Drummer Bradley Hamilton is familiar with the spotlight but he’ll be facing more hometown folks than ever on Aug. 4. That’s when he takes the stage with saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. in the headlining ensemble for the 20th annual Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival.
It’s not Hamilton’s biggest event considering the Mobile native played the prestigious Newport festival in the summers of 2013-15. He’s also been a director for the B.B. King All-Stars at Sea for 16 months.
But it will be the largest group of locals who have watched Hamilton play beyond church and smaller venues. His childhood path to the show at the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center began when he spied some drums in church.
“My grandmother, she passed recently but she’s responsible for my training. She put me in a drum class with Mr. Leon Rhoden of the Excelsior Band and I was with him from [age] 3 to 16,” Hamilton said.
Rhoden fostered the youngster’s interests at every turn. He let him sit in on gigs, even took the 12-year-old to a clinic by James Brown alum Jabo Starks. Rhoden also let a teenaged Hamilton take over the older musician’s slot as a Community Activities Program teacher.
As Hamilton neared graduation from John LeFlore High School, an aunt passed along word about the New Orleans mentor program at the nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation. Hamilton made the cut, so every Monday for a semester during his last year at LeFlore the family drove him to the Crescent City for instruction.
What the Mobilian learned there under Harrison built on the contemporary jazz he was exposed to through his father. Hamilton’s admiration seeps into his accounts of the enthusiasm and patience he witnessed.
“They call him Uncle Donald. Once you’re under his wing, under his mentorship, then you really do become a part of his family,” Hamilton said.
The drummer’s talent and a few connections landed him a slot in the hallowed halls of Berklee College of Music, where he delved further into musical theory, its language and challenges.
He wasn’t as awestruck by Berklee as others expected. Hamilton credited his focus on long-term goals.
“What blows my mind now is a lot of the people I went to school with then are touring with major artists now. They’re in Atlanta and L.A., getting endorsements and recognition, and I went to school with these people. It’s crazy,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s shining hometown moment will be old hat for Harrison. The saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian Chief-turned-TV star — Harrison was in HBO’s “Treme” series — has played GCEHJF twice before. That path reflects the maturation of the event.
His first show was intended for outdoors but a powerful August thunderstorm chased festival personnel into a now-defunct Water Street blues club. The second was in the iconic Temple Downtown.
Last year’s GCEHJF concert was the first held in the luxurious Water Street Convention Center and the enthusiastic response from all involved made a return a priority. The bill features percussionist Tony Bowers, the E.B. Coleman Big Band featuring Karmilla Ali, Tower of Power tribute ensemble Everybody’s Here, before concluding with Harrison and the Young Greats Band.
The centerpiece concert starts at 5:30 p.m. Entrance is $15, $10 for students.
GCEHJF’s customary cultural impact lands in the preceding weeks. The Marcus Johnson Jazz Camp runs July 23 through Aug. 3. “A Night of Poetry” takes place at the History Museum of Mobile (111 S. Royal St.) on Thursday, Aug. 2, at 8:30 p.m. The jazz campers hold a recital on Friday, Aug. 3, 6 p.m. at the same museum.
“I’ll pull as many people as I can bring in. Most of my friends will come out,” Hamilton said of the Saturday show.
The young musician points to jazz and hip-hop as his “top genres.” His project, “Thoughts of a Scholar,” blends the academic with contemporary trends for a unique voice.
“I’m telling my generation it’s OK to educate yourself on things you’re curious about, don’t shun it for what the majority says. Everybody’s different and we all have our own experiences,” Hamilton said. He aims to tour colleges in the fall.
Hamilton worries about technology and efforts to replace human creativity with artificial intelligence. He points to another Harrison protégé who played GCEHJF with Esperanza Spalding a dozen years ago as a sign of something only humans can do.
“We always find ways to reinvent. Christian Scott did a good job of mixing what jazz was and where it is and where it’s going. He did all of that,” Hamilton said.