A beloved figure in the swing and Dixieland jazz scene, “Ham” Carson played clarinet weekly at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square — as well as at Bill and Melinda Gates’ engagement party.
Hamilton “Ham” Carson — regarded by Seattle musicians and fans as the most accomplished swing clarinetist in Seattle — died last week, on Jan. 14. He was 86.
According to Margaret Carson, his wife of 55 years, the cause of death was cancer.
Known in Seattle for his clarinet work with the Great Excelsior Jazz Band in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and subsequently with his own groups, in which he also played tenor and baritone saxophone, Mr. Carson specialized in traditional New Orleans and Chicago styles and the music of the big-band era.
His group appeared weekly for 20 years at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square, which closed in 2014.
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Mr. Carson’s Champagne sound and sparkling facility often drew comparisons to Benny Goodman.
“His tone was extraordinary,” pianist Bob Pilsbury wrote in Mississippi Rag, a magazine devoted to early jazz.
Mr. Carson was also known for his relentless enthusiasm, said Great Excelsior trumpet player Bob Jackson.
“His typical phrase was, ‘Where’s the gig?’ ” Jackson recalled. “In the hospital, he was playing his clarinet in bed.”
Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Carson came from a distinguished family. His father was a professor of economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and his mother graduated from Yale Law School in 1926.
He took up clarinet when he was 12, “because the little girl he had his eye on had her eye on a boy who played a saxophone,” Margaret Carson said. “The saxophones had all been handed out, so he took a clarinet.”
Mr. Carson studied music, airplane mechanics, anthropology and art at Swarthmore, the Berklee College of Music, the University of Georgia and the University of Pennsylvania, graduating from the latter. Mr. Carson also took lessons from the great New Orleans clarinetist Omer Simeon (who worked with Jelly Roll Morton). Electing to play music for a living, he became a familiar figure in the New York and New England Dixieland revival scene.
After a first marriage and divorce left him a single dad, Mr. Carson learned computer programming at Temple University and, in 1964, got a job with U.S. Steel. On the side, he and his second wife renovated houses, including two late-19th century Victorians.
“He did all the things that didn’t show like electricity, plumbing and rough carpentry,” Margaret Carson said. “I did all the pretty things, like carpet laying, floor tiling … it wasn’t fair.”
The Carsons moved to Seattle in 1977 when he was offered a job with the pioneering computer company UNIVAC.
Despite a demanding day job, Mr. Carson continued to play music professionally, including “casual” dates such as weddings. One gig that stood out was an engagement party for Bill and Melinda Gates.
Mr. Carson left Seattle for Los Angeles in 1982 after being laid off by UNIVAC, but returned six years later.
“We all hated L.A.,” Margaret Carson said, “especially the cat.”
When the Carsons returned to Seattle, Margaret Carson, who has a doctorate in developmental psychology, served as associate director of Childhaven, which serves neglected or abused children.
Mr. Carson continued to play music and to pursue another lifelong passion — bridge.
“He was a man of many facets,” Margaret Carson said. “He was a sweet, sweet man.”
Mr. Carson is survived by his wife Margaret, of Seattle; his first wife, Carol Brandebury Carson, of Ashland, Ore.; four children: L. Victoria Carson and Tyler William Carson, of Oakland, Calif.; Timothy Carson, of Alameda, Calif; and Helena “Nell” Alexandra Carson, of Denver; and two grandchildren.
A memorial is being planned but a date has not yet been set.