PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 20, 2007

Improvising a Life in Music

by Jim Newsom

Ken Hatfield remembers when Hampton Roads had a thriving music scene.

“Norfolk and Virginia Beach were a great place to grow up if you wanted to play music,” he recalled in a recent phone conversation, “because I could work seven nights a week. I could work from 8:00 to midnight, then do an after-hours gig from 1:00 until 4:00 in the morning; and then I’d have to be at school at 8:00. I was playing all the time.”

Hatfield, a 1971 Lake Taylor High School graduate, is coming to Norfolk for a rare concert in his hometown Saturday night at the Harrison Opera House. Old friends and classmates will get the chance to hear how far he’s come musically since those teenage years playing in local cover bands.

“I grew up playing pop music,” he said, “but it was pop music of a very different ilk. The solos were improvised. When I’d go see artists live, it became obvious that they were improvising. When I was playing every night in bars, it gets really boring playing ‘Proud Mary’ twice a night or more seven nights a week if you’re playing it the same way every time. So I started trusting my own instincts and my own ears, and started improvising myself. When the singer asked what I was doing, I said I went to see Clapton last week and he didn’t play what was on the record. Why do I have to play what was on the record?

“So they started saying that I must be a jazz musician because I never played the same way twice. [But] the way I became a jazz musician had more to do with the fact that I really loved the way Eric Clapton and Hendrix played. They came to the Virginia Beach Dome. In fact I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Dome on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. When I went and saw those guys, I thought, geez, I don’t know what they’re doing!”

Hatfield had begun playing guitar at a very early age, excited by what he was hearing on the radio at home.

“I was eight,” he said, “but I wanted to start when I was four. My father always listened to music on WCMS. But while they played 99% straight up country music in the ‘60s, the country music they played back then had different regional things. You’d get that Buck Owens Bakersfield sound, that Chet Atkins stuff which was really super-produced, and then they would play a lot of roots-gospel and bluegrass stuff. Then they would have a program where they played nothing but blues.”

He began studying with local guitar teacher John Griggs when he was fourteen, and attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston after high school. He landed in New York City in 1977, worked with jazz greats like Jack McDuff and Chico Hamilton, and found a niche in the city’s recording studios. He released his first album in 1998.

“I started my own record company,” he said. “I’d been a studio musician for a long time and I kind of fell into doing a lot of composing under the guise of ghost-writing for film and television, mostly sports and soap opera stuff. Most composers write at the piano, and I was trained to compose without using an instrument—basically take out a pencil and paper and write what you hear in your head.”

Having been a straightahead jazz player for years on the electric instrument, he discovered his own distinctive voice when he went acoustic.

“That came from going back to school to get a degree in music composition,” he explained. “I had always heard polyphonic music, where you hear different lines at the same time. I was interested in trying to find my own voice and making a contribution to revitalizing jazz as a music that people would want to listen to. I wanted to find the European component of what I saw as the harmonic traditions of jazz—the mixture of Western African rhythmic and melodic traditions with Western European harmonic and melodic traditions.

“I was starting to dabble with the nylon string guitar because it made it possible for me to play these polyphonic pieces I was writing. Then I started playing with a lot of Brazilian musicians who love the nylon string guitar…That gave me hope that there was a way to find your own voice without having to play avant-garde music or smooth jazz, and still play something that was accessible if people listened.”

But he acknowledges that’s a big “if.”

“People of my generation don’t listen to music any more; they put it on to set the mood as background while they do something else. But I remember when I was growing up, when a new record came out it was a major event. And you’d sit there and listen to it and nobody said a word. They really listened.”

Saturday night, Ken Hatfield will give jazz fans and old friends a good reason to really listen to him.

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.