Andy Hamilton: Saxophonist, composer and bandleader who found fame late in his career


Andy Hamilton was a Jamaican-born tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer who, after emigrating to the UK in 1949, became a key player on the Midlands jazz scene and an important member of the West Indian community there.

He was renowned for his smooth, mellow style, but did not make his first album until 1991, when he was 72. Silvershine, the first of two fine recordings for the World Circuit label, came about in serendipitous fashion. In 1988 Hamilton celebrated his 70th birthday at his regular venue and the jazz writer Val Wilmer reviewed the gig for The Independent. In response, The Soho Jazz Festival invited him to perform, which triggered him being signed.

World Circuit founder Nick Gold saw the show and was impressed: "He had this wonderful, unique sound... It was very woody, and it had a weird sort of rubbery elasticity to it. Especially when he was playing his calypso stuff, the way he messed about with rhythm. He seemed to be hugely competent, or confident over the rhythm, so he could sort of hold back on it or dive in and out. And as a ballad player, he was almost as good as you could get." Hamilton himself said: "Play sweet and you can baptise anybody. Wild animals included. Play rough and you don't baptise no one," on the sleevenotes for his second album, Jamaica By Night (1994).

The title track of Silvershine was a lilting calypso-jazz Hamilton had written in 1947 while working as a bandleader and arranger for the Hollywood star Errol Flynn, on board Flynn's yacht The Zaca. Silvershine was also the name of the first band Hamilton formed. The roster of guests on the record shows the great kudos and goodwill Hamilton amassed; David Murray, Mark Mondesir, Andy Sheppard, Jean Toussaint, Orphy Robinson and Steve Williamson all contribute, and Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall croons through You Are Too Beautiful. Silvershine became the biggest-selling UK jazz album of the year, The Times Jazz Album of the Year and one of the Sony 50 International Albums of the Year.

The follow-up, Jamaica By Night, continued in a similar vein, with a mix of original material and standards, but it was more upbeat, with a dash of African-style guitar on "Give Me the Highlife", reggae on "Mango Time" and plenty of Latin-flavoured piano from the late Portuguese player Bernardo Sassetti. Hamilton's sons Graeme (trumpet) and Mark (tenor sax) also featured.

Hamilton's first exposure to music was through attending church, and at home on the family piano. He also listened keenly to the songs sung by local fishermen. At the age of 10, he began playing a sax made out of bamboo stalks. He formed his first band with a group of friends in 1928, and they played all around Jamaica. After this early success, Hamilton left Jamaica in 1944, for a 15-month spell in the US. In Buffalo, he gigged at the Moonshine Club.

In 1946, he returned from the US and took up a residency at the Titchfield Hotel in Port Antonio, an upmarket venue owned by Errol Flynn. Flynn heard Hamilton play there which led to the job aboard his yacht, which lasted for two years. After this, Hamilton again got itchy feet and took a boat to Southampton, settling in 1949 in Birmingham, where he found a job. At first, he found it tough getting even guest spots on the jazz scene there, encountering veiled racism as well as violence, once getting his front teeth knocked out by some Mosleyite fascists at a gig.

"It was real tough at times, some places would not let us in and some times there was trouble, but most people were friendly", he told his manager and colleague Alan Cross in a recent unpublished interview. "I remember going to a jazz club with my sax and got invited up on stage and did a couple of numbers which went down real well. I was really happy but when I went back the next week they just ignored me and I went home real sad and decided that the best thing to do was to organise my own band and find places to play."

So in the early 1950s he established his first UK band, The Blue Notes (with compatriot Sam Brown on piano), as well as setting up the Bearwood Corks Club, which would attract prominent jazz musicians from around the world. He also began teaching local musicians, which he would continue to do for the rest of his life. His work with local youth bore fruit with two young big bands, The Blue Pearls in the 1980s and more recently The Notebenders. Hamilton also sometimes worked in factories to get by, although he disliked the noise, dirt and the damage it did to his hands.

The acclaim generated by Silvershine set Hamilton off travelling again, and led to him performing in St Lucia, Jamaica, Paris, Milan and for Womad. In 2006, he headlined at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, and in 2007 performed with the Buena Vista Social Club. In 2009 he played alongside his old friend David Murray, The Roots and Ornette Coleman at the Royal Festival Hall's Meltdown Festival.

Alan Cross recalled his old friend as someone whose "love of music andpeople was the defining philosophy of his life. His enthusiasm, generosity, wisdom, understanding and love endeared him to everyone he came into contact with."

In 2008 he was appointed MBE. Hamilton's last performance was at his club in March on his 94th birthday, when he shared the stage with his band, his son Mark, and Soweto Kinch, whom he had encouraged and supported from early on in his career.

Jon Lusk

Andrew Raphael Thomas Hamilton, musician: born Port Maria, Jamaica 26 March 1918; MBE 2008; married Mary (eight children); (five other children); died Birmingham 4 June 2012.