Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton (1921-2013): An Appreciation

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NEA jazz master Chico Hamilton, whose career highlights included stints with Lester Young and leading his own celebrated West Coast-jazz band, has died. The legendary drummer was 92.

Born in Los Angeles as Forestorn Hamilton, Hamilton went to high school with future fellow jazz greats Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, before getting his start as an in-demand sideman for the likes of Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne.

Hamilton started his first band in 1955, helping to establish a cool, urbane new sound (eventually it became known as “West Coast jazz”) with a group that featured guitarist Jim Hall. Over time, Hamilton’s group would include Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Eric Dolphy, among others.

His group grew to such stature that Hamilton and Co. were featured in the 1957 motion picture Sweet Smell of Success, alongside Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Hamilton also did the soundtrack for the 1965 thriller Repulsion, directed by Roman Polanski.

Later, Hamilton worked with Larry Coryell on the signature soul-jazz release The Dealer, and with the Euphoria ensemble into the 1980s and ’90s. Named an NEA jazz master nine years ago, Hamilton taught for years at the Parsons New School of Jazz and at the Mannes Collage of Music.

His most recent release, 2011 Revelation, was issued in time for a 90th birthday celebration. Hamilton talked to us then about his stirring career, offering lasting insights into one of jazz music’s last remaining mid-century lions — and how his career would eventually impact a series of next-generation rock ‘n’ rollers …

NICK DERISO: You’ve been wildly productive over the last decade, issuing some 10 albums despite being in your 80s. A lot of people would love to know your secret.
CHICO HAMILTON: I ain’t got nothing else to do! All of this is very rewarding, but it’s what I do. I think the thing about music is, God’s will be done. That’s the way I feel.

NICK DERISO: Schoolmates from your youth included Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. Was there a competitive streak there, later on? Did you feel the desire to try to top them musically?
CHICO HAMILTON: No, we were never competitors. We all tried to play together, and get a sound going. There was no such thing as being competitive. We wanted to get together and form orchestras. We were just trying to make good music.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Chico Hamilton goes in-depth on working with the underrated singer Lena Horne, the lasting joys of Jimmy Lunceford and the genesis of the legendary piano-less Gerry Mulligan Quartet.]

NICK DERISO: You helped bring Eric Dolphy to wider notice. Describe him for those who missed out on his shooting star of a career.
CHICO HAMILTON: You heard him, right? So, you know how special he was.

NICK DERISO: You were a critical early influence on rockers like Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, Chris Wood of Traffic and Buddy Miles of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. You were also associated with the Allman Brothers Band after Gregg called out your name from the stage on the classic Live at the Fillmore East album. Are you proud of your impact on rock music?
CHICO HAMILTON: I’m proud just to be alive! (Laughs.) I like all kinds of music. When I play music, first of all — I don’t play music for people. I don’t play for people. People are fickle. I play music for music’s sake. I believe all that music should be played well, extremely well, regardless of what form it takes — regardless of whether it’s rock, pop or so-called jazz.

NICK DERISO: We’ve seen a host of soul, R&B and hip hop acts build hit songs off tracks they lifted from your original songs. How do you feel about that?
CHICO HAMILTON: That’s what it’s all about. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. The only thing I regret is that the money they make today is unbelievable. (Laughs.) Otherwise, I’m not interested in audiences. I like to I say I don’t play music for people. So, if it’s out there, it’s out there.

NICK DERISO: Most of the songs on Revelation are original, and you’ve surrounded yourself by and large with a youthful group of musical collaborators. That seems to run counter to the sense of nostalgia that has taken hold in jazz. Does it bother you that so many younger players are so focused on the past?
CHICO HAMILTON: An original sound is what I am still trying to express with this group — and all of my groups. Man, all you have going for you is your own sound.

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