Joni and Jeff Hamilton Prove You Don’t Have to Sacrifice Your Dreams to Support Your Partner’s
- Written byAmber Klinck
- Photographed byShane O’Donnell
Joni and Jeff Hamilton are the kind of couple you want to go to dinner with. They’re quick to laugh, they’re both genuinely passionate about what they do, and they often finish each other’s sentences like two friends retelling an inside joke (even if they sometimes disagree on the punchline).
Joni, co-owner of Hamilton Butler Jewels, opened the doors of the Hermosa Beach location with her partner, Shelia Butler, more than seven years ago. Jeff, a highly celebrated jazz drummer, has spent his career traveling the world—often sharing the stage with some of the industry’s most talented musicians.
Through 40 years of marriage, they have prioritized their individual pursuits—as well as their partner’s—supporting the paths necessary to make each other’s dreams come true. And from the sound of it, they’ve had a lot of fun along the way.
Jeff knew early on what he was meant to do. “There was a famous drummer named Gene Krupa,” he says. “I was lying on the floor, watching a little black-and-white TV, and it was ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’—the big drum solo. I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
His family was supportive of his musical inclinations, but they steered him toward the piano to start. “The line I like is: They made me play piano first. So I started piano at 5 and quit at 5:30,” Jeff laughs. “They had me wait until I was 8 years old to start the drums because they figured I was serious by that time.”
Originally from Richmond, Indiana, Jeff’s home was on the road for roughly seven years. “I didn’t live anywhere; I was on band buses. And then I moved [to Los Angeles] for a job opportunity in January ’78. A month after I met Joni,” he adds.
“He was traveling with the Woody Herman Orchestra playing Carnation Plaza Gardens,” Joni notes. “Jeff was the drummer, and I thought he was rather handsome. A few weeks later he moved to Los Angeles, and thus began a lovely relationship.”
The job opportunity was with the jazz quartet The L.A. Four. It was a big break for the 24-year-old drummer and an opportunity to play with a musician he deeply admired: “Ray Brown, the great bassist,” Jeff notes. “I’d wanted to play with him since I was 10 years old.”
During this time, Joni was working as a makeup artist with NBC. The work was incredibly demanding, and life was busy. So at the start of their courtship, when Jeff intimated his tour schedule would keep him on the road quite a bit, Joni assured him that would not be a problem.
“I [told her], ‘I’ve got to let you know, I’m probably going to be on the road four or five months a year,’” Jeff remembers. “And she said, ‘Do you think I want you around all the time? I have a life.’ So I thought, ‘Oh this might be the one.’”
For the first 20 years of marriage, Jeff was on the road roughly 180 days a year. “The longest was a three-month world tour,” Jeff says. “That was ’89 when the Berlin Wall came down.”
When Joni’s schedule allowed, she would travel with him. It soon became a priority to schedule time to travel together when Jeff wasn’t working. Life on the road can be a grind. “I get paid to travel; I play music for free,” Jeff notes.
“I [told her], ‘I’ve got to let you know, I’m probably going to be on the road four or five months a year.’ And she said, ‘Do you think I want you around all the time? I have a life.’ So I thought, ‘Oh this might be the one.’”
Joni stayed with NBC for 25 years before deciding to retire—though she was far from slowing down. “I’d always loved jewelry, and when I left [NBC], a jewelry designer asked me if I wanted to come to work with her. So I started working downtown in the jewelry district,” she notes.
The two had a small line of jewelry they would sell to stores, and eventually one of those stores made Joni an offer to manage their location. She accepted the offer, but her sights were set on something more.
“I’d wanted to open my own store for a long time, but I thought I was too old,” Joni says. “I thought it had passed me by. And then one day I was thinking, What would you say if somebody your age said to you, ‘I think I’m too old?’ I’d say, ‘What are you, nuts? Go ahead, you’re not dead.’”
Jeff was on board from the get-go. “He’d been telling me for years to open a store,” Joni points out.
Hamilton Butler Jewels carries custom pieces as well as an assortment of designer lines—many of which are exclusive in the South Bay. Additionally, Joni and Shelia work with clients looking to repurpose old jewelry they no longer wear. And while it wasn’t necessarily the intent to primarily collaborate with other women-owned businesses and designers, it’s been a rewarding experience.
“To be part of a community of women supporting each other has been so nice,” Joni says.
Of course, just like the rest of us, life looked a lot different for Joni and Jeff during COVID-19. For the first time in their marriage, Jeff wasn’t touring. And a new tradition was born. “We called it the Sunday COVID Concerts,” Joni says. While Jeff played, Joni made herself comfortable and enjoyed a front-row seat to her own private performance. “[It] was my favorite thing,” she says.
The energy exchange between a live audience and a performer is palpable. Having a shared experience with a crowd, whether at a sporting event or watching an artist on a stage, is powerfully communal. So when the time came to start touring again, the magnitude of the moment was not lost on Jeff.
“The experience was just … the hair’s standing on the back of my neck as I’m talking about it. Because you’re offering what you have on stage, and you’re getting back even more excitement,” he points out.
Hamilton Butler Jewels just wrapped its seventh holiday season, and Jeff’s sought-after sound keeps him in constant demand. As busy as they are individually, they both take time to celebrate each other’s successes.
“Jeff got a call from Herb Alpert last month. He asked a colleague of his, ‘Who’s the best brush player in town? And he was like, ‘Jeff Hamilton.’ So he called Jeff and said, ‘I’ve got a tune, and I need you on it,’” Joni says.
“Everything she’s done, she’s done really well,” Jeff adds. “We both love what we do.”