Anyone who knows the Seatle jazz scene knows pianist and arranger Bob Hammer, or at least they think they do. They have heard him at the Pampas Room at El Goucho, the New Orleans Creole Restaurant, Jazz Alley, El Malecon, City Hall, and many other places. He has played regularly with Floyd Standifer, Buddy Catlett, Clarence Acox, and Ham Carson.
But some fans might not know much more about Hammer's interesting life than I did when I first sat down to interview him in a restaurant last week. For years, I'd heard the vague statement, "He's worked with everybody!" But I didn't really know what "everybody" meant. Now I do, and believe me, I'm impressed.
A partial list of famous people he has played with in bands, and/or written arrangements for, would include Henry "Red" Allen, Eddie Condon, Woody Herman, Pee Wee Russell, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy McPartland, Muggsy Spanier, Lionel Hampton, and many more. Hammer worked for the Merv Griffin show in New York and played for stars like Jack Benny in Vegas. He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and the famous Metropole, toured, recorded, worked the cruise ships.
And the whole time he and his wife Arlene were busy parenting five children."It was fun!" Hammer told me. "It didn't seem like a strain at the time, except you had to scramble to make a living. But if you were a musician you had to scramble anyway."
I asked professional tap dancer and producer Tim Hickey to arrange the meeting because I was eager to write about Hickey's most recent project, a show called "Jazz it Up, Bobby!" which is scheduled for July 28, at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. It will pay tribute to Hammer's amazing career in New York, Las Vegas, and Seattle, alongside some of America's greatest names in music, a career that has already passed the sixty year mark and just keeps on going. Proceeds from ticket sales will also raise funds to help Hammer cope with the heavy burden of medical bills from a recent major surgery.
The show features the 11-piece Full Circle Jazz Ensemble, under the leadership of Nathaniel Paul-Schleimer, with vocalist Stephanie Porter, Latin dancers Maureen Munoz and Wladimir Pino Olivares doing a few numbers, and the expert tap dancing of Tim Hickey himself, who has his own impressive background in entertainment.
Ken Wiley, the host of the KPLU 88.5 radio program called "The Art of Jazz" will serve as emcee. Before his surgery, Hammer played piano in the Full Circle Jazz Ensemble, and he wrote all the arrangements used in this production.
"Bob Hammer is one of the NW's gems. A true jazz artist and creative composer/arranger," said trumpeter Bobby Medina, who is a member of the band and a well-known musician in his own right. "This upcoming show is going to present music that is unique, fun and entertaining to a wide range of people."
Although temporarily sidelined when it comes to actually performing, Hammer is still very involved and excited about the band, the show, and Seattle as a great place for musicians.
"It’s pretty remarkable for its size," he said during the interview. "It’s got a very lively musical community. It’s got astonishingly accomplished players. So I’m really enjoying my life up here." He moved to the Northwest in 1995.
Even at age 81, Hammer's plans and visions of things to come remain vivid and exciting. "It’s fun for me to write purely instrumental things as I see them and hear them," he said, speaking of the band. "Now we’ve expanded to utilize the art forms of tap, dancing, and a couple of excellent singers. So the way I see it, with this band at the core, I’d like to see us create in essence, a super club type review. And I think there’s a market for it around here."
Last week in the restaurant, Hickey and I listened, captivated, while Hammer told stories that took us back in time to New York and Las Vegas during the 1950s and '60s. With a twinkle in his eye and his inevitable and infectious laughter, Hammer seemed to become once again the young man who arrived in New York 1953, 23 years old and already packing about a dozen years of performance experience in his ten nimble fingers, having been on stage with his father, a trumpet player, since the age of 11.
With each story he told, my heart rate went up and my eyes went down, just for a moment, to make sure the little light on my digital recorder still glowed red. I'd done a lot of interviews, but that time it felt especially important to capture everything and preserve this important history forever.
Please purchase your tickets for "Jazz it UP, Bobby!" here. And thank you for supporting live music!