Take Five With Chico Hamilton

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Meet Chico Hamilton:

Known for representing jazz in its purest form, octogenarian Chico Hamilton shows virtually no signs of fatigue. Saluted by the Kennedy Center as a "Living Jazz Legend," and appointed to the National Council on the Arts, Chico Hamilton is considered one of the most important living jazz artists and composers. He is currently on a national Borders Bookstore tour with his band Euphoria. While continuing to teach at the New School University Jazz Program, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree, Chico is busy writing his autobiography, composing and performing music for film, and working on additional album releases for 2009.



Teachers and/or influences?

My new album, "Twelve Tones of Love," includes something I composed for my dear friend, my hero really, Gerald Wilson. Gerald is somebody that I've learned a lot from, in terms of composition and arranging. When we were teenagers growing up in LA, we'd sneak down to a store that had a piano, and we'd fool around on it. The piano was a Steinway, and this became the nickname that we have for each other.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

My mother took me to the famous Paramount Theater in Los Angeles to hear Duke Ellington when I was about nine years old and I had never seen anything like that. That's when the band sat up on a pyramid and Sonny Greer was sitting at the top with all those drums, man. He had more drums than a drum shop. But he played on everything. He was the first percussionist, he wasn't just a drummer. Everything he touched was musical, was a sound. I knew right there that's what I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do, become another Sonny Greer.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

My current one, Twelve Tones of Love. I think it's very listenable. Each track is a different mood. I am coming from and dealing with the twelve tone system. You might find this hard to believe, but I spend a lot of time studying chords and studying phrasing thru working at the keyboard. I try to avoid the standard jazz chord progressions so there's no 2-5-1's to be found on "Twelve Tones of Love.' I work to avoid standard jazz voicings and to come up with different voicings.

I try to come up with long memorable melodic lines and we mix up the rhythms played underneath. After 70 years of working in this music, and having come up with and having been exposed to the progenitors of this music, I studiously avoid the feeling and sound of been there, done that. With the two horns and the trombone, we are getting a real ensemble sound, the melodies sound big. I want to be able to put across the melodies I am writing. Even though it is just a 6-7 piece group, it sounds like a large ensemble to me. It has that energy. And with the rhythm section, we swing. We change up the grooves under the melodies, but we are always swinging. And then we change it up completely on "Lazy Afternoon," which is just a duo with myself and vocalist Jose James. Very powerful. Jose was a student of mine @ the New School, and he's turned out to be a dynamite young man.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

That was a long time ago, so I really have no idea. I am sure it would have been something from Duke Ellington or Jimmie Lunceford. And we didn't have albums in those days, so it would have been one of their current singles. I enjoy listening to anything by Count Basie, Ellington, Lunceford. Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis with Gil Evans. Anything by my friend Gerald Wilson, an under-appreciated genius. What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. I listen to all kinds of music, because it takes all kinds of music to make music, dig?

What is in the near future?

We are out working behind my new album. I've been doing a long run of in-store performances for Borders Bookstores. We've just done two NYC area Borders, the one out at the Atlas Park shopping center in Queens, and the one at the Time Warner building @ Columbus Circle. And we have some more Borders shows coming up, Philly and Hartford, I think. Then the Rochester International Jazz Festival in June. Dizzy's Club at Jazz @ Lincoln Center again for a night in August. I am writing music everyday, and starting to think about my next recording. I am also working with the director Jeff Chenault, who's shooting a documentary about me. He's a dynamite young dude.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

I have no idea. I've only ever done two things in my life, shine shoes and play the drums. I've never had to work at any other job, always been able to make my living from music. I have been blessed in this regard. Music is one of God's wills, and God's will, will be done. So I'd have to say it was God's will for me to be a musician. Music has been very, very good to me.

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