When I got the news that Andy Hamilton had peacefully passed away – at the age of 94 – it was if another slice of UK cultural history had slipped into the fog of time.
Born in Port Maria, Jamaica, Andy set up his first band in 1928 . After a spell in the USA supporting the war effort, he returned to Jamaica to be discovered by Hollywood legend, Errol Flynn and spent the following two years working with Flynn and playing music on his yacht, The Zaca. It was in 1948 that he composed for Flynn what became a well-known jazz calypso tune, ‘Silvershine’ – a song that was to feature large in Andy’s long and productive life.
Andy left Jamaica in 1949 and settled in Birmingham where he eventually became a lynchpin of the local jazz scene, mentoring two big bands and new generation jazz warriors like Soweto Kinch. However, in those early days racism was endemic and few local players were willing to share the stage with him. Undaunted he set up his own group – The Blue Notes – with pianist Sam Brown.
Remarkably, back in 1985, at the age of 72 Andy Hamilton had a second lease of life. Andy was taken to hospital in a diabetic coma and was not expected to recover – but incredibly he did.
According to the saxophonist he felt himself floating away when he heard the song ‘Silvershine’. He found himself playing on the deck of The Zaca with Errol Flynn dancing “in a real sharp suit” and telling Andy to “keep playing that song”. He came out of the coma with the song still in his head.
Shortly after his recovery, pioneering journalist/photographer Val Wilmer, penned a story on Andy that won him a slot in the Soho Jazz Festival. It introduced him to innovative World Circuit records boss Nick Gold. Though Nick is associated with Grammy winning “world music” artists like the Buena Vista Social Club, Al Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare he has released two seminal UK jazz albums – the late Bheki Mselekus’ ‘Celebration’ and Andy Hamilton’s award winning ‘Sivershine’.
‘Silvershine’ featured Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall and the mighty US tenor player David Murray and it became the biggest selling UK jazz album of the year. It won The Times Jazz Album of the Year and featured as one of Sony 50 International Albums of the Year. Andy Hamilton had finally arrived and shows followed all over the world – St Lucia, Jamaica, Paris and Milan. In 2006 he headlined at Cape Town Jazz Festival.
As a result, Andy notched up a whole rack of awards – an honorary Master of Arts degree from Birmingham University, a Millenium Fellowship award for his work in community education, a Fellowship of Birmingham Conservatoire, Honours from the Jamaican Government and finally an MBE for his services to music. The latter coincided with his 90th birthday.
I last saw Andy play back in 2009 when he joined a stellar combination of David Murray, The Roots and Ornette Coleman onstage at the Royal Festival Hall’s ‘Meltdown’ Festival. Was the man daunted by joining such a heavy duty and funk driven and free-style line-up? I think not! That was a night to remember.
Andy passed away peacefully, surrounded by friends and his large and loving family. He loved music, loved people and hated injustice. He was handsome, stylish and a constant source of wise advice. His legacy will live on.