A Point Of Departure: Chico Hamilton

A Point Of Departure: Chico Hamilton

  • By John Ephland
  • Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s September 2009 Issue.

The life and times of Chico Hamilton cry out for definition. Hardly your “typical” jazz musician, if there ever was one, Hamilton’s style and approach have gone far beyond the confines of the drummer’s life ever since he emerged on the scene as a leader in the 1950s. And with a new album just out, Twelve Tones Of Love, this most capable of octogenarians remains an inspiration to all who follow. Indeed, the seeds of Hamilton’s trademark eclectic, personal, and unconventional sounds — on ample display on his new release — can be traced back to an eclectic and unconventional upbringing.

Throughout his career, Hamilton the drummer has somehow managed to take a backseat to his bandleading. Not one to dominate the stage or recording studio, he has remained the consummate supportive leader, exchanging the opportunity to solo more often than not for his invariably young bandmates’ urge to emerge. This has been true whether the featured artist was Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter, Charles Lloyd, Larry Coryell, or more recently, such notables as guitarist Cary DeNigris, reed player Evan Schwarn, and bassist Paul Ramsey (all of whom shine on Twelve Tones, along with other recent projects, like Alternative Dimensions and It’s About Time!). You might say there was something else besides the beat that drew Hamilton to the drums. Perhaps his description of the drums says it all: “I’ve always considered my instrument a very melodic instrument.”

Laying a foundation. His ability to find melody in percussion emerged at an early age. “I go back to when I was eight years old,” Hamilton recalls, “and my mother took me to the Grauman Theatre in L.A. to see the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Sonny Greer was at the top of the pyramid, and with more drums than a drum store. Whatever he touched, music came out — he was very musical, not just a drummer like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, both of whom were great, but were drummers.

“Sonny got sounds out of everything,” he continues. “The other two people were Jo Jones and Art Blakey. When I first saw Count Basie, I was in high school. He had Lester Young and Jo Jones with him. I saw Jo Jones, and that was it. I’d never heard anybody play that certain beat of his with the hi-hat. I saw Art Blakey when he was with the Billy Eckstine band. I’d never heard anybody doing anything like what he was doing, dancing with the left hand and left foot, and that left-foot and right-foot combination he had. “Strangely enough, Jo Jones and I were very close,” Hamilton digresses. “I got a drum lesson from him every day, but we didn’t play the drums. The lessons were about life, being a good musician, a good person, being a man. When I met Jo, I was about 16 years old, getting ready to graduate from high school. I had a chance to go with Lionel Hampton’s band and Jo told me to stay in school. Instead, I promised my mom I would finish high school after I played with Hampton’s band; and sure enough, at age 19, I finished high school! I only played three weeks with his band because I played by ear and couldn’t read music.”

That Hamilton, born and raised in Los Angeles, couldn’t read music was more than ironic, given that once his professional career got underway, his musical choices consistently put him in unconventional situations that would require an elevated perspective on the music. Whether it was playing in early piano-less bands, utilizing innovative instrumentation such as the cello and French horn, or with performances in important films like Sweet Smell Of Success (1957) and Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1958), Hamilton’s style and approach were unique and challenging.

One need only look to the past to see why this drummer’s course was seemingly destined for roads less traveled. “When I was in high school,” he remembers, “our school band included Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus, and Jack Kelso. After high school, I started making all these gigs, becoming pretty popular around L.A.”

After touring in the early ’40s with Hampton and Lester Young, followed by a stint in the Army, Hamilton began an on again/off again association in 1948 that would be a formative one for the young drummer. “Around this time I got a call from a guy to see if I would like to audition with Lena Horne,” he recalls. “I didn’t know who she was, but I said yes. We rehearsed for a whole week at this big house, but Lena didn’t show up. Finally, the plan was to go up to Canada, and somebody asked would I like to go with them? I said yes and suddenly Lena Horne appears and we start playing with her. It turned my life around — now I was in show business.”

It turned out to be a break that opened doors to other opportunities in the industry. “I was in L.A. when we worked at Paramount Studios, where I was the rehearsal drummer for all the dance directors,” Hamilton says. “I did that for about a year.” Another major influence was a graduate from one of Jimmy Lunceford’s bands the future bandleading great Gerald Wilson. “Gerald Wilson was my mentor, my hero,” Hamilton says. “I played in several of his orchestras, and I’ve learned a lot from him in terms of composition and arranging.

“Twelve Tones Of Love includes something I composed for him, the song ‘Steinway.’ When we were teenagers growing up in L.A. we’d sneak over to this store that had a piano and we’d fool around on it. It was a Steinway, and that’s the nickname that we have for each other.”

New directions. By the mid-’50s Hamilton’s tenure with Horne was coming to an end. “I eventually left Lena because one year she went to Europe and I didn’t want to go,” Hamilton remembers. “It was when I was working with Charlie Barnet that Gerry [Mulligan, sax] came to L.A. to where we were playing. This was around 1952. We hit it off, and later started the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in my living room, with [trumpeter] Chet Baker and [bassist] Bobby Whitlock.”

This was to be Mulligan’s original piano-less quartet. “I remember Gerry telling me, ‘If I were Charlie Barnet, I would fire your ass!’” Hamilton laughs. “I was just dancing all over the place, not keeping time — sort of like the kids do today. When Lena came back I got my old job back to make some money until 1955, when I started my own group. I decided to get my own thing going, originally with a French horn, but the guy had a heart attack and passed away. A week later I ran into Fred Katz, the cellist — we had played together with Lena. I saw him and told him my plight, and he said, ‘Why don’t I bring my cello?’ It was five guys in the right place at the right time, including [guitarist] Jim Hall.”

This would become Hamilton’s pattern for decades to come, starting off with a series of quintets that not only utilized a unique approach to instrumentation but also unusual songwriting and playing. Early groups evoked a quasi chamber-music sound in the spirit and manner of The Modern Jazz Quartet, only to be followed in the 1960s and beyond by more earthy blues and swing styles that continued to reflect the times, substituting, for example, cello for trombone while maintaining his groundbreaking use of electric guitar and later, bass, from Jim Hall, John Pisano, and Gabor Szabo to Larry Coryell, Howard Roberts, John Abercrombie, and Paul Ramsey. “I’ve always used guitar,” he remembers. “I used guitar not just as an accompanying instrument, but as a solo instrument.”

Restless creator. The story shifts, when, in the mid-’60s, Hamilton stops touring, moves to New York, and begins what would be a long-term arrangement, writing music for movies (including Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) and later for advertising. Regardless of the type of project he undertook — commercial or otherwise — Hamilton was compelled to write music throughout his career. “I try to write every day, to try to find a note,” he says. As if to underline how writing defines him as much as drumming and bandleading, he adds, “What else am I going to do?”

Along the way — and in addition to events apart from being a drumming bandleader — Hamilton has been saluted by the Kennedy Center as a “Living Jazz Legend,” appointed to the National Council On The Arts, and continues to teach at the New School University Jazz Program, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Hamilton went beyond the occasionally led jazz-rock and experimental group to first re-gather his original quintet from the 1950s for a tour and recording, and then form a new quartet that also toured and has been a unit ever since. Named Euphoria, this is the current group that enjoyed a Borders Books tour earlier this year in promotion of Twelve Tones Of Love.

Apart from his work as a bona fide jazz musician and his latest album, last year saw four releases from Hamilton: two EPs and two previously unreleased recordings, each of which offer different views of the musician as artist. It gives the impression that this man’s output accelerates as he gets older.

Paying homage to his past, the It’s About Time! EP harkened back to his very first recording as a leader, in 1955. Then it was Hamilton recording with bassist George Duvivier and guitarist Howard Roberts. In 2008 Twelve Tone’s guitarist Cary DeNigris and bassist Paul Ramsey joined in the fun with Hamilton’s distinctive grooves on the more laid-back, jazzy setting of The Alternate Dimensions Of El Chico EP, a collection of dance/remix tracks and collaborative works with some of today’s hottest turntablists including Fertile Ground, SoulFeast (Joe Claussell and Brian Michel Bacchus), Mark de Clive-Lowe, and Blaze. And there is Dreams Come True, recorded in 1993, where jazz piano iconoclast Andrew Hill joined Hamilton for an orgy of modern improvised music. And 1994’s Trio! Live @ Artpark showcases Hamilton in a power-trio setting with DeNigris and bassist Matthew Garrison (the son of the late Jimmy Garrison). In a related vein, and with all the attention paid to his jazz, one aspect of Hamilton’s musical life that doesn’t get much coverage is the series of dance-floor hits, including his signature song “Conquistadors” from his 1960s Impulse! album, El Chico, and the Brazilian-influenced song “Strut” from Hamilton’s 1979 Elektra release, Nomad. “Strut,” a hit in the U.K., had its own dance. And for those in the know, “Conquistadors” also was a hit on the dance floor at Frank’s Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn. Hamilton’s 1968 release, The Dealer, saw the emergence of a track titled “For Mods Only” in 2002, which was included on Thievery Corporation’s Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi. And in 2005, there was the 12" vinyl “Kerry’s Caravan” (on Rong Music) from Mudd & Chico Hamilton, a dance floor favorite with remixes from names like Idjut Boys collaborator and Fiasco imprint boss Ray Mang. And Hamilton’s classic “El Toro” (also from The Dealer) was heard on The Impulsive! Remix Project featuring Mark De Clive Lowe. As if that weren’t enough, Nomad was mined again with Out Now, a limited-edition 12" 180-gram vinyl from SoulFeast, which reworked “Mysterious Maiden,” as well as a 12" double-vinyl edition of The Alternate Dimensions Of El Chico on CD as well as EP.

The latest. While Twelve Tones Of Love includes 18 songs, most by Hamilton, with an innovative cover of the standard “Lazy Afternoon,” each one refers to different moods. When asked where the title of the album comes from, Hamilton reveals, “I’m coming from and dealing with the 12-tone system. I love music and its 12 tones. It’s the way I feel.” Hamilton admits he didn’t come up with the title until the end, when they were finished recording everything.

“The way I approach it [the 12 tones] is a lot different than a lot of people who are interested in sound,” he says. “There are 12 tones, and there are no bad notes. I spend a lot of time in studying chords and phrasing when I work at the keyboard. I try to avoid the standard jazz chord progressions — you aren’t going to find any 2-5-1’s on Twelve Tones Of Love. I’m not interested in standard jazz voicings, so I come up with different ones. I like long, memorable melodic lines.” Regarding drums and percussive elements, he adds, “On Twelve Tones we mix up the rhythms played underneath the melodic lines. With the rhythm section, we swing and change up the grooves under the melodies.”

Twelve Tones Of Love has many references to important people that have played a part in Hamilton’s life. In addition to his nod to Gerald Wilson with “Steinway,” he has composed songs for longtime collaborator/friends George Bohanon (“George”) and Jack Kelso (“The Alto Of Kelso”), trombonist and alto saxophone, respectively, both of whom appear on the album. Another tip of the hat goes to legend Charlie Parker with Hamilton’s “Charlie Parker Suite,” which was commissioned for New York City’s 15th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, in 2007.

Listening to him talk, one gets the distinct impression that Hamilton has never been interested in doing business as usual. With more than seven decades as a professional musician under his belt, the feeling and sound of “been there, done that” is tantamount to a kind of musical death for Hamilton. Ever since that move in the early ’60s when he replaced the cello with a trombone, it seems he’s been drawn to a more orchestral sound. “With the two horns and the trombone we are getting a real ensemble sound — the melodies sound big,” he says. “Even though it is just a six/seven-piece group, it sounds like a large ensemble to me. It has that energy.” A luxury temporarily suspended, Hamilton adds, “Right now, we are back down to a quintet with one horn. It’s simple economics.”

When asked how Twelve Tones Of Love extends the Chico Hamilton story, this iconoclastic artist says simply, “I have no idea what the next chapter will be.” And what about that autobiography he’s been working on? “The first one we started with had too many curse words, so I had to change it so the kids can appreciate it when we go on a book tour. I hope it’ll be done before the year’s out.”

Before the year’s out, and beyond — Hamilton likes to think ahead, and with the same spirit that no doubt has animated his art ever since he took that first gig with Lionel Hampton while still in high school. Twelve Tones Of Love may be great, but Hamilton boasts: “I think my best record is yet to come.”

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