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Chico Hamilton: The Master


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I'll play wherever. It doesn't matter. First of all you gotta understand something; I don't play music for people. I play music for music's sake.
In celebration of Chico Hamilton's 100th birthday today (September 20, 1921—November 26, 2013). This interview first appeared at All About Jazz in October 2007.

An educator, performer, film score composer/actor, drummer and bandleader, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (2004) and Kennedy Center Living Jazz Master Chico Hamilton is still going strong. His always compelling music defies genre and manages to reach new audiences through works like the newly restored Original Ellington Suite (Blue Note, 2000) and Hamiltonia. (Joyous Shout!, 2007). Hamilton took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about where he has been and what's still to come.

All About Jazz: You grew up in Los Angeles, California. In your youth, some of your contemporaries whom you played with were Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Illinois Jacquet. How much influence did your neighborhood and your peers play a part in your artistic identity?

Chico Hamilton: We probably all just influenced each other, you know? So yeah, all those were good players, so we played. It wasn't a question of influence; we got our inspiration from the pros. I got inspiration from people like [Philly] Joe Jones, Rusty Allen... people like that

AAJ: Originally you played clarinet. How long was this your main instrument?

CH: Not very long.

AAJ: And do you recall what made you want to become a musician?

CH: Well, when I was around eight years old my mother took me to the Paramount Theater to see Duke Ellington, and that's when the band was set up in a pyramid. Sonny Greer, who was the drummer, was set up at the top of the whole pyramid and he had a zillion drums. I was impressed with him and I said "Hey, that's what I want to do.

AAJ: While you were in the early years of being a musician did you get a chance to do much recreational listening of the records that were coming out at the time?

CH: That's all we did. Every time a new record would come out we would get I and listen to it.

AAJ: In the early part of the 1940s you played with Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and Count Basie—three bandleaders who all managed to swing, but who also sought to bring something to the music so that it could be listened to and enjoyed off the dance floor. Between the three of them, were there any lessons or advice they tried to teach you?

CH: They were the pros, who invented this kind of music, you know what I mean? Comin' up like that people helped you. They pulled your coat. If you got of line they'd say "Hey, you know, cool it! Straighten up!

AAJ: When people think of chamber jazz, the casual listener automatically thinks of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The first groups you led could equally be said to have helped to create chamber jazz, the two groups working on opposite coasts, working in tandem, showing different aspects of this new genre.

CH: We were referred to more so as chamber than the Modern Jazz Quartet. [My] original quintet consisted of cello, bass, reeds, flute, guitar, bass and drums, which was Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on the reeds, Jim Hall on guitar, Carson Smith on bass and myself on drums.

AAJ: How did you come up with the interesting and unique lineup of your early groups?

CH: Well, actually, my original quintet was going to consist of a French horn player, by the name of John Gross. Unfortunately John had a heart attack and passed away. I knew Fred Katz because we had played together when I was with Lena Horne, and he played cello. And he said, "Why don't I bring the cello? and I said, "Why not? and that's how it got started. We just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.

AAJ: The album Original Ellington Suite (Blue Note, 2000)—along with the newly found Charlie Parker / Dizzy Gillespie Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown, 2005) and the 1957 Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 2005)—has one of the most interesting stories behind its reappearance. There had been two versions of Ellington Suite, the released one being a reunion of your original band and recorded after the version featuring Eric Dolphy. The Eric Dolphy one, which was closer to a true suite in construction, was not released. At the time were you given any reason for this? The explanation sometimes cited, which has passed into jazz myth, was that Eric Dolphy's solos were "too far out .

CH: I knew nothing about that.

AAJ: Duke Ellington's music has been such a wellspring for so many artists. Your suite is successful in being not merely a cover using jazz vernacular of your era to solo, but building off of Ellington's ideas and seamlessly integrating your own art in such an organic way as to create something familiar but new. Did Duke ever have a chance to hear it or see the charts?

CH: I opened for Duke in a lot of different places/concerts. As a matter of fact, he really got pissed off at me in someplace in Connecticut. We were doing a benefit for the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. And I opened up and I made the mistake of playing "Satin Doll . [Chuckles]

AAJ: Duke didn't like that?

CH: Well at that time my version of "Satin Doll was very popular.

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.

AAJ: 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 rhythms... do 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.

AAJ: 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)?

AAJ: That was my next question actually The Roman Polanski film Repulsion provided you with a chance to work on a film score. How closely did you work with the director on the music?

CH: Everyday. I was out on the set, out in London. I was working in the nighttime with Lena Horne, with my group. Every morning 8 o'clock I was in the studio with Roman while he was shooting.

AAJ: The film is very atmospheric and the music really mirrors the moods perfectly. Did you have specific ways of composing/playing to achieve such a complimentary effect? When you were writing the music for that did you find yourself working a different way? Or did you pretty much work the same way?

CH: Worked the same way. Roman was a perfect director. He never forgot why he hired me in the first place. That's one of the reasons I got out of the film business. Because when those producers forget why they hired you, all of a sudden they become the music composers, arrangers...you know.

AAJ: So Roman gave you free reign?

CH: I had twenty-five cues in there and he liked all of them.

AAJ: Your performance of "Blue Sands in Jazz On A Summer's Day is one of the most compelling visual documents of a jazz ensemble performing live. Had you known you were to be filmed?

CH: Jazz on a Summer's Day? Yeah.

AAJ: Considering the available technology then, the band's sound, too, is impressive, none of the softer intricacies are lost. Did you have any say or ideas in regards to the band's sound as it was recorded?

CH: I didn't even know they were recording it. We just played, that's all.

AAJ: You worked with Lena Horne; you also worked with some other jazz vocalists

CH: I played with Lena, Lady Day (Billie Holiday).

AAJ: You were with Billie Holiday for Lady Sings the Blues (Verve, 1956)?

CH: Yes, and Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett.

AAJ: Was backing a vocalist a different experience for you? Often it seems a vocalist is very specific in what they need from their drummer. Did you have a preference of vocalist as opposed to an instrumental line up?

CH: You gotta be strong to play for singers [chuckles]. But I used what I learned from playing with singers, I now apply it with the instrumentalists in my group. I use the same approach.

AAJ: You also did some TV music writing. How long did you do that for?

CH: Madison Avenue? That was on the screen for about ten years.

AAJ: That was in the '60s?

CH: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s...something like that.

AAJ: And did you find that restrictive

CH: Well I found that it became boring. Very boring. Plus I found out that it bleeds you. I found out I was just doing things, just for the money. TV will ruin you; it uses up your talent.

AAJ: Do you have a preference about venue? I know over in Europe often the musicians have to play the larger festivals. Do you have a preference as to how big a venue you play is?

CH: No. I'll play in a men's room if I feel like it.

AAJ: I like to see jazz in small clubs...

CH: I'll play wherever. It doesn't matter. First of all you gotta understand something; I don't play music for people. I play music for music's sake.

AAJ: Anything coming up which you are looking forward to?

CH: Well, I am looking forward to my next birthday. And after that one, I want another one!

Selected Discography

Chico Hamilton, Hamiltonia (Joyous Shout!, 2007)
Chico Hamilton, Chico Hamilton Presents: Alternative Dimensions of El-Chico (SoulFeast/Joyous Shout!, 2007)
Chico Hamilton, Juniflip (Joyous Shout!, 2006)
Chico Hamilton, Believe (Joyous Shout!, 2006)
Chico Hamilton, 6th Avenue Romp (Joyous Shout!, 2006)
Chico Hamilton, Heritage (Joyous Shout!, 2006)
Chico Hamilton, Thoughts Of... (Koch Jazz , 2002)
Chico Hamilton, Foreststorn (Koch Jazz, 2001)
Chico Hamilton, Original Ellington Suite (Blue Note, 2000)
Chico Hamilton, Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet (Mosaic, 1998)
Chico Hamilton, Dancing To A Different Drummer (Soul Note, 1994)
Chico Hamilton, Catwalk (Mercury, 1977)
Chico Hamilton, The Players (Blue Note, 1976)
Chico Hamilton, Live At Montreux (w/Albert King & Little Milton) (Stax, 1974)
Chico Hamilton, The Master (Stax, 1973)
Chico Hamilton, The Further Adventures Of El Chico (Impulse!, 1966)
Chico Hamilton, El Chico (Impulse!, 1966)
Chico Hamilton, The Dealer (Impulse!, 1966)
Chico Hamilton, Man From Two Worlds (Impulse!, 1963)
Chico Hamilton, Drumfusion (Columbia, 1962)
Chico Hamilton, Passin' Thru (Impulse!, 1962)
Chico Hamilton, Original Chico Hamilton Quintet (World Pacific, 1960)
Chico Hamilton, Ellington Suite (World Pacific, 1959)
Chico Hamilton, The Three Faces Of Chico (Warner Brothers, 1959)
Chico Hamilton, Chico Hamilton Quintet (Pacific Jazz, 1957)

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