On The Passing of Chico Hamilton
by Fred W. Gretsch
If I was asked to describe jazz drumming great Chico Hamilton-who died this past November 25th at the age of ninety-two in one word, that word would be “explorer.” Throughout his long and stellar career, Chico consistently explored new musical territory, new concepts in drum sounds, and new approaches to the design of the drumkit itself. And I’m proud to say that most of that career saw Chico on Gretsch drums.
Of course, there are lots of other words that can–and should–be used in connection with Chico. “Innovator,” “composer,” “teacher,” “leader,” and “pioneer” all come to mind. And I’m sure that those who knew and appreciated Chico’s gifts could add many more.
As a young drummer in the late 1940s and early ’50s Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton gained experience (and early recognition) as a sideman. Even then his versatility and creative nature was displayed, as he worked in a wide variety of musical situations. Those included serving as the driving force in sax great Jerry Mulligan’s quartet (which also featured a young trumpeter named Chet Baker), and spending eight years backing singer Lena Horne.
But it was with his own quintet, which he founded in 1955, that Chico first made his mark on the jazz scene. This was where his “explorer” nature came to the fore, as he put together a decidedly non-traditional group consisting of drums, bass, guitar, cello, and flute. Featuring compositions by all the members of the group combined with collective improvisation, the sound came to be known as “chamber jazz.” The experiment had its fans and its detractors, but no one could deny that it was totally original. In fact. The Chico Hamilton Quintet made such a name for itself that it was featured in the 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
But it was a different kind of movie–a documentary titled Jazz on A Summer’s Day–that cemented Chico as a jazz star. Filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1958, it captured performances by jazz legends including Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt. Chico and his group added their unique sound and style to the mix of more “traditional” jazz, to wide acclaim.
Based mainly in Los Angeles for most of his career, Chico was a pioneer of what was dubbed “West Coast” jazz, also known as the “California cool” sound. But he never focused on one style for long. After establishing the “chamber jazz” style with his early quintet, he took a harder-edged direction in the 1960s. In 1966 he recorded a funky, soul-leaning jazz album called The Dealer, which introduced guitarist Larry Coryell. (Other bands led by Chico featured such future jazz stars as Ron Carter, Paul Horn, Gabor Szabo, and Arthur Blythe.)
From that time right up until his passing, Chico never stopped creating. He played and toured with a group called Euphoria in the 1980s and ’90s, and he was appearing with them at a monthly New York City residency at the time of his death. He also continued to record up until his ninetieth birthday, when he released a 22-track CD called Revelation.
Many drummers might say that Chico wasn’t a skilled technician on the drumset, in the manner of contemporaries like Max Roach or Art Blakey. But few would deny his contributions as a drumming innovator. The late Phil Grant, long-time artist relations manager for Gretsch, said of Chico, “He had a style of playing drums that was completely different from anyone else. He used timpani sticks on the drumset before anyone else. He was an individual, and his playing was unique.”
Chico also had very specific ideas about drumset design, as described by Chet Falzerano in his book Gretsch Drums: The Legacy of “That Great Gretsch Sound”: “Chico had some progressive ideas of his own for his drumset. He wanted his toms without bottom heads. Gretsch was accommodating and built him a custom set without bottom heads [in 1958) long before it became the rage in the 1970s.” (Interestingly, it was another great Gretsch drummer–Phil Collins–who helped promote that rage.) Chico continued to play his signature drumkit design throughout his career, often removing the front bass drum head as well.
In addition to sharing his musical ideas as a performer, Chico also shared them as an educator. He was part of the faculty at the Parsons New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well as the Mannes College of Music at the New School University, both in New York City. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004. This led to a visit to the White House, where Chico was both an honoree and a featured performer.
In a 2008 interview in the magazine Jazz Times, Chico said, “I can play all over the world, and I don’t have to play anybody else’s music. That’s my reward. I’ve been blessed because I’ve been able to make music, and I make music for music’s sake.”
Checking Out Chico
A clip of a young Chico Hamilton in a battle with drumming legends Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton is posted on Drummerworld.com at http://www.drummerworld.com/Videos/genekrupachicolionel58.html.
You can hear the unique sound of Chico’s unique “chamber jazz” quintet featuring cello, bass, guitar, and sax playing “The Wind” (1956) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_8uztsWTOo.
In contrast, check out the high-energy title track from Chico’s 1966 album The Dealer, which introduced a young guitarist named Larry Coryell. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDPmO1VNVJI.
When he visited the White House in 2004, Chico demonstrated his signature mallet-on-toms style in a solo that can be enjoyed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzJ1Pls0n5Q.