Octojazzarian profile: chico hamilton

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is drummer Chico Hamilton.

by arnold jay smith

               Chico Hamilton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When I called this vastly influential drummer, band leader, educator, composer he was busy at work saying that he was between two chords. “Monday and Tuesday I’m giving my finals [at the New School] so can we talk later?”

My personal ills flow off me when I hear about OctoJAZZarian activity like that.

Those two chords were for not one but two CDs on his Joyous Shout label, one with trio and the other for his ensemble Euphoria. All sans piano. When I first heard Chico as a leader in the 1950s I presumed that he got that piano-less concept from an early boss, Gerry Mulligan. Chico’s explanation was simpler. “All the pianists I wanted were unavailable, especially Gerry Wiggins, the ultimate accompanist; so I went without one,” he explained.

Being a perfectionist, Chico developed his own sound with unison guitar and sax. Some of the guitarists he introduced --sometimes playing in tandem-- were Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Jim Hall, Dennis Budimir, Howard Roberts, John Pisano, and current long-time sideman Cary DiNegris. The saxophonists included Eric Dolphy, Buddy Collette, Charles Lloyd, Paul Horn, Arthur Blythe and Arnie Lawrence, the founder of the New School’s jazz program. Other sidemen include bassist Carson Smith and trombone virtuoso Steve Turre. For so many of these artists, Chico’s leadership was a springboard to their stardom.

Never standing still, Chico introduced classical cello to the jazz canon in the person of Fred Katz, later replaced by Nate Gershman. Hamilton/cello appearance in the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day solidified the efficacy of the cello sound in small group jazz. (Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones and Percy Heath were also cello antecedents but they were bass-doublers. Percy said that his was even tuned like a bass. “I didn’t want to learn another instrument all over again,” he once told me.)

Speaking of filmdom, Chico’s group was a foil in Sweet Smell of Success (‘57) with drugs being planted on his guitarist, played by Martin Milner, to get him arrested and away from the Burt Lancaster character’s sister. (The Lancaster role was a thinly disguised Walter Winchell. Chico says the young woman was based on Winchell's daughter.) The Lancaster character had better plans for his sister than a jazz musician. (Has anything changed?) The film is classic black & white film noir with the added thrill of seeing a fine jazz group, and the ending in an abandoned Times Square.

I like to say that the best things that have happened for me have happened to me. Chico puts it much more simply. “Everything that has happened in my life has been by accident.” He claims that all those now legendary or near-legendary players in his bands just wandered into his life. There were moments, however, that “the word went out that I needed [sidemen] and they contacted me or I contacted them.” True, serendipity played a role, but not the kind you might think.

“I always considered myself as being blessed, he told me at his United Nations neighborhood penthouse. "Music is God’s will and God’s will will be done. This is my reward.” Reflecting on some of those blessings we spoke of a particular concert on a steamy afternoon at the Singer Bowl (now Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadow) where the Chico Hamilton group boasted three guitar players. “I remember that gig,” Chico mused. “There was Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo and Mike Santana. It was the first time that I had played before such a large crowd [80-90 thousand]. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Arthur Ashe. At the time he was the only black athlete to tell the kids to stay in school and get an education. And they are still not doing it.” We talked of some of the inarticulate sports spokesmen who sound like they are on the corner. “They are supposed to be role models. Instead they talk of other things, but not education.”

At earlier times Chico Hamilton was an accompanying drummer to such luminaries as Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and on a now-famous multiple percussion ensemble recording with Tony Bennett. (It was Tony’s first time as producer.) But it was with Lena Horne (1947-55) that things began to take shape.

Chico spoke of the famous piano-less concept. He had decided not to go to Europe with Lena but stayed Stateside with the Charlie Barnet band. “Gerry (Mulligan) came to my apartment in L.A. where I was rehearsing my quartet and liked what he heard.” There was no room for a piano in his apartment. The vastly influential and oft-imitated Gerry Mulligan Quartet was formed from that nucleus: Mulligan, Chico, Bob Whitlock, bass, and trumpeter, later vocalist, Chet Baker.

If I am pressed to the wall I would say that this was the group that most personified the “cool west coast” sound of jazz in the 1950s. And the subtle, brushes-emphasis, soft, in-the-background, almost effortless drumming of Chico Hamilton was the rhythm sound. His opposite number was Art Blakey, the east coast “hard bopper.”

It was Baker who most impressed Chico. “Chet and Miles were two of the most handsome dudes on the scene,” he said. “The last time I saw ‘Chesnake’ [Chet’s given name was Chesney] was in Amsterdam.” Baker had moved there due to easy access for his drug habit. He died there in 1988. “Chet looked like a thousand year-old man,” Hamilton recalled.

I remember Chet in his prime, a young man “pretty” of face, voice and tone, and later when he would periodically return to NYC –Strykers on the Upper West Side and Highlights in Jazz at NYU-- looking more cadaver-like each successive time. He died having fallen (?) from a hotel window. “I was in Paris when I got the news. I don’t know anything about the circumstances,” Chico offered. “He might have fallen considering his condition. He didn’t have a vein left.”

After his stint with Mulligan, Hamilton went back with Lena. By this time (1955) Chico knew the concept of what he wanted his sound to be. His recordings for West Coast’s Pacific Jazz behind him, he moved east to Columbia under the aegis of George Avakian, then to Reprise. The piano never entered into his ken.

“The guitar’s sustaining power makes me able to do the things that I do, rhythmically and melodically.” He pointed out that his drum kit is not like others. “I play low on a relatively small set, drums and cymbals well below eye level. My arms get tired playing up here [he gesticulated] so I play down here.” His bass drum is almost a miniature. “Did you know that I was the first to play a small bass drum? It’s actually a floor tom turned on its side.” Actually, I had noticed from the get-go that all the drummers who followed Chico with Mulligan –particularly Larry Bunker and Dave Bailey— also played the smaller bass drum.

“If you are not comfortable and you start to hurt something’s got to give. And the first thing that goes is the tempo. So it’s easier to play down.”

Uniqueness in the Hamilton sound may also emanate from the fact that he makes his own drums. He laments that he was unable to buy skin heads during WWII so now he buys his own skins and makes the heads. Also due to that calf shortage, as an economy move Chico resorted to using one-headed drums. “I was the first to do that, too” he said matter-of-factly. Single-headed drums are now standard fare for rock drummers who want thud not reverb. He received a citation for that innovation from former New York State Governor Pataki.

Drums aren’t the only thing he’s built; how about an estate house in the Hamptons? “I built that sucker from scratch.” How about an advertising jingle company? “I was working with Lena Horne in London and working on Roman Polanski’s film ‘Repulsion’ when I got a call from Mike Wollman of Grey Advertising who asked me if I wanted to do a commercial. Seems that he had heard my work from the ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’ Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t even know what a commercial was.” He was to write music for a cigarette called Spring.

There was a great deal of “modern” jazz being used in commercials at that time, especially in cigarette and beer spots. The music was considered so hip that the hucksters figured the identification would sell their product. Chico had fallen into liquid gold. “Not only did I produce it, I wrote it, arranged it and recorded it.

“When I found out how much they were paying I jumped at it. Do you realize one spot paid me more that a year’s worth of gigs?” He stayed on Madison Ave. for ten years, but never stopped playing and recording. “I was the first to use small groups in commercials and in bands when tv was live.”

And then there were the movies.

About Sweet Smell of Success, Chico remembers that they stalled for six months, “making sure we were clean.” The film, you might remember, was about drugs being planted in the guitarist’s coat. “The guitar scenes were innovative,” Chico said. “They alternately cut between John Pisano’s hands on the fret board and Marty Milner’s face when his hands were at his side. It worked pretty well, I think. One time I put my hands on the fret board and cracked everyone up. It stayed in, too. The royalties keep comin’”

You can’t be more unique than unique. Bill Cosby, who is known for his keen jazz ears, had heard “Blue Sands” on Jazz On A Summer’s Day and wanted to use it. But he didn’t call Chico. “He tried three other drummers, and they still didn’t get it right. He thinks I’m cute.”

Another TV celeb, the late Ed Bradley, was hosting an early New School Beacons In Jazz Awards ceremony. Chico’s printed bio was lost and I was asked to brief Bradley. I proceeded to delineate the aforementioned sidemen. Not only did Bradley memorize the names, but he stepped to the podium and gave a biographical sketch of Chico as though he had known him all his life. “I didn’t know him at all.” Chico told me. But Ed Bradley knew Chico Hamilton.

Our conversation had come full circle. “Remember I told you that I was blessed,” he began. “Twice in my life I experienced a Zen thing. I became my drums. I can’t begin to tell you the feeling; it was overwhelming. I felt it throughout my whole body. ‘Zen for you yesterday and here you come today,’” he quipped. I changed the subject. He’s somewhat disappointed as to the way the New School has turned out. “It’s become academia. The kids don’t know what jazz is all about. [Speaking of the New School] I pray for Arnie [Lawrence] every day.” The two met at Jim and Andy’s, a musician’s hangout beneath A&R studios in NYC. “Arnie was on the ‘Tonight Show’ band. I immediately put him into one of my commercials. I took him all over Europe.”

His affiliation with AFM/NYC local 802 is another story. “For years I didn’t own my publishing rights the way I do now. Now I can build up some pension because everything has been in Joyous Shout for some 20 years.

Chico Hamilton is at one with his universe. “There are still more good days than bad.”

What he wants for his next birthday? “Another one.”

Regrets? “Why bother with them?”

His future? “Keep on doing what I’m doing, playing, teaching.”

About television: “Fortunately, we’re not going to be around when all that stuff comes home to roost.”


March 03, 2008 · 5 comments

  • 1 Bob Schwartz // Mar 04, 2008 at 06:57 AM
    Great interview/article! Chico's Pacific Jazz group from the 50s with Jim Hall and Buddy Collette and his Impulse group from the 60s with Gabor Szabo and Charles Lloyd were my favorites. I still listen to those groups.
  • 2 Ernie Pineault // Mar 04, 2008 at 05:58 PM
    Chico-One of my alltime favorites since my teens along with Shelly Manne.
  • 3 Ralph Miriello // Mar 06, 2008 at 10:38 PM
    It is always good to listen to the elder statesmen of jazz about their vivid and copious recollections of the various phases of the most exciting era of jazz music. We often find nuggets of information that we would otherwise lose forever.My compliments.
  • 4 Miami Mo // Mar 12, 2008 at 09:48 PM
    Hey AJ, remember in 1976 at Jazzmania when you hosted the "Meet the Musician" series and Chico was considered one of the elder statesmen? hmmm.. what's 32 years beyond elder statesman called? Agelessness?
  • 5 arnold jay smith // Mar 22, 2008 at 03:46 PM
    Hey Mo: I do indeed remember those. I still have the poster for the 1st 4 live interviews. I hear Borough of Manhattan Community College is feting Jazzmania as one of their Lost Jazz Shrines. Regards.