Lonnie Hamilton III’s childhood heroes were the brass players in the Jenkins Orphanage band. He’d carry their sheet music for them while they paraded down Spring Street to Broad Street on Saturday afternoons.
In the ninth grade at Burke High School, Hamilton’s grandfather gave him a saxophone. By his senior year, he’d been invited to join the orphanage band when they fell short a sax player.
“I thought it was one of the greatest things that could happen to me,” recalls Hamilton. Just before graduating in 1947, jazz legend Lionel Hampton came to Charleston to perform. The bandleader had heard of Hamilton and called for him to visit his hotel. Hearing the young saxophonist, Hampton immediately offered him a job with his touring band. Hamilton’s mother said no, sending him on to college at S.C. State.
Sometime later, a friend of Hamilton joined Hampton’s band. The friend eventually fell to the temptations of nightclubs and life on the road, and was found naked in the snow, overdosed on heroin.
“Mom said, ‘Son, you see what I was trying to tell you. The road was not the life for you,'” remembers Hamilton.
Instead, the budding young talent went on to a career in education, business, and politics. In addition to owning his own jazz club on Market Street, he served as the chairman of Charleston County Council. The county’s office building is named in his honor.
“You could never make a living playing. It had to always be something you did on the side,” says Hamilton. “You almost didn’t make anything.”
Hamilton recalls a gig up Highway 61. The band played to a packed house, but when they went to collect, the owner claimed he hadn’t made a lot of money.
“He said, ‘You calling me a liar? Take this two-bit coin and get a sandwich, and this $2.50, and get out of town,'” recalls Hamilton. “He had a highway patrol man there standing next to him, so if we’d spoken up he would have stopped us on the way home and given us a ticket, so we took that $2.50 and came home.”
Later in his career, Hamilton formed a band, the Diplomats, which made a name for itself at his Market Street club and later at Henry’s Restaurant. Hamilton says the best time to be a jazz musician in Charleston was about a decade ago, but that the scene today still has its moments.
“The following has increased with whites, but blacks are slow to catch on,” Hamilton says of the jazz scene’s current state. “I guess it’s because of the fact that people look at it as intellectual music. But we’re trying to tell a story.”
And he has stories aplenty. Hamilton talks fondly about late nights in Charleston, eating fried chicken with Dizzy Gillespie or hanging with Doc Severinsen over collard greens at the old club Porgy and Bess.
“There was a camaraderie between musicians in those days. They’d come to town and give you reeds and mouthpieces. They’d always be out there to help you,” says Hamilton. “Those were the experiences you had those days — some of them weren’t doing well, but there were wonderful people that you’d meet.”
Hamilton mentions one friend, a 50-year veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra who has no retirement or benefits.
“You can have all the love in the world for music, but if it doesn’t generate enough revenue to come back home and buy food, then you won’t eat,” says Hamilton.
He speaks like a man who knows he could have been one of the big names. But Hamilton vocalizes no regrets in the legacy he’s left as one of the most respected Charlestonians of the last century.
For his Piccolo performance, Hamilton’s lineup includes John Tecklenburg on piano, Brian Reed on bass, and Cameo Williams on drums.
“I would encourage younger people to give this music serious consideration, for the simple reason that had it not been for music, I would not have gone to college,” says Hamilton, who went to S.C. State on a band scholarship before earning his master’s at the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.
Despite his credentials and talent, Hamilton opted to build his legacy in Charleston as a public servant. But, he’s quick to clarify, “Music is my first passion.”