Sticking Around

T o jazz-drum is to lead, says Neighborhood Music School instructor Jesse Hameen II. “The proper name for what the drummer sits on is not a seat but a throne… It’s a seat of authority. You direct the pace, the rhythm, the feeling … if you have good musicians.” And through chance, practice, and gumption, Hameen filled his 60-odd year career with good musicians—at times some of the best in jazz.

Before Hameen—then named Jesse Kilpatrick—took hold of his two wooden scepters and earned a place on the throne, he was slapping his knees, thighs and chest on the streets of New Haven, “hambone”-style. “I was beating on something my entire life. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t.”

Hameen and fellow drummer Bill Fitch picked up Afro-Cuban and West African rhythms from Paul Hogging, a boy three years their senior. They bought instruments with money earned selling newspapers, rags and clothes hangers, and at the age of 10, started playing gigs for cash. Fitch, who Hameen remembers as a prodigy on the conga drum, went on to play with Cal Tjader by the age of 18.

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Hameen himself wasn’t far behind. In 1958, at the age of 17, he went into the service, first stationed in Prestwick, Scotland, then Oxford, England. On weekends Hameen sought out London jazz dens where he heard and sat in with the likes of Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriett and Ronnie Scott. After exiting the military in 1962, Hameen returned to New Haven and drummed with local talent like Dickie Myers, Houston Person and the Buster Brothers.

By the time he hit the road in 1963, Hameen was eager to grace whatever throne he was offered, and in Harlem, New York, there were thrones aplenty. He settled into the jazz scene there, playing with greats like Major Holley, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Kenny Barron, Jimmy Witherspoon, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. While living in the Bronx he picked up the nickname “cheese,” on account of his spirited smile.

It was around this time that Hameen took the name Hameen. He converted to Islam in 1972, joining a wave of black Americans who saw the religion as a rallying point for civil rights—a means of reclaiming lost heritage and an alternative to the white-oriented Christianity they’d known. Hameen recalls many of the musicians with whom he was playing were Muslim. “They were nice people trying to do what’s right for the community,” he says. He subsequently changed his last name and adopted the habit of donning a traditional kufi—a woven hat not entirely unlike a crown—which he still wears today.

Hameen’s trajectory took him all around the country, and the world. “I toured the U.S. multiple times,” he says, and also through “Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, just about every city in France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Norway, all the major festivals.” Oddly, every time he was lined up to go to Japan, something got in the way.

His touring took him further and further from home, until 1994—when Hameen’s parents fell ill, and he moved back to New Haven to care for them. The departure from his longtime home base of New York rattled him. “‘I’m scared as hell,’” he remembers telling his mother, worrying that he might lose his connection to the pro jazz community. But his perspective and musical purpose changed dramatically upon reading a high school commencement speech in the paper.

Hameen paraphrases the speech given to the graduating class: “Those of you in the position to do it, go to college outside the state of Connecticut. Those of you in the position to do it, go to grad school outside the state of Connecticut. Those of you in the position to do it, take a job outside the state of Connecticut. Strive for excellence in whatever you do, and when you’ve gained some experience, come back to Connecticut and make it a better place with some fresh ideas.”

“Wow,” thought Hameen. “That’s me.”

He began teaching jazz out of his own studio and later became an adjunct professor at Hartford Conservatory—a position he proudly passed along to one of his own students. In 1997 he came to Neighborhood Music School where he presides today as chair of the Jazz & Rock Studies department.

Along with folks like Jazz Haven founder Doug Morrill, Hameen was one of the driving forces behind resurrecting the New Haven Jazz Festival in 2008, which at its height attracted the likes of Ray Charles and routinely filled the New Haven Green to bursting. Now run by Jazz Haven instead of the city, the annual festival just enjoyed its 33rd—and 8th consecutive—staging this past Saturday, before giving way to a slate of club-sized “Jazz Week” performances this week. Each year, the festival has an added youth component—a facet Hameen, who sits on Jazz Haven’s board of directors, has championed.

Duke Ellington once said: “The band is my instrument.” Hameen has his own variation: “The students are my instrument.” He expresses pride in pupils like Christian Sands, Nick Mora, Anna Gonzalez and Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere. “It feels good to see my students performing and recording. And they’re good musicians. I’m happy to have had a hand in that.”

Jesse Hameen II
Jazz drummer / Neighborhood Music School instructor
100 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-5189 x52 | [email protected]…

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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