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Chico Hamilton

CHICO HAMILTON had his first brush with Hollywood in 1957. Riding high on the popularity of his adventurous quintet of the time reedist/flutist Paul Horn, bassist Carson Smith, cellist Fred Katz, guitarist John Pisano - he and the band were case in Sweet Smell of Success, a gritty black-and-white film about a ruthless Walter Winchell-style York City tabloid-gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, played by a dour Burt Lancaster, who wields his power like a club. The plot of this sharp-edged media satire thickens when J.J.'s younger sister, played by Susan Harrison, begins dating the clean-cut young jazz guitarist in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Steve Dallas, played by Martin Milner.
The film was a landmark for its time, a model of street-smart cinematic cynicism that preceded Network by almost 20 years. And in choosing the Chico Hamilton Quintet as its in-house group for the nightclub scenes, the filmmakers not only demonstrated unusually hip taste in music, they also proved to be quite progressive in depicting an interracial band on-screen.

But then, the Chico Hamilton Quintet had always been progressive in that regard since its inception in 1955: the original lineup featured guitarist Jim Hall, reedist Buddy Collette, bassist Carson Smith and cellist Fred Katz.
"Being a mixed group was not too cool out there at that time," Hamilton says in his penthouse apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "We played our first gigs at a club on the boardwalk in Long Beach, which at that time was really redneck country. Plus the fact that the kind of music we played was so different made it a very unique, almost unheard of experience. But man, it worked."

As word of mouth spread about the new band playing a savvy brand of chamber-jazz on the boardwalk in Long Beach, the in-crowd soon followed. And gradually the nature of the club itself changed dramatically. "The first gig we had, man, you wouldn't believe. There was nothing but sailors and sawdust on the floor. You couldn't get no funkier than this joint. And can you imagine us going in there with a cello, flute, guitar, bass and drums? We had the gig for a week and that turned into two weeks and then went on into three weeks. Next thing we know, people were coming in from LA to check us out. Within a month, the whole thing changed around. They remodeled this place: and it looked great. The joint was packed every night."

The enterprising club owner eventually put in radio equipment and the group began broadcasting every night, which helped spread the word about this exciting new West Coast phenomenon, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. "All of a sudden, I get a call from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records," Hamilton recalls. "He was interested in signing us. He came down to see us on a Wednesday night but Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz had come in the night before and signed us right away. So by the time Neshui got there, we already made a deal with Pacific Jazz. Neshui regretted it because at that time Atlantic had already established a sound with the Modern Jazz Quartet and they wanted us on their label also."

Following in the wake of the quintet's early successes on record, Hamilton soon became closely associated with "West Coast jazz." "The original phrase 'East Coast/West Coast jazz' started is a publicity stunt," he explains. 'A publicist for a nightclub here in New York, Basin Street, first used that phrase. I was opening at the club in the summer of 1961 with Max Roach and to get something started publicity-wise, they billed it as an East Coast vs. West Coast kind of thing and then Down Beat magazine played it up real big. That's really how that got started."

In retrospect, Hamilton says he was never bothered by the term West Coast jazz "I don't resent it, man, and I'm certainly not bitter about it. Being pissed off is a total waste of energy. So I could care less about it because I feel I'm swinging just as hard whether I'm in New York or in California."

At 81, Chico Hamilton is still swinging with youthful vigor and old school panache. The elder statesman of the jazz drumming elite -- Max Roach is 77, Roy Haynes is 75, Elvin Jones is 74 -- he appears remarkably fit and plays with a focused intensity and suppleness that belies his age. On Foreststorn (Koch) Hamilton's given first name and the name he passed on to his late son -- Chico grooves with authority while coloring creatively on the kit in the company of his band Euphoria, featuring electric bassist Paul Ramsey, alto saxist/flutist Erik Lawrence, tenor saxist Evan Schwam and electric guitarist Cary DeNigris. This killer quintet made a series of consecutive one-nighters this past summer through the New York area to promote the new album (which also features guest appearances from such notable Hamilton alumni as Arthur Blythe, Eric Person and Steve Turre, along with two former students of Chico's from The New School in New York City who have gone on to successful careers in the pop industry -- harmonica ace John Popper from Blues Traveler and guitarist Eric Schenkman from The Spin Doctors. Their mini-tour culminated with an outdoor 80th birthday bash at Lincoln Center on Aug. 17 (although Chico's actual birthday wasn't until Sept. 21).

At the gig I caught at the Recreation Pier in Yonkers, Hamilton and Euphoria thrilled the crowd with an exhilarating set of originals along with one nostalgic Ellington medley. A consummate pro who learned the ropes of the business from working as a young man with the likes of Lester Young, Slim Gaillard, T-Bone Walker, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and the Duke himself (he played a few Los Angeles gigs in Ellington's band at the ripe old age of 16), Hamilton entertained his appreciative audience with old-school charm and grace, at one point holding the microphone with one hand to sing a rousing "Take the 'A' Train" while keeping time with the other hand and two feet.

"I honestly consider myself as being blessed," says the ebullient octogenarian. "I'm still here and I'm able to do it. I'm in shape to play mentally and physically. And I'm playing with a dynamite group of young players who are as enthusiastic about making good music as I am. That's my reward, you know? And I'll be able to do this until I'm over, which is cool."

Foreststorn "Chico" Hamilton began his drum journey as a teenager in Los Angeles, where he played in a band with schoolmates Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and Jack Kelso. Following short stints with Ellington and Lionel Hampton, he hooked up with Slim Gaillard in 1941, ultimately recording his first session at the age of 16 with the zany progenitor of the jive patois "vous." As Chico recalls, "I was a local boy. The older guys like Oscar Bradley and Lee Young (Lester's brother) were the number one drummers in LA. at the time and I was the up-and-coming drummer, so I'd just hang out and try to get gigs. Slim heard me play someplace and he gave me the gig, and I stayed with him for almost a year in a trio with Slam Stewart on bass. Slim was a genius. Man, he was just amazing! He would play the piano with his feet, with the back of his hands, his knuckles. He would play guitar, sing in eight different languages, and everything was spontaneous. He never planned anything; he just went. It was unbelievable, man. Very, very talented man; very funny and very sincere.

"Last time I saw him was maybe a couple of years before he passed (in 1991). It was in Europe. I was doing one of those George Wein packages and he was on it too. I didn't know he was going to be on the show; he didn't know I was going to be on the show. We got on the bus ... hey man, he saw me, we saw each other ... he cried, broke out in tears."

Shortly after his stint-oreeney with Slim, Hamilton made sessions in 1942 with Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young, the latter a particularly rich experience for the impressionable young drummer. "Pres was beautiful, man. People were in awe of him. I started smoking Tareyton cigarettes because he smoked them. And playing-wise, he was just phenomenal. When people first heard him back in the early days with Basie they thought he sounded like a little girl or a sissy because of the robust sound of Bean and Hawk, those guys [Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins]. But in a short period of time, man, people got accustomed to hearing Pres' sound and that became the most beautiful sound of the tenor. Plus his lines! Oh man! (He sings a famous Lester riff) Cat could swing his ass off! Other than Louis Armstrong, he was the only player, as far as I'm concerned, who knew how to dance on one note and swing a hole in your head.

"When Pres left Basie (in 1942) and came to LA, he joined his brother Lee's band but when he got ready to record he gave me the hit," he continues. "It was around that time that Pres introduced me to Roy Haynes. He says, 'I want you two ladies to meet. Miss Haynes, Miss Hamilton.' He was a funny cat but very sensitive ...wouldn't harm a fly. Pres invented a whole lot of phrases that only hip people knew about ('Bells!' and 'Ding-dong' signaling approval; 'No eyes' indicating reluctance. And he would never curse. He wouldn't say motherf...er. He'd say, 'You dirty, stinking Tommy Tucker.' He'd use phrases like that."

After a hitch in the service, Hamilton came back onto the LA scene in 1945 "When I first came out I joined Floyd Ray's big band," he recalls. Hampton Hawes was playing piano and the twins - Addison and Art Farmer - were in the band. And we went on the road with Sugar Chile Robinson, who was a midget kid piano player. The emcee of the show was a kid by the name of Sammy Davis Jr. He was in the Will Mastin Trio with his father and uncle. So I was in the rhythm section behind that trio and also for the big band and we toured around as a package. And basically, I was strictly keeping time."

Shortly after hitting the road with that package, Hamilton would have his bebop epiphany. "Before I went into the service I was a straightahead Jo Jones-style drummer," he explains. "That was the only direction I was going in. Fortunately, I swung pretty good so I worked a lot. But when I came back from the service, the first dude I heard playing bop was Art Blakey. Man, he turned me around completely! He was in Billy Eckstine's band with Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. Man, we heard that band in Oakland and I had never, never in my life heard anybody play drums like that, dropping them bombs and everything. I'm telling you, man, Blakey's concept turned me completely around. When you're coming from ding-ding-da-ding-da-da-ding to this thing, where you're dancing with the bass drum and dancing with your left hand and keeping the time going at the same time and playing that strong-man! It was something else; another world."

Hamilton immediately tried to incorporate some of those avant-bop tendencies onto his own gig with the Will Mastin Trio, but met with considerable resistance from the group's patriarch. "The next morning after I heard Blakey I went to the theater for the first show, which was at 11 o'clock. So I'm playing the gig, keeping time and all of a sudden I decided I'm gonna try to drop a bomb, right? Well, I did that and the old man, Will Mastin, stopped dancing. I mean, he froze! And he looked at me and said, 'What the f... are you doing?' When we got done with the show he said, 'Come in my dressing room, young man, I'm gonna talk to you about something.' And he says, 'Man, you been playing really nice for us. What are you doing all that stuff for? You don't wanna play like that.' But man, I was already too far gone to turn back."

Hamilton went on to become the house drummer at Billy Berg's, the popular Los Angeles nightspot where every major jazz artist from New York eventually came through, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (with whom he later would record). There followed an off and on association with singing star Lena Horne from 1948 to 1956. "One year 1195211 didn't go to Europe with Lena and was playing with Charlie Barnet's band locally," he recalls. "Gerry Mulligan used to come in and hang out every night and check out the band. And man, he was really on his ass at that time-busted, no money, no nothing. Anyway, we became friends. I'd bring him home, Helen, my wife would make dinner for him, feed him. And he decided he wanted to start playing again and get a group together. He found Chet Baker and bassist Bob Whitlock and myself and we started rehearsing. And it all started in my living room out there in LA"

That piano less quartet recorded in 1952 and had immediate success, launching Mulligan and Baker into jazz stardom and bringing Hamilton his first bit of national recognition. As Hamilton sees it, "We were four guys in the right place at the right time, and it happened for us."

On the strength of those Mulligan Quartet recordings, Pacific jazz head Dick Bock agreed to give Chico his first shot as a band leader. "That's when I recorded for the first time with my trio I got George Divider, who was playing bass with me in Lena's band, and I also got Howard Roberts on guitar. And that was the first time that guitar, bass and drums were featured as solo instruments on a record. Before that time we were just a rhythm section. And the record was very successful. People dug it." Hamilton left Horne's group in 1958 and came to New York, but he returned to Los Angeles in 1960 when his mother became ill. "When I got back LA, it dawned on me that I had changed. I had grown-mentally, physically and musically. Because under the direction and the tutelage that I had gotten from Lenny Hayden, Lena's husband, I learned what composing and orchestration was all about. I learned about creating moods and movement with music."

Over the years, Hamilton not only honed his compositional and arranging skills to a high degree, he pushed the envelope on creativity and risk-taking. Along the way, he also developed a keen eye for up-and-coming talent. A startling number of major players have come through the ranks of Hamilton's bands, from Buddy Collette and Jim Hall (1955) to Paul Horn (1956-1957), Eric Dolphy (19581959), Ron Carter (1959). Charles Lloyd (1961-1963), Gabor Szabo (1961-1965), Albert Stinson (1961-1965), Sadao Watanabe (1965), Charlie Mariano (1966), Larry Coryell (1966), Arnie Lawrence (1966), Richard Davis (1966), Steve Potts (1967), John Abercrombie (1970), Lowell George and Paul Barrere of Little Feat (1973), Arthur Blythe (1975-1977), Steve Turre (on electric bass! from 1975-1977), Rodney Jones (1976) and Eric Person (1988-1992).

"When young guys come on my band I know what their weaknesses are," says Hamilton. "What I do in turn is I play to their weakness so they become stronger. So you're giving them an opportunity to find themselves. They in turn begin to blossom. And one of the ways to let them find themselves is to encourage them to have no hesitation about reaching for something or trying to play something. Bad notes don't bother me at all, especially if you're trying."

That philosophy also carries over to Hamilton's approach in the studio. "These are all one-takes on Foreststorn," he proudly announces. "Regardless of whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, this is me. This is what I sound like at this time. And I've always recorded under that philosophy. If we record a track and it felt good, I don't even wanna hear the playback. My attitude is, 'Let's go to the next thing.' I mean, if the feeling is there, why mess with it? That's the most important thing-capturing a feeling and getting a groove on a record. There's a lot of records out here that have unbelievable things on them, but there's not that many records out here that groove, period. And the ones that really groove are the ones that are still around. People still play them, people hold onto them."

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