When Chico Hamilton was a boy growing up in Los Angeles, the film studios used to send trucks out to pick up the little African-American children to play natives in their Tarzan movies. "It was work, after all, and we got paid for it," says the drummer, now 87 years of age. "And what you learned very quickly is not to look into the camera. Once you did that they could never hire you again." That's a lesson that relates to Hamilton's entire career as a musician; it's the craft and the work that have always mattered to him and though he's done countless things to appeal to many audiences, it's always been about the music.
Let's review that career a bit, because it's truly quite extraordinary. Born Foreststorn Hamilton in East Los Angeles in 1921, he was in a big family. His mother's heritage was Mexican, Indian and German Jewish and his father worked as a railroad porter and later, in LA, at the University Club of Southern California. It was the first Great Depression and things were tight for the Hamiltons. Says Hamilton, "Everyone was poor so we didn't think of ourselves that way. Many ethnic groups lived together there so it wasn't really a ghetto."
Hamilton started playing clarinet at age eight but switched a year or so later to a set of drums that belonged to an older brother who had graduated. "I made my own drumsticks and played them on everything in the house. My parents weren't necessarily musical but they encouraged me to play despite the fact that the church frowned on it. My mother took me to hear Duke Ellington when I was about nine and I had never seen anything like that. The band was in a pyramid and Sonny Greer was at the top. I consider him the first true percussionisthe played everything."
Hamilton bought his first set of drums at age 12 with money he earned from shining shoes. While in junior high school, Chico competed in an "amateur hour" at a local theater and won a first prize of $50, playing with a local pianist. Hamilton went to the noted Jefferson High School where some of his celebrated schoolmates were Ernie Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus.
Soon, Hamilton had engagements with a wide variety of extraordinary musicians including Lionel Hampton
, Slim Gaillard
and Slam Stewart
, T-Bone Walker, Lester Young
, Count Basie
, Duke Ellington
, Charlie Barnet
, Billy Eckstine
, Nat "King" Cole
, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday
and Gerry Mulligan
. He also was part of the group backing Fred Astaire in the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich
For eight years, starting in the late '40s, Hamilton became the drummer for Lena Horne. He remembers, "I was a 'hotshot' drummer on the West Coast and I worked for a dancer, Marie Bryant, who was a friend of Lena's. When Lena needed a drummer, Marie recommended me. I had never even heard of her. I went to her house in the hills and the guy that opened the gate was this sharply dressed dudeturned out to be Luther Henderson, Lena's pianist and musical director. We started rehearsing right away and while we were there a guy with a painter's outfit and a can of paint came in a few times. I find out later it's Lennie Hayton, Lena's husband. Both he and Luther were great musicians and major mentors for me. We rehearsed and only saw Lena after about a week!"
In 1955, Chico Hamilton left the employ of Horne and went out on his own as a leader. That year he made the eponymous debut recording of a unique, chamber-like group that included Buddy Collette
, Jim Hall
, Carson Smith and, on cello, Fred Katz
. The personnel changed over the years and showcased such notables as Paul Horn, John Pisano
and Eric Dolphy
. In 1961, he revamped the group yet again, this time with Charles Lloyd
, George Bohanon, Albert Stinson and Gabor Szabo
. During these years, these groups made hit recordings and Hamilton did film work (he scored the Roman Polanski film Repulsion). "I had a family to feed and, besides, good music is good music. All of my work was part of a lifelong learning process."
The latest chapter in Hamilton's career also involved learning. As one of the original faculty members of The New School jazz program, the drummer found a way to discover and highlight another generation of great players. The group Euphoria was founded in 1987 with saxophonist Eric Person, guitarist Cary DeNigris and bassist Reggie Washington. This group's personnel has also changed; it still features DeNigris but also includes saxophonist Evan Schwam and bassist Paul Ramsey.