Born in 1953, Hamilton grew up in Richmond, Indiana, where he started playing drums at age eight. Initially influenced by his parent's big band and Oscar Peterson records, by his teens he was drawing inspiration from albums by percussion idols like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, Philly Joe Jones, and Shelly Manne. After high school, he earned his music degree from Indiana University and studied privately with noted drummer John Von Ohlen. His first big job came in 1974 with the New Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, followed a year later with a stint in Lionel Hampton's band. He then joined bassist John Clayton in pianist Monty Alexander's trio, recording 1979's Facets and Live! Montreux Alexander. From there, he spent several years touring and recording as a member of Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, before taking over the drum chair from Shelly Manne in the L.A. Four with Ray Brown, Bud Shank, and Laurindo Almeida. It was while with the L.A. Four that Hamilton began composing and arranging, ultimately recording six albums, including 1978's Just Friends and 1980's Zaca.
As a leader, Hamilton debuted with Indiana in 1982, playing alongside tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, altoist Lanny Morgan, pianist Biff Hannon, and bassist John Clayton. The album also featured a guest spot from vocalist Mark Murphy. More sideman work followed throughout the '80s, including stints with pianist Alexander, Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Orchestra, Rosemary Clooney, and others. He also furthered his association with bassist Ray Brown, joining his trio and recording albums like 1988's Bam Bam Bam, 1989's Black Orpheus, and 1994's Don't Get Sassy.
Also during this period, he formed the all-star Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, pairing as co-leader with longtime associates bassist John Clayton and altoist Jeff Clayton. The group debuted in 1990 with Groove Shop, which featured a bevy of top soloists including tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard; trumpeters Snooky Young, Clay Jenkins, and Oscar Brashear; and trombonist George Bohanon. The group, which was the in-residence ensemble for the Hollywood Bowl Jazz series from 1999 to 2001, has issued a number of highly regarded straight-ahead big-band dates like 1995's Absolutely!, 2000's Shout Me Out!, and 2009's Charles Aznavour the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
On his own, Hamilton has steadily continued to lead trio sessions. After initially returning to his solo work with 1994's It's Hamilton Time, he also paired with vibraphonist Frits Landesbergen for 1997's Dynavibes and offered the 2002 trio date Hands On with bassist Lynne Seaton and pianist Larry Fuller. He then introduced a new trio featuring pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty, issuing albums like 2004's The Best Things Happen, 2009's Symbiosis, and 2012's Red Sparkle. The following year, he and bassist Clayton backed pianist/singer Paul Kuhn on The L.A. Session. In 2014, the drummer earned a Grammy nomination for his work on the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra's album The L.A. Treasure's Project.
Away from his own groups, Hamilton further distinguished himself working on projects with singers like Diana Krall, Stacey Kent, and Michael Buble. In 2017, he was back with his trio for Dreamsville, a collaboration with saxophonist Cory Weeds. Two years later, the drummer joined pianist Akiko Tsuruga and guitarist Graham Dechter for Equal Time. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi
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