Fate smiled on Minnesota’s jazz scene decades ago, when pianist James “Jimmy” Hamilton traveled to the state with his wife, ran out of money, and put down roots. Hamilton became a fixture in Twin Cities’ jazz clubs, and his lessons on the fundamentals of music inspired thousands of Minneapolis teens — including one student with “big ears” who later became known as Prince.
Hamilton, dubbed a Minnesota jazz legend, died Dec. 31 after prolonged complications from stroke. He was 80.
Local jazz enthusiasts knew Hamilton as a pianist who started playing in the 1960s at the Poodle Club in Minneapolis, appeared with stars at the Carleton Celebrity Room in Bloomington, and anchored a jazz trio at the Lafayette Country Club in Minnetonka. Relatives recalled a loving family man whose emotions poured out through his fingers onto the keyboard, but also through his time with his two children and three grandchildren.
“James … never shied away from showing that he cared about people,” said his daughter-in-law, Trena Hamilton. “He cried at our wedding before we even walked down the aisle. That was one thing that everybody loved about him; he showed emotion. That was always a wonderful thing.”
Hamilton grew up an only child in Alabama after being adopted into a musical family that included an uncle who played clarinet in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He studied music in the 1950s at Tennessee State, where a roommate helped him get a two-week gig playing baritone saxophone as a fill-in for the Ray Charles Band.
“I told my dad after two and a half weeks, ‘I’m going to go back to Tennessee State and I’m going to stay until I graduate,’ ” Hamilton recalled in a Jazz Legends interview on Jazz88 radio last spring. “Boy I learned a lot about life being on the road with the Ray Charles Band.”
Hamilton was introduced to the woman he would marry, Barrow, while giving music lessons in Tennessee to her younger siblings; they remained husband and wife for 54 years. They were traveling between Michigan State, where Hamilton was starting graduate school, and Denver when they stopped in the Twin Cities to see relatives and ended up staying for good.
Hamilton was a band teacher for 28 years in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where he inspired musicians with his focus on pitch and clarity and fundamentals, rather than just the mechanics of playing instruments. The band program at Central High School grew from around 20 to 300 musicians in his years there, he said in his interview.
“I tried to introduce music theory and the business of music,” he recalled. “My philosophy was, anybody can pick up a guitar and start strumming … and teach themselves, but so many people do not know music theory.”
Hamilton called jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson his “prized pupil” and said student Prince Rogers Nelson had the “big ears” of a star.
“The ear is what separates the men from the boys, of course, and guys like Prince … they could hear,” he said in his interview, which was hosted by singer Patty Peterson, a friend who collaborated with Hamilton on two recordings.
Peterson sang Friday at Hamilton’s memorial service. Hamilton is survived by his wife, daughter, Darla, and son, Alan.
Hamilton’s other celebrity encounters included appearing at the Carleton room with Sammy Davis Jr., Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Goulet, Gladys Knight, Joan Rivers and (thanks to his country roots in Nashville) Jimmy Dean. Later, he would recall rehearsing on one of two grand pianos for a duet when the man playing with him, Steve Allen, walked over.
The musician and TV star simply told Hamilton, “Don’t show me up!