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Chico Hamilton: The Master

Maxwell Chandler By

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I don't play music for people. I play music for music's sake.
Chico HamiltonAn 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.

ChicoAAJ: 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.

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