Jordan Hamilton is a charismatic, wiry musician who uses his cello, a traditional classical instrument, in decidedly nontraditional ways.
The 24-year-old Western Michigan University performing arts graduate plays hip-hop and rap on his cello to give his audiences a new way to listen to classical pieces.
“I see a need for us to expand our boundaries (in ways that) we can express ourselves in music,” Hamilton says. “The art (classical music) is going to die. I don’t want to do what has been done before. I want to be relatable to a new generation.”
Hamilton says it’s challenging for young people to experience cello music when they have grown up listening to electronically produced music on an iPod. He wants to bring what is viewed as an “old” instrument to a new generation of listeners, and if that means trying innovative ways to play and make sounds, all the better.
“There is a need for us to incorporate all of our feelings and new ideas outside of music and bring it to the lyrics and style,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton, who was born and raised in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, has played the cello since he was 8. He attended Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts Academy in Landover, Maryland. “I freaked out when I saw the cello,” he says of his enthusiasm for the instrument upon his first official visit to the academy. He has played nearly every day since.
Hamilton grew up listening to a variety of music, from Earth, Wind & Fire to Bob Marley to The Roots, and began experimenting in high school with new sounds on the cello. He wanted to transfer the rap, hip-hop and soulful sounds that filled his playlist to the music he made on his favorite instrument.
One evening this year at Water Street Coffee Joint in Portage, Hamilton showed a small audience just how he does that. Accompanied by Dede and the Dreamers members Dede Alder and Josh Holcombe, the ensemble played a mix of jazz, classical and Hamilton’s own specialty — playing the cello while he riffs raps he creates on the spot based on audience input.
“The environment!” shouted one young woman from the back of the coffee shop. Hamilton nodded in acknowledgment, and in a few moments his baritone punctuated a rap: “We must stand together …”
The audience was swaying, feet tapping, heads nodding. It was mostly young adults, mostly white. Around the coffee shop students were studying and other people conversing, but the rhythmic thrum of Hamilton’s music permeated the atmosphere.
A mother grasped her young child’s arms to help her follow the beat that was projected out of Hamilton’s cello.
For one tune, Hamilton easily hoisted his cello across his lap, plucking the strings as if it were a guitar. For the next song, he resumed a traditional cello-playing posture, with the instrument firmly between his knees, bow in hand.
Many musical hats
Hamilton also displays his unique musicality as a member of a Kalamazoo hip-hop, funk, soul and rock band called Last Gasp Collective, which just released the album Agape.
In addition to his solo and ensemble performance work, Hamilton volunteers two days a week teaching children at the Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor, giving private and group lessons in beginning strings.
Hamilton also plays first chair in the cello section of Western’s University Symphony Orchestra, which performs traditional classical works, and he plays in the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra in St. Joseph. The man is busy.
“My time engagements with USO require three rehearsals a week for a concert every two months, which averages out to 12 to 15 rehearsals per concert,” he says. “The time commitment for SMSO requires me to attend three to five rehearsals for every concert every one to two months.”
Hamilton says he rarely goes a day without touching his cello — he usually has rehearsal with an ensemble, private lessons or a show. He says he practices at least an hour each day and aims to practice and write songs two to four hours every day.
Hamilton isn’t committed to one specific path after graduation. He knows for certain, however, that he wants to keep playing music for audiences, leading them to hear a classical instrument in modern ways.