Almost a century after St. Louis blues were the cat’s meow in the Roaring Twenties, Al Hammerman is still up to making jazz in the city. Learn about how he has become nationally successful while remaining in the Midwest, how he embarrasses his wife and where he finds the best toasted ravioli!
Aspiring actors and singers make a fuss about moving to LA and New York, yet your songs get featured in major Hollywood productions with you living in St. Louis. How does this work? Did you have to promote your work twice as hard in the beginning to be heard?
I still think it’s probably true that there’s an advantage to being close to “where the action is,” particularly for actors and singers, as you suggest. Fortunately, however, for a composer and lyricist, with today’s high speed and high quality internet, physical proximity is at least a little less crucial when trying to convey a true representation of one’s work.
The Internet can sometimes even be more important than just being close, in the extremely fast paced entertainment world. Very often whether or not you get your music placed can depend almost as much on its instantaneous availably, as it does on quality. That said, I still make my share of trips to the coasts as there’s nothing like “being there” when you really want to make the deal.
Of course it also helps to have great PR representation and for I thank Tom Estey Publicity & Promotions.
Would you have gone into the same musical genre in your career if your parents had played other types of music during your childhood?
That’s a tough one and I think I might need to do a bit of “Nature vs. Nurture” research before I can give a definitive answer to that. However,I am very thankful that my parents generously exposed me to the wonderful music of the great american songbook and I’m certain that it has been a factor in the development of my particular music style. In fact, I’ve often been asked if I purposely try to write in the style of the standards and always have to answer the same way: “No, that’s just what comes out.”
Does your wife get bashful when you sing the song you wrote about her?
In a word, “yes,” and I’ve been told that at many of my concerts she can be seen sinking deeper and deeper into her seat. But I do think it’s a composer’s privilege and right to be able to embarrass his wife on stage – and that goes for his kids too! Kidding aside though, she does seem to take all of my musical escapades in stride and more importantly provides me the most perfect blend of emotional support; never letting me get either too “high” in the good times and more importantly never too “low” during the dry spells.
Does she sample your songs before you release them? Has she ever convinced you to put out a well written song you didn’t feel was good at first?
I don’t think Julia would ever try to convince me to release a song that I didn’t feel “good” about, however, perhaps in a related manner she did one day convince me of something else. I had already been writing and producing songs for many years and for the most part, when a song was finished I might play it for my family and a few friends and then basically tuck it in a drawer and moved on to another. Perhaps I was getting a bit discouraged, when one day I just decided I was ready to quit writing all together as my “passion” was becoming quite expensive and I was running out of drawer space. I had been working on a new song called “Nothing But Time” which was a bit more jazzy than my others and I was just about to abandon it altogether when Julia simply explained things to me this way: “I buy shoes because that’s what I like to do. You write music because that’s what you like to do,” and she then went on to painfully convince me that I wasn’t even coming close to winning the prize on spending. Well, once finished, that song I was about to set aside, seemed to generate quite a bit of interest and enthusiasm around town and marked a true turning point in my song writing career. From that point on, I’ve continued to write songs, Julia has continued to buy shoes, and for better or for worse, neither of us have any intention of quitting.
Are all great artists only inspired by a current situation? Do you ever write about things that happened many years ago?
I guess inspiration might come form the same place that dreams do, both unexpected and unpredictable, sparked by people and events that are important in our lives. Often it’s related to something that’s currently happened in my life but not always.
I’m sure the song writing process is a little different for everyone, but when I write, I sort of “play around” at the piano till I hear something I like– some sort of musical phrase that catches my ear. I can’t force it to happen and more often than not, it’s accidental. I then build on that phrase till I have a complete song. The lyrics usually come after that and often depend on the mood of the music as well as my own. In finding just the “right words” I try to expand on an interesting or meaningful phrase that I might have heard and written down, thinking that it may one day make for a good song concept. In that manner, one recent song was inspired many years ago by my daughter Rachel (now all grown up) when she was just five years old. We were driving in the car when she noticed the moon up above and asked, “Dad, is the moon following us or are we following it?” I was captivated by the question and wrote it down, but not till many years latter did it become the basis for my song “Mr. Moon.”
When you write your first musical, what will it be about?
I have played with the idea of writing a musical for many years, always keeping my eyes and ears open for an original storyline or existing work that might be suitable for musical adaptation. I’m quite certain that my entire family is sick of hearing the words “that would make a good musical” come from my mouth. I actually have several different outlines for musicals already in the works, however the story lines for them all tend to adhere to the old writers adage “write what you know.” So there’s no doubt that whatever musical I eventually put forth will at least in some part relate to my own life experiences – which only means that it will be a musical comedy, of course!
What song styles will you write for the characters? How will they vary?
It’s hard to answer that question without actually having a given storyline in mind, however, I can say that my preference for musical songs might be a little out of step with the currently “accepted” way of thinking. Rogers and Hammerstein are given credit for re-working the musical theater genre. They wrote songs (which I love) that conveyed both plot and character rather than simply acting as a diversion from the story, such as the songs that might have been written with Roger’s former collaborator, Lorenz Hart. But the fact is that its those earlier songs have become a large part of the Great American Songbook ( i.e. Manhattan; Bewitched,Bothered and Bewildered; Where or When; My Funny Valentine) , while the later show tunes have a harder time “standing alone”. As much as possible, my hope is to write songs that can be meaningful and enjoyed both in and outside the context of the show.
Had to ask. Where is your favorite spot to grab St. Louis style toasted ravioli? Schnucks at the Frontenac location was my pick for a while.
I actually live just down the street from that Schnucks (which also makes great sushi) and while I think I can honestly say that I have never met a toasted ravioli I didn’t like, my current favorite spot is the great old St. Louis stand-by, Rich & Charlie’s.