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Chico Hamilton: The Master

By Published: October 25, 2007

AAJ: You became part of the faculty for the [New York City] New School University's jazz program. What made you decide to get into the educational aspect of jazz? How long have you been teaching?

CH: Well, a former member of my group, Ronnie Lawrence, started the school, started the program there. He wanted me to be one of the instructors. And that's how I got in about twenty years ago. I'm still there.

AAJ: It used to be that jazz composer/musicians did not often get awards (in America). That has somewhat changed. You received the title of Jazz Master from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 and the Kennedy Center is naming you Living Jazz Legend. Do these things open any doors for you artistically?

CH: I don't know. Let me just say this: I have been successful musically so I have never done anything else but play music, make music. I have been blessed to the extent where I make music, I don't have to play it.

AAJ: This August [2007] saw the world premier of a piece you were commissioned to write for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival (NYC) honoring him.

CH: Right, we played it last Saturday and Sunday and we got a standing ovation. Must of been at least fifteen-sixteen-seventeen-thousand people listening to it.

AAJ: Did you record that to be released?

CH: We haven't recorded it yet.

AAJ: When you were composing it were you given any artistic parameters within which to work, as far as what they were looking for in your composition?

CH: No.

AAJ: So they just gave you pretty much free reign?

CH: They asked me to write something and I wrote it!

AAJ: In some ways, jazz has become somewhat staid and static. A lot of what is now considered the cannon of jazz was initially considered renegade or "anti-jazz (free, bop, etc.). You did a piece titled "Kerry's Caravan with an electronica group called Mudd. A further embracing of the untraditional and new is truly what jazz needs, lest it lose itself in polite supper club vibes. How did this collaboration come about? Do you foresee yourself doing similar types of things in the future?

CH: That collaboration came about through my manager, Jeff Caddick; he put it together

AAJ: And did you enjoy it?

CH: Sure. It takes all kind of music to make music. I don't refer to my music as jazz.

AAJ: How did you preferred to have it termed?

CH: Music.

ChicoAAJ: To celebrate your birthday they just released an album called Hamiltonia. It's all compositions from four albums you did in 2006. The whole album is great, it really flows. How did you determine which tracks to use, which tracks to pick out of the four albums it's made from?

CH: Well, here again my trusty manager.

AAJ: So it's almost like a right-hand man then. .

CH: More than a right hand-man. He's my partner. We've been together over twenty years.

AAJ: The entire album just seamlessly flows. You wouldn't realize that it wasn't just one album. There is one piece on it, "Conquistadors 2007, which takes one of your most identifiable you often revisit pieces? Or do you prefer not to do that?

CH: Well, you know it depends. I am looking forward to the next one.

AAJ: Well, there are certain musicians who, once they have recorded a piece, prefer to move on.

CH: By the same token I never listen to my own CDs.

AAJ: That's interesting. I know that there are some tracks on Hamiltonia which are reunions with former band mates George Bohanon and Jimmy Cheatham. How long had it been since you had played with those guys?

CH: Very long. Very long.

AAJ: How'd the reunion come about?

CH: Unfortunately Jimmy passed away last year. And George is still on the scene so, you know, we just do it. I understand the romance aspect of what you are saying and I probably sound like I'm in left field.

AAJ: Do you, with your new pieces, write the whole song and then tell each of the guys what you need them to play?

CH: If I compose it, I also arrange it.

AAJ: You have one other piece on there. It is absolutely beautiful and melancholy with spoken word, titled "I Hardly Knew Her At All. Is that about anyone in particular?

CH: No that was a line in a movie.

AAJ: Which movie?

CH: Mr. Ricco (1975), with Dean Martin. One of the last lines in the film was "I hardly knew her at all, and I used that as the title.

AAJ: The late fifties saw you in two drastically different film situations, your quintet appearing in a club scene for the Tony Curtis/ Burt Lancaster film The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the performance documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960). How did your appearance for Sweet Smell come about? Had they your band in mind or did someone request "Get us some jazz guys ? It was one of the more natural-looking appearances of a band on film not about music/musicians. Did they have you play live in the scenes or mimic to pre-recorded music?

CH: No. They had us in mind specifically.

ChicoAAJ: You can actually view that now on YouTube—the film itself is great, but it is interesting to see that.

CH: Well what about the film Repulsion (1965)?

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