Friday, April 3, 2009

In the Groove

When Jesse Hameen II plays a show in his native New Haven, word travels fast: “Cheese” is in town. The past ten years have seen the amiable jazz drummer, whose nickname comes from his brilliant smile, return to live in his hometown, keeping up a busy performing career and releasing a new solo album, all while giving back to the community as a teacher and a mentor.

A September article in the New York Times rightfully places Hameen at the center of a New Haven jazz scene that is reclaiming a measure of its former place of prominence.

“It’s really gratifying being back, because I’m able to make a difference over here,” says Hameen. “It’s the gratification of knowing that we were able to do something to give back to the city, to bring jazz to life here, to put it back in the lives of the people.”

Born in 1941 and raised in the Elm City, Hameen was raised in a musical family. “My family, they’re into gospel,” he explains. “Some of the best gospel musicians in the New Haven area, a lot of them are in my family. My parents never once told me my drums were too loud or to stop practicing. I said, how could they tolerate it like that? You couldn’t ask for more supportive parents.

“I played drums my whole life. My mother said that as soon as I came out of the womb I was playing.”

In 1950, at the tender age of nine, Hameen started his own band with drummers Paul Huggins, currently of the African American Cultural Center at Yale, and Billy Fitch. “Paul taught us the Afro-Cuban thing,” he says. “I was playing the congas and the bongos. By the time I was ten, we started performing professionally.”

Hameen enlisted in the Air Force in 1958, before the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. His service took him to London, where he honed his chops after hours among heavyweights like Joe Harriott and Ginger Baker. Hameen returned to the States in 1962, as jazz was making the transition from fiery bebop to bluesy cool.

“New Haven during that time was one of the meccas for jazz,” he recalls. “Hartford was pretty good, but New Haven was the spot for Connecticut.”

The clubs were concentrated in the Dixwell neighborhood, most within walking distance of Hameen’s home, like the Playback on Winchester Avenue, which was owned by New Haven native Willie Ruff, who now conducts the Yale Jazz Ensemble; and the Monterey Café, run by New Havener and vaudeville performer Rufus Greenlee.

The Monterey, Hameen recalls, “was more than just a jazz club; it was a rite of passage. You got all ready to go — you had a certain code of conduct in there. It was the kind of thing people brought their children to. The place was packed seven nights a week.”

With jazz jumping all around him, Hameen worked six months at the post office to earn himself a new set of drums, and then took off on a series of road tours that eventually landed him in New York City. He began freelancing, traveling with Charles Earland to Puerto Rico, and then to Las Vegas and the West Coast. He has played with the era’s top names, including Grover Washington Jr., Irene Reid (for whom he has produced two albums and written numerous compositions), vocalist Leon Thomas, hard bop pianist Tommy Flanagan, Lou Donaldson and soul star Curtis Mayfield, to name a few. He converted to Islam in 1979 and changed his name from Jesse Kilpatrick Jr. to Jesse Hameen II.

But to many native New Haveners, he will always be “Cheese.”

In 1995, Hameen decided to move back to New Haven to care for his ailing parents. “My parents were so supportive of me, that when the time came I had to take care of them,” Hameen says. “I told my mother, ‘I’m terrified to come back to New Haven, because my business is all built up in New York. There’s no way I’m going to be as busy up there.’ She said, ‘Well, don’t worry, God’s going to bless you.’”

What Hameen found surprised him. He became involved with Jazz Haven, a non-profit which supports and advocates for jazz music and musicians and produces the annual summer New Haven Jazz Festival.

Explains Jazz Haven President Doug Morrill: “When Jesse came back, he wanted to offer something to New Haven. He is very much a community person, and jazz is a wonderful community-building vehicle.”

Hameen was also appointed the chair of the lauded jazz studies program at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, a role that gives him the chance to teach and mentor young jazz musicians, among them young pianist Christian Sands. He is also on faculty at the Hartford Conservatory.

“What makes Jesse different from other jazz musicians is his willingness to go the full mile in terms of keeping the music alive,” says Morrill.

“I believe that being a musician is not just an individual path, but that people should benefit from it,” Hameen says. “My goal is to be a human excellence advocate.”

His recent album Sign of the Times, his first solo project in over 20 years, was released last August on his independent Inspire Music label, and rings with the sounds of jazz that is New Haven’s own — well traveled and world-wise, but determinedly funky.

“New Haven has a sound — a bluesy, funky sound,” Hameen says. “Just like people all over the country have their different accents, their different personalities — that’s their voice. On my CD I like everything to be groovy. That’s what we are in New Haven, is groovy.”

The album combines six bluesy, recently penned compositions with three other Hameen originals from a 1993 session featuring New York trombonist Benny Powell. All of the tracks are filled with the rich sound of the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument Hameen has tapped often in his career.

As its title suggests, it is a timely album in many senses, with songs like “Conducive Environment,” which features Hameen’s two-fisted explosion of a drum solo in 6/4 time, and “Tighten Your Belt,” a funky number which allows the group to really lock in.

“All of my songs have meaning,” Hameen said enigmatically in a November concert. “‘Tighten Your Belt.’ We all know what that means,” he said, alluding to the current recession.

Of President-elect Barack Obama, Hameen says, “Whether he was elected or not, the fact that there’s so many people who are willing to accept an African-American President is a sign of the times. That shows that the climate has changed, that people are now realizing that it’s the content of a person’s character and not the color of their skin that’s happening.”

While Hameen was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and plans to undergo radiation treatment, he says he feels strong: “I feel good, my ideas are flowing, I’m still writing. I practice every day.”

This article was published in the January 2009 issue of New Haven Magazine.

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