Chico Hamilton was the quintessential jazz drummer

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School is in session.

Hazy sunlight, arriving after a rainy, romantic September morning, streams into a second-floor classroom that’s been converted into a cramped music workshop. A drummer, an upright bassist, and a guitarist are positioned with their backs to the window. Against a wall in front of them stand three brass and wind players with a female vocalist to the far left. Another cat is crouched by the door with a conga between his knees. And in the corner under the window is a piano that takes up a third of the room with a young man, head bowed, trying his best to tame it.

 

Originally published as “The Master” in Wax Poetics Issue 23, June/July 2007

 

Seated in front of that long, black keyboard is Chico Hamilton, reading a chart on the music stand before him with one hand on his chin and a look of weary concentration etched into his face. It is one day before his eighty-fifth birthday—a landmark that will be celebrated tomorrow with an intimate concert in the Village, and has been counted down to with the release of a staggering four new albums (Heritage, Believe, 6th Avenue Stomp, and Juniflip). Guests on the discs range from rhythm-and-blues royalty Fontella Bass and Shuggie Otis, to jazz vets George Bohannon, Bill Henderson, and Jon Faddis. They also contain some of the last recordings of both jazz trombone stalwart Jimmy Cheatham and Black rock icon Arthur Lee of Love.

Chico Hamilton is a living legend—a revered, self-taught percussion master and nurturing bandleader with over fifty albums to his credit and the distinction of shepherding singular artists—from Charles Lloyd to Larry Coryell—onto the scene. In 1955, after coleading the highly influential Gerry Mulligan Quartet, he formed his first group, the piano-less and racially integrated Chico Hamilton Quintet, featuring reedman Buddy Collette, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith, and cellist Fred Katz. This chamber-jazz outfit hit upon a moody sound that was so innovative and atmospheric, they were featured on camera in the 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success. Hamilton later wrote several more scores, including one for controversial film director Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller Repulsion, then segued into a lucrative sideline of composing radio and television jingles—all the while experimenting bold and wild on now collectible LPs for Columbia, Impulse, Blue Note, Solid State, and Stax. Some of that vinyl sells for two to three hundred dollars today.

So why after all of those storied decades of achievement is Mr. Hamilton subjecting himself to the task of shaping the minds and ears of these youngsters inside this tiny sweatbox at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music on West 13th Street? The New School—a progressive institution founded on the principal of a faculty composed of active, professional musicians within an academic setting—is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Executive Director Martin Mueller’s mandate: “We want our students to be risk takers rather than conformists, creators rather than imitators.” Professor Hamilton has been here making that happen, every semester, since day one.

The chart before Chico, “Rogers Avenue,” is by student-guitarist Justin Matthews, which puts him in the proverbial hot seat. After a run through, Professor Hamilton asks each player to constructively comment on the piece and how it was played. Following the obligatory “it was a’ight” and “hated it,” the conga player suggests slipping into 3/4 time for a passage. When they play it again with that change, it clearly swings harder, but Matthews—locked into his precious arrangement—is skeptical. Chico calmly but firmly states, “The point is it’s open. Everyone has a say—good, bad, or indifferent—so fuck it. We’re allowing you to hear your song several different ways. You’ve got to have an open mind.”

Throughout the workshop, whenever students have questions, Hamilton challenges them to get to the answer themselves by listening and thinking about what they were playing, what they should be playing, and why. After warning the flautist that she’ll never develop chops if she constantly depends on a mic, he perks up, shouts, “Pick a key,” and instantly the room takes wing as the ensemble breaks into a loose but euphoric improvisation. With hand signals, pats to the head, and split-second points to who will be soloing next, Chico gives his little pony a taste of free rein in hopes of cultivating a thoroughbred. It feels like something the man was born to do.

“Music has been very good to me,” he states after class is dismissed. “This is my way to give something back. It takes two things: patience and fortitude.” Asked if he enjoys it, he chuckles softly, “I don’t know, but I’m helping somebody else, which is cool. Because when I was a kid, I was helped, ya dig?”

Gerald Wilson, the legendary jazz arranger, conductor, and composer with whom Chico performed and recorded beginning in the late ’40s, was one of Chico’s early mentors. Wilson composed two numbers for Chico’s album Gong’s East, and Chico re-recorded three of Wilson’s numbers as a tribute on his recent Heritage album: “Viva Tirado,” “Blues for Nya Nya” (which Wilson penned for his pet cat), and “Yard Dog Marzurka.” Reflecting on his old friend, Wilson shares, “Chico Hamilton is a brilliant musician and a man of the community who always does things ‘for the right.’ He’s always moving forward.” As an example, Wilson points out Chico’s role in industry desegregation. “We were both members of the amalgamation group here in Los Angeles at Local 767 [the Black musicians’ union]. Along with Buddy Collette, Chico and I went to Local 47, petitioned, and went through pains to unify the unions. Chico has contributed so much on so many levels, and we are all better off for it.”

 

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Photo courtesy of Joyous Shout

Photo courtesy of Joyous Shout

 

School is in session.

A standing-room-only crowd has filled the upscale nightclub Joe’s Pub. Latecomers stand with backs against the bar, pelvises mashed into railings, or butts scrunched on aisle steps. Lights are low and the vibe is hushed. Those gathered to help Chico Hamilton celebrate his eighty-fifth are treated to seeing the master in action for the first time since his release from the hospital a little over a month ago. With his drums at the front of the stage and flanked by his septet Euphoria, Chico still looks a little fragile but tends to business just the same.

Chico has always been a master mood maker. Where drummers with heavier, flashier, and faster hands—from Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, and the peerless Tony Williams to John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Dennis Chambers—are more often lionized in all walks of music, what has distinguished Hamilton is the perpetual simmer of his swinging musicality, be it with a well-placed stick, brush, or mallet. Playing old favorites as well as new material, Chico gingerly guides his group through bewitching bossas, beatnik blues, nimble-tempo bop, and evocative exotica recalling Latin America, the Motherland, and points East. He even crooned a tune.

“It took me a long time to fully grasp this concept,” Hamilton shares later, “but musicians don’t create music. We create a mood—the groove we want to put the people in. I learned that from Lennie Hayton and Luther Henderson. That’s the way they wrote. They made me completely aware of what music was about via their arrangements.” He also attributes his extra sensitivity as an accompanist and colorist to the years he spent backing singers such as Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and, particularly, Lena Horne. “Playing for singers, you have to have your ears open; you can’t be selfish. In order to be a leader, you have to be a good follower. I used to sit directly behind Lena—never saw her from the front, but I knew her backside! I developed a method. I knew when she was gonna get ready to belt by watching the back of her neck or her hips. She was one hell of an illusionist. She’d raise her arm, and you’d swear she was swaying her hips, but all she did was raise her arm.”

Testifying to Chico’s sensitivity and reminiscing about joining his band, guitarist Larry Coryell comments, “As a leader, Chico was the best. He knew all the details of the music. And because he knew the details, he could fine-tune the sound of the band with specific instructions and very warm encouragement. For example, when the guitar and saxophone were playing ensemble passages, he would tell the saxophone to back off from the mic so it wouldn’t overpower the guitar. That way our small ensemble sounded more like a big band—little tricks of the trade.”

Coryell flashes a smile, then adds, “I’ll also never forget that whenever Chico paid me, he would say, ‘Don’t buy dope.’ ”

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School is in session.

Chico Hamilton is at home…one of them, anyway. He has a house in East Hampton, inside of which he still has the original set of drums he played with Gerry Mulligan. But the home I am visiting this afternoon is “the penthouse” on 45th Street in midtown Manhattan near the U.N. building—poetically fitting because Chico’s music has been pulling cultures together for decades.

A native of Los Angeles, Chico first came to New York in the late ’40s when he was playing with Lena. He got a place in Sugar Hill, way uptown in Harlem. Smack in the heart of Black heaven, life for Chico was beautiful for a while. But after Chico was tailed by a lurking stranger late one night as he was coming home, one of Lena’s managers insisted he move into the Schuyler Hotel on 45th and 6th. “I was the first Black dude to live in midtown in a hotel,” he says. “I was cool about it. Growing up in L.A., I could get along with anyone. I stayed there for years and years. Then, in ’66, a friend of mine in advertising helped me find this place. It was the only apartment building on this block. This block, river to river, is known as Film Row. All the production houses were on this street. I lucked up, and that got me some commercial and film jobs. It just so happened that the penthouse was available. Over the past thirty years, I’ve redone the entire thing.”

The place is filled with memorabilia. A drum kit set up in the living room and another one from the gig last night still in cases by the door ready to roll. There are books of all genres, photo albums, artwork, and vintage vinyl records filling the spaces he’s created on shelves, walls, and under the living room table. As he pulls items out to share, his phone is constantly ringing with friends and family calling to wish him a happy belated birthday and to ask how the gig went. One of the most striking pieces is a photo study that was done on Chico and his family—a photographer’s assignment that captures them in everyday life around Los Angeles and in their home. It’s a priceless, professionally rendered time capsule. Family is of utmost importance to Chico.

When Chico moved to the penthouse, he was at the tail end of a breakthrough six-album stint with Impulse Records. Helmed by Bob Thiele, the label—a jazz-focused subsidiary of ABC-Paramount—usually did one-off recordings with the artists they recorded. Only a handful were given exclusive contracts, most notably John Coltrane. Chico’s first album for the company, 1962’s Passin’ Thru, was a segue record of sorts: another quintet album with the great Charles Lloyd on tenor, Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, bassist Albert Stinson, and trombonist George Bohannon taking over for Garnett Brown. The prolific Lloyd dominated the composing on the six-song album, though the extended “Lady Gabor” by Szabo was the standout. This same group remained intact for the follow-up, Man from Two Worlds, scoring a West Coast radio hit with the original version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower” (which he later rerecorded to greater renown with his own group featuring Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Cecil McBee). This hit secured Chico an exclusive new contract for four more albums. The first, Chic Chic Chico, was a Hollywood homecoming for the leader who flirted with more avant-garde strains in an expanded octet, save for the title track, a soulful sextet piece that introduced Jimmy Woods on tenor (replacing the trombone chair) in dialogue with Lloyd’s flute and Willie Bobo on percussion.

Bobo would prove crucial on the next album, El Chico, which included a song that would transcend the realm of jazz to become an international dance classic. That song was a studio jam called “Conquistadores,” featuring an expanded percussion lineup of Chico on drums, Willie Bobo on timbales, and Victor Pantoja on congas. The original incarnation of Santana used to close their show with a rendition of the song every night during the era. And Chico rerecorded it himself with members of New Orleans rock band Little Feat on The Master, a one-off album for Stax Records’ Enterprise label in 1973 (facilitated by Chico’s son Forest, head of the company’s short-lived Stax West offices).

Chico lights up at the memory of the original with Bobo y Pantoja. “That was a rhythm section! We even did a Latin Dixie record…some shit Bob Thiele put together for ABC. Dixie is a two-beat thing and we just put the Latin thing over the top of it. Nobody had done it before. We had no idea if it would work. We just walked in and did it.” Reminiscing on Bobo, Chico continues, “He was a dynamite dude…and played his ass off! He was a very good percussionist, period, not just Latin percussion. And he was deeply rooted in swing in regards to his Latin aspect. I think we first met when he was playing with Cal Tjader up north in San Francisco. He always came to New York to do things. He was never a member of my band, but did a lot of work with me.”

Addressing Bob Thiele’s role throughout the Impulse proceedings (he actually shares a writing credit for “Conquistadores”), Chico states, “What made him hip, as far as I was concerned, was he just sat in the booth, smoked his pipe, and didn’t have shit to say…which was cool. He never forgot why he hired you. He had a thing about letting guys who knew what they were doing do what they did. That’s why Trane was so successful there. As a matter of fact, at that time, there were only four or five of us who were actually signed to the label—Shirley Scott, Trane…very few.” Was there a sense of family or camaraderie amongst the acts on Impulse? “Unfortunately, we rarely did meet each other,” says Chico. “We were always on the road. I used to spend forty-two weeks a year on the road. But all the jazz cats knew everybody, because we all followed each other on the club circuit—Cannonball, Miles, Trane, me…that part was dynamite.”

Following The Further Adventures of El Chico, Hamilton made his farewell album for Impulse in 1966 with The Dealer, a classic in that it marks the recording debut of guitarist Larry Coryell, who at the time was playing in a rock band called the Free Spirits. Recalling his indoctrination into the Hamilton fold, Coryell states, “I was a big fan of Gabor Szabo, so I befriended him, and he became a mentor to me. When he was preparing to leave, he recommended me to the group. The Dealer was my first recording date and the hugest thrill of my life up to that point, especially when [bassist] Richard Davis walked into the room followed by [saxophonist] Archie Shepp. The other saxophone player, Arnie Lawrence, became a very good friend of mine.”

As much as fans may have romanticized notions about what it means to an artist to be on a watershed record label, Chico basically offers: “It was a cool place to land after the close out of Pacific Jazz. Impulse was selling my records and getting them out there.” Chico’s contribution to the label is substantiated by the fact that he is one of only three artists that got the double-LP “greatest hits” treatment, along with Gabor Szabo and, of course, Coltrane.

A move to Solid State Records (a progressive division of United Artists) gave Chico the opportunity to produce himself for the first time. The first of the two albums for this company was 1968’s The Gamut. “As a leader, I didn’t know much about the record business,” explains Chico. “Once you do learn, it’s a shocker—all the shit that goes down is unbelievable. That album was very unusual for the times. With rock music, everything was turning electric. I wanted to try to get that youthful ‘in’ sound using instruments you still had to put some wind into! I used four trombones, two saxes, a female vocalist, drums, bass, two saxes, and a flute. After first rehearsal, the sound was so fantastic we decided to leave it like it was. We treated this sound as though we were using electronic instruments through a mixing technique.”

The second Solid State album, 1969’s The Head Hunters, found Chico turning another corner with a quintet that featured future New York studio giant Eric Gale (then Gayle) and some far-out violin work from Ray Nance. Highlights include the title track (an eerie, wordless vocal piece reminiscent of Quincy Jones’s “Rack ’Em Up” from The Pawnbroker score), the laid-back swinger “Conglomerates,” the twisted bop of the closer “Them’s Good Ole Days,” and a spoken-word number featuring Jimmy Cheatham titled “Ol’ Man.” “On most of my albums, practically all of the tracks are one-takes,” Chico states. “I don’t rehearse in the studio. That’s the way I came up. You have to be at your peak to record. Working with ‘Pres’ [sax legend Lester Young] or Nat Cole, you wouldn’t even get in a studio unless you were ready. But I make sure to always let my musicians shine. On solos, they have the liberty to play what they feel. As long as my ensembles are together, when solo time comes, you got it! That keeps it loose.”

It was back to Bob Thiele for the Flying Dutchman one-off El Exigente (The Demanding One), an explosive live quartet album from 1970 that comes closest to capturing Chico in full-on plugged-in jazz-rock fusion mode. The band featured Chico’s future New School jazz department cofounder Arnie Lawrence on electric alto saxophone, Bob Mann on electric guitar, and Steve Swallow on electric bass.

This was followed by two albums on Blue Note, beginning with 1975’s Peregrinations, a relatively more commercial-leaning disc reflecting the label’s shift to soul-jazz fusion. The album was overseen by the ever-so-persuasive Dr. George Butler and produced by Keg Johnson. Most unorthodox was the presence of the ubiquitous Jerry Peters added on (gasp) keyboards. Coincidentally, Peters had played in groups at Dorsey High School with Chico’s son, Forest, who was (to hear him tell it) a pretty good drummer himself. Rounding out the modern sound of this album were guitarists Barry Finnerty and Joe Beck, synthesizer specialist Charlotte Politte, and studio vocal group the Waters (a family quartet that went on to become Blue Note’s first and only vocal group signing). On the title track, Chico fuses his hypnotic, signature melodic tom-tom pattern (used in everything from “El Toro” on El Chico to the appropriately titled “Ballad for Mallets” on last year’s Believe) to a soul groove, with vocals and horns casting spells of their own on top. Overall, Peregrinations takes the experiments with voice heard on The Gamut to a more buffed and unified plateau of production, and points the way to the lounge, electronica, and rare-groove scenes that are so prevalent now…thirty years later.

The second Blue Note album, 1976’s Chico Hamilton and the Players, featured his most Afrocentric group to date: “Black” Arthur Blythe on alto and soprano sax (who is sublime on “Adair”), conga player Abdullah, Steve Turre on electric bass and bass trombone (he and Chico cut a duet improvisation titled “Sex Is a Cymbal” on the last day of these sessions), Will Connell Jr. on alto, and a nineteen-year-old Rodney Jones on guitar. The move to Blue Note was at the behest of Michael Cuscuna, and it is worth noting that though many artists there were doing more overtly radio-friendly recordings, Chico retained his exploratory edge.

Several more fine albums followed on labels like Koch and Soul Note, but Chico does not take all of the credit for them. “I’m very fortunate, because most of the time I’ve surrounded myself with people who feel the same way that I do about making music, which is being honest about it. Regardless of era, if a musician is sincere, they will make music—whatever it takes. Along those lines, musicians don’t change. Their strengths begin to arrive in themselves when they are given an opportunity to become strong. The idea is to become a composer on your solos—to be musical. So I play to their weakness to make them more prolific players.” Asked if he has to do more of that now than in the past, he says, “Not necessarily. From Charles Lloyd to you name it, they all started about the same. Once they found themselves, they became unusually talented people. I am grateful to have given them an opportunity to grow.”

The timelessness of Chico Hamilton’s music is evident in how De La Soul lifted a cut from Drumfusion for the song “4 More” (on Stakes Is High), how Mark de Clive-Lowe remixed “El Toro” for the DJ compilation Impulsive, and from the list of outstanding artists that have lined up to take part in a “by invitation only” series of remixes for Chico’s MySpace page. Chico participated in a cyber-remix in collaboration with Mudd (aka Paul Murphy of London-based dance ensemble Akwaaba) titled “Kerry’s Caravan” (an edit of which graces Chico’s Juniflip). And this year will see the release of a remix project on the SoulFeast label, coheaded by former Blue Note Records executive Brian Bacchus and John Claussell (both DJs). It will include a dreamy reworking of “Mysterious Maiden,” a Wayne Henderson/Sylvia St. James composition that was originally on Chico’s Elektra album, Nomad (which also featured another international dance smash, “Strut”). “I’m very complimented that these young artists would consider doing anything with something of mine,” Chico states. The man even counts rockers Eric Schenkman of the Spin Doctors and John Popper of Blues Traveler as his former New School students. “I’m flattered and grateful for all of it,” he continues. “But when it comes to me, I’m only as good as my last tune.”

Chico has been known to pop into hip clubs just to vibe and hear what’s going on in today’s music. But beyond research, he’s not much interested. “You know what I do like,” he says, “is country music. I used to play it coming up in L.A. and even recorded with some country acts. Music is music. If it’s good, it’s good. I don’t classify it.”

Caught up in his reflections, Chico adds, “I’ve always considered myself blessed to be in the right place at the right time. If you had some chops and could keep time, you were cool. I also came up at the right time for the people who invented this music. I was honored to have innovators like Basie, Ellington, and Lester Young as inspirations and friends. Jo Jones was my hero. Art Blakey completely turned me around. And my contemporaries Max Roach and Roy Haynes are dynamite. We all approach the instrument in a different way, which is cool.” Haynes presented Chico with the supreme honor of an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2004.

As a rule, Chico doesn’t spend much time on nostalgia or past glories. Like Miles, he’s made it a point to keep thinking ahead to the next thing: “There’s nothing wrong with living in the past, but, on the other hand, everything is wrong with living in the past. All we have in life is one moment to the next. The old moments are gone and are never coming back. The bottom line is all you’re ultimately going to do is have a collection of memories. So you might as well have as many good ones as you can. I’m thankful to still be here making my music. I still have things I want to express.”

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School’s out.

As Chico takes a slow stroll around the corner to one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants for a birthday dinner with family and a handful of friends, he is greeted warmly every few steps he takes. It’s as if he’s the mayor of 45th Street. Shop owners step out to the sidewalk to shake his hand, tell him he’s looking great and they’re so glad to see him out. Chico beams but not as if this is an irregular occurrence. Life is good…at least for him. He’s earned himself a reserve of sparkling karma by being of service to others and by remaining steadfast to what he dubs the Church of Chico—that is, steady groovin’ to the beat of his own inner drummer.

 

A. Scott Galloway is a Los Angeles–based R&B and jazz music journalist with over two hundred liner notes and CD production credits, including Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection, the Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man.

 
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