Whatever style of music you’re into, playing jazz ballads on saxophone can help you become a better sax player.
This month in Sax School is all about classic jazz and jazz ballads. So it was amazing to welcome the legendary Scott Hamilton as our special guest for an exclusive masterclass inside Sax School. In this session we talked about playing jazz ballads on saxophone, and playing over that style, and I want to share 5 key takeaways that I think will really help you.
Whether you’re into jazz ballads, or jazz playing, or just wanting to get better as a saxophone player, there’s some great lesson here to dig into.
This whole masterclass with Scott Hamilton is available as a replay inside the Sax School Members’ Area. There’s around a thousand lessons in there, including all of our other masterclasses with world world-famous players. If you want to check it out, there’s a 14 day free trial running right now which you can find here.
I love to play in all different styles as a saxophone player. And we cover all different styles inside Sax School, too, from pop to blues, to bebop, to Ska, and classical. But jazz is something that I’m super passionate about. I love those old school players, the guys from the 40s through to the 60s, like Ben Webster, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Dexter Gordon.
The ballad playing from all those players really speaks to me, because for them it’s about beautiful melodies, having a wonderful big fat sound, and connecting with the music.
So for me that’s what jazz ballads are all about. It’s about telling a great story with your saxophone. Jazz ballads are accessible. They are that easy to understand, and they are great to listen to. And they’re also a fantastic way to understand more about jazz, or even about your playing, and the way that you connect with music.
So we dig into it quite a lot in Sax School. This month we’re focusing on jazz ballads and all of our members are learning a ballad challenge song. So it’s something that we take seriously.
About Scott Hamilton
So let’s get back to Scott Hamilton. In the late 70s, there was this new young player who rocked up in New York and he was doing something completely different to everybody else. He was playing in a kind of old-school style like Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. And he blew everybody away.
What he was doing was such a contrast to everything else that was happening at the time. Because, in the late seventies, it was just a few years after John Coltrane had recorded A Love Supreme. Herbie Hancock was recording with The Headhunters, fusion was getting going, Michael Brecker was recording with the Brecker Brothers. There was some aggressive, fast music happening. But this guy was doing something completely different.
This of course was Scott Hamilton. And his career just went ballistic from there. He was touring with Benny Goodman and he spent years recording and touring with Rosemary Clooney and he started recording his albums as well.
He’s done over 60 albums as a leader, and he’s even got a new album coming out this year. So Scott Hamilton became recognised as the master of that swing tenor sound for a living current player.
So Scott Hamilton for me captures that whole style of the classic jazz ballad on tenor sax. And so I wanted to find out more about him and how he approaches his playing because it’s something we talk about a lot in Sax School.
One of the reasons why our Sax School members make fast progress is because we spent a lot of time talking about how we approach practice. And we talk about our four-step practice routine.
But I wanted to know from Scott Hamilton, what his approach was to learning saxophone? He’s an old-school-style player, so did he learn in the practice room, or did he learn his style in a more of an old-school way, on the bandstand?
Lesson #1: Learn Fast by Playing with Others
SH: “On the band stand! I practiced fairly hard as a beginner when I was in my parents’ house. I would play for a couple of hours at a time, and try to figure things out. But by the time I’d been playing for a couple of years, I was starting to get gigs.
I had a little band of my own in Providence and we were working. You had to play four hours a night for dancers. It was a quartet, so I could play anything I wanted.
That was tremendous practice. When you’re under the gun like that, you have to work hard. You can’t shy away from it. And I was dedicated. So it paid off and I improved very quickly.”
Lesson #2: Explore Other Players to Find YOUR Sound
I wanted to find out what sort of players Scott was listening to when he was younger. Was it Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, those kinds of guys?
SH: “I was very much a fan of a lot of guys like Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt and Paul Gonzales and Eddie “LockJaw” Davis and Jimmy Forrest, Stanley Turrentine. Houston Person was a guy who I had a lot of records by when I was younger, and I still love Houston.
In terms of sound, I was only interested in guys who played with a robust fat sound. Then now the fact that that comes in many different flavours means that I would try one thing for a few weeks and I would try another thing for a few weeks. Eventually, if you keep at it long enough, you do end up with a recognisable sound of your own – a voice.
But I was in my late 20s before I began to even hear that in myself. I had been recording for a few years before I really found my voice.”
Lesson #3: Play with Clarity and Focus
SH: “I try to play with clarity and focus, and I tried to play as naturally as I possibly can at this point. But this is after years of consciously striving for a sound that I liked.”
Lesson #4: Focus on 1 Thing at a Time
SH: “I found it very useful to have tunnel vision. My focus was very narrow and I would take on one particular thing and nothing outside of that would interest me. But that’s a very good tool for learning.”
Sense of time
There’s one last thing I wanted to ask Scott about, and that was his sense of time.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, hang on. We’re talking about jazz ballads on saxophone here – is time even really an important thing?
But the thing is, if you listen to any great recordings, whether that’s from instrumentalists or singers over beautiful jazz ballads, then time is absolutely important. I would say it’s the thing that separates an average recording and an amazing recording, or a less experienced artist and a real experienced professional artist.
Sense of time is so important. And if you listen closely to Scott Hamilton’s playing, his time is completely locked in. So I wanted to know, how did Scott develop that? Was that something that came naturally or was that something that he had to work on?
SH: “I’ve always been attracted to players that were rhythmically strong and connected to the rhythm section. And I’ve always tried to be independent, in that when I played, I should be as strong as the drummers in terms of rhythm. This is something that I learned from Rosemary Clooney – she had a better time than most musicians I’ve ever played with.
“It’s amazing how good you can make a band sound, if you can have this kind of rhythmic power, but it has to be within yourself.”
Lesson 5: Study the Rhythm of the Players You Love
I asked Scott if this sense of time was something he already had, or if he had to work on it.
SH: “I was always attracted to it. And I can remember times when I thought, ‘I wish I could play this phrase and make it swing because when I hear it done that way when Joe Turner sings this phrase, or when Roy Eldridge plays this phrase, it swings. When I play it, it sounds like ‘dat dat dat’.’ I can remember, years after I thought that, discovering that I could play those phrases and that they worked.”
So that’s a little taster of our Scott Hamilton session, but there was so much more that was covered in the full masterclass. I enjoyed this session with Scott. And if you get a chance to watch this masterclass, I think you’ll enjoy it too.
Now don’t forget. The 14-day trial is running at the moment so you can get access with the trial to see the entire masterclass replay.
Here’s a recap of what we learned about playing jazz ballads on saxophone.
- Learn fast by playing with others.
- Find the sound that you love, and explore players that have this.
- Play with clarity, focus, and as naturally as possible.
- Focus on one thing at a time.
- Study the rhythm of players that you love.
I hope you found these lessons on playing jazz ballads on saxophone from Scott Hamilton useful. We’ve got loads more great content and resources for you on this website so please go and explore.
And if you want to take things further, then go check out that 14 day trial of Sax School. The tutor team and I are waiting to help you, and you can join the thousands of other students that we have that learning with Sax School. There are over a thousand lessons in the lesson library, to help you at whatever stage you’re at and for whatever style of music you’re interested in. Get the 14 day free trial here.