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New Haven jazz luminary Jesse Hameen II to perform on Ellington Jazz Series

Jesse Hameen II

Jesse Hameen II. Photo by Mike Franzman 

In 1972, horn player Willie Ruff organized a convocation in Woolsey Hall that brought dozens of the world’s most influential jazz artists to Yale. That event helped the School of Music launch the Ellington Jazz Series, which in the decades since has continued to introduce New Haven audiences to the art form. Ruff, an alum (’53BM ’54MM) and retired faculty member who is now Professor Emeritus of Music, introduced thousands of area residents—many of them schoolchildren—to jazz through what he called the “conservatory without walls,” the “invisible institution” through which the art form has been passed from one generation to the next.

Among those who grew up in the shadow of giants like Ruff is drummer and New Haven native Jesse Hameen II, who, with his band, Elevation, will perform on the Ellington Jazz Series on Friday, Feb. 3. Ruff, Hameen said, “became a mentor,” as did Ruff’s musical partners, pianist Dwike Mitchell and drummer Charlie Smith.

Hameen grew up revering Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Mongo Santamaria, among others. In the 1950s, New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood was home to several of jazz clubs where Hameen and his peers heard the likes of John Coltrane up close and in person. “We felt like we were in musical heaven,” Hameen said, explaining that the “Dixwell neighborhood was like the hub” of a scene that was also happening in New York, London, and elsewhere. “A good amount of jazz” was being played, he said, in venues like the Playback, which Ruff owned.

Hameen spent four years in the service from 1958 to 1962 and, after that, hit the road as a sideman in bands led by Ruth Brown, Hank Crawford, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy McGriff, Irene Reid, Leon Thomas, Stanley Turrentine, and Grover Washington Jr. For three decades, Hameen made his home in New York City while staying active in the scene in New Haven. In 1995, when his parents fell ill, Hameen returned to the Elm City, asking himself, “Man, what am I going to do in New Haven?” By then, there was no scene to speak of, not at least the kind in which he had grown up. Taking a tip from Ruff—who, Hameen said, “showed us if you strive hard, business-wise, you could make it in different worlds”—the New Haven-born drummer met Lawrence Zukof, then the director of Neighborhood Music School, and began teaching.

Hameen has long been the chairperson of NMS’ jazz department, which includes a summer program. He’s also taught at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet High School and the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, currently serves on the board of Jazz Haven, and over the years, has had a hand in mentoring younger generations of jazz musicians who’ve called New Haven home—among them, pianist Christian Sands.

Sharing the music, Hameen said, is about playing it, as he did on the road and between gigs, when local and traveling musicians would jam and pass ideas along. “Whatever you do,” he tells younger musicians today, “keep the groove,” which is what audiences can expect him to do on Feb. 3, when he and his band—guitarist Rodney Jones, saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Nat Reeves, and pianist Zaccai Curtis— take the stage in Morse Recital Hall to “lift up the genre a little bit.”

“Jazz is the classical music of the United States,” Hameen said. “Jazz has been a unifying force. It started in the African American community, but now it belongs to everybody.”

The Ellington Jazz Series presents Jesse Hameen II & Elevation on Friday, Feb. 3, in Morse Recital Hall. Learn more here.