, will play this Sunday afternoon, 1-3 p.m., at A Jazz Blast in Live Oak Theater with his group, Charles Hamilton and Friends.  

Tenacity and Paul “Hutch” Jones, an East Bay saxophonist who has played with various artists, from funk bands to Sun Ra and His Arkestra, and are also on the bill.  

“I was invited to play over there about a month ago,” Hamilton said. “When I was looking forward to Jazz On Fourth [Festival]. I needed to get some players quick, so thought of some of my alums—Ravi Apcarian, bass; Mike Spencer, drums; Robbie Boykin, guitar; and me on trombone. Then thought of Leon Wilson to come in with me on tenor sax. We’ll play mostly standards, with some originals of mine.” 

Next Friday, June 5, at 6:30 p.m. in the Schwimley Little Theatre at Berkeley High, Hamilton will lead the Ensemble, combos and lab bands. The concert will be his last local appearance before his retirement—though in July, Hamilton will accompany the Ensemble to play the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. 

Hamilton, born in San Francisco, grew up in Louisiana. “I ended up in Baton Rouge with my father’s family; started my music education in 7th grade. By the 10th grade, I was playing trumpet with the Titans, a rhythm and blues band that became very popular; we were working. I thought I could really play the trumpet, till I came to California at 18—then had to learn how to play!” 

Hamilton went to San Francisco State, “a new world for me, coming straight from the South, thrown right in the middle of State, with people from all over the world,” he said. “Baton Rouge is the state capital, but compared to California, it’s a backwoods place.” 

At SFSU, Hamilton studied with musicians of the caliber of John Handy—“I went through that program, worked really hard, in ear training, theory. A lot of the people were really patient. Just being around them, in their presence, I picked up a lot. People that possess those qualities, who are able to pass them on. I was fortunate Handy was there, teaching jazz history and a workshop where you could go write tunes”—and Bennett Friedman, whose popular Big Band played around the bay. “Bennett was really sophisticated, ahead of his time. His charts are real tasty; we even play them now. They’re right on time.” 

Hamilton took up trombone. “There were too many trumpet players around; I just wanted to be different. It was harder to coordinate my tongue and wrist. It wasn’t like playing the trumpet.”  

He recalls clubs in San Francisco like The Jukebox and the Both/And (”everybody came through there, Monk, Coltrane with Miles Davis ...”), The Half-Note (”the young George Duke played every Friday night—and occasionally Al Jarreau would come there in his white outfit, an orderly, on his way home after work ... I’d run from one club to the next, down the street.”) 

Soon, Hamilton was gigging in some of those places, playing jazz and sometimes R & B. He recalls playing with tenor saxophonist Sonny Lewis, in David Hardiman’s Big Band, with Bishop Norman Williams and a host of others. “I was in and around what was going on, in the heart of it. I put myself there; music was what I was all about—the improvisation ...” 

When he came to teach in the East Bay at 23, Hamilton “became acquainted with Ed Kelly, who had his session at Mr. Major’s Lounge. Pharaoh Sanders and Eddie Henderson would show up. And later I remember another kid—Benny Green—who couldn’t get in, who just wanted to play. I just knew him as a little redheaded kid with hair in his face.” 

Hamilton started teaching in the Berkeley School District in 1971, at Columbus Elementary School, now Rosa Parks.  

“I knew very little about the jazz program Herb Wong had started,” he said. “Later, Herb became a friend of mine. He knew all the jazz musicians. I was a new guy, coming into the school district, trying to do my job and play music outside of work. In ’71, I started Josh Jones out on drums in fourth grade, just one kid of many. Ten years later, I had moved up to middle school, at Longfellow, and had heard more about the jazz program. It still hadn’t registered.” 

Then in 1981, Berkeley High Jazz Band director Phil Hardymon became ill, and Hamilton was asked to step in. “I was shocked how talented these kids were; they played on the level I was at!” Hamilton spent two summers at North Texas State at Denton, and two more in the jazz division of the University of Nevada at Reno, “just to get on track. It took me about five years to get my footing, just to catch up with where my students were. I was 33 at the start, and it was a new thing for me, teaching jazz, jazz ensemble. When I really became aware, I became excited. I wanted to be there, get in step. And they know if you know your stuff!” 

Hamilton reflected on the continuing success of the program and the bands: “I still don’t know what it is. The talent is constant, ongoing. It just doesn’t stop. It has to be the environment. The kids are sharp, well-informed. They know what’s going on. The environment is half the battle.” 

Hamilton talked about the End Of the Year Concert on June 5: “It’ll be an all-out extravaganza; the ensemble, along with two combos, the lab band—and beginning lab is going to play ... we’re pretty much hosting the entire program at Berkeley High. And for me, this is going to be it!” 

At the close of Jazz On Fourth, notable Berkeley High Jazz alumnus Peter Apfelbaum, sitting in with the current Ensemble, asked for around of applause for Hamilton and spoke of his profound influence on the world of music. “About 20 percent of the people you hear through iPods came through him. I’m serious! Jukeboxes, too!” 


A Jazz Blast 

1-3 p.m. Sunday at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave. $5. Up to two youths, ages 5-17, free with each paying adult.  

Information: Eugene Evans, 981-6690.  

For the End of the Year Concert,