Drummer Chico Hamilton's contribution to West Coast jazz and quintet jazz in general is largely overlooked today. Partially eclipsed by the more explosive drummers of the late 1950s and 1960s, Hamilton's high-energy brushwork and wasp-wings time-keeping technique set new standards that were widely imitated for years on both coasts.
Chico is perhaps best known for being a member of the original groundbreaking Gerry Mulligan Quartet. He also led one of the country's most exciting quintets in the mid-to-late 1950s, creating a hip, cool fast-paced energy that quickly became the signature jazz sound of the period. The quintet's delicate, dramatic feel was so infectious that it was adapted by many musicians, including Dave Brubeck and Sonny Rollins. Chico also is widely known for his incidental music for and appearance in Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 film noir classic.
In Part I of my three-part interview series with Chico, the legendary 87-year-old drummer talks about growing up in Depression-era Los Angeles, the two drummers who were most influential in shaping his early approach, and what he learned playing with Lester Young in 1946:
JazzWax: What was growing up in Los Angeles like in the 1930s?
Chico Hamilton: It was kind of difficult at that time. If you wanted to be a jazz musician or even play jazz, you were considered a sinner among all the church-going people. My family was Protestant, and we went to a Methodist church. The people there considered me a sinner.
JW: What were your parents like?
CH: They were beautiful people. They let me and my brother pursue our passions. My younger brother Bernie was into poetry and acting. I was into jazz. Our parents were very encouraging to both of us, despite the church. You know Starsky and Hutch, the TV show from the 1970s? You know the character Capt. Harold Dobey? That was my brother, Bernie Hamilton [pictured].
JW: Did your parents take a lot of heat about you and your brother at church?
CH: Oh yeah. Not only from the church but from their friends. All they would see is me fooling around playing with the drums and my brother Bernie reading poetry whenever they came over to our house [laughs]. My parents were dynamite people, man. I loved both of them. They were unbelievable.
JW: It was just you and your brother?
CH: Oh, no. There were five boys and one girl.
JW: That's a big family. Must have been tough coming up during the Depression.
CH: Yeah it was. My father used to leave two dimes on my mother’s dresser before he went to work. My mother took those two dimes and with the vegetables in our backyard, she fed us. We had good meals, always good meals. We were fed basically from our garden.
JW: What did your parents do for a living?
CH: My mother was a dietitian for the Los Angeles Board of Education and my father worked for the University Club of Southern California. It was a very political club. A lot of powerful people were members. I met Chief Justice Earl Warren there when I was a little kid. Actually he was governor of California at the time. During the holidays they had a party for the people who worked there and their families. That's how I met him.
JW: What did your father do at the club?
CH: He was like a maitre d'. He oversaw a room that seated 16 or 17 people who ate there regularly. These powerful people would come in and say, “Jesse, what do I want to eat?,” and then he’d tell them [laughs]. My dad was a good man. He took care of all us kids with that job.
JW: How did you get the name Chico?
CH: It’s easier than Foreststorn, my real name, right? [laughs]. Somewhere along the line it happened. I guess when I was in my teens. Someone started calling me that. I was always a small dude. I didn’t mind, you know.
JW: When did you take up the drums?
CH: It just happened. My older brother Tommy was playing drums in the grade school orchestra. At the time I had been playing the clarinet because my best friend, Jack Kelso, also played it. You know, we've been friends since we were 8 years old, and we've never had a cross word. When my brother graduated from grade school, I said I might as well try for the drums. I gave it a try and never gave it up. Then I shined shoes to buy my first drum set.
JW: Who were you listening to on drums as a kid?
CH: Back then? Lionel Hampton. He was a big name out there. He’d play on the floor and the walls and all those places. I used to imitate him, and by doing so built my name up.
JW: You didn't have too many role models on drums in Los Angeles at the time, did you?
CH: I didn't know much about New York at the time. But there were many great jazz musicians on the West Coast. Most of us listened a lot to the radio and to records. Jo Jones was my favorite drummer by then. At the beginning, I liked Jimmy Crawford, who played drums in Jimmie Lunceford's band. But when Count Basie came to California in the 1940s, that was it. That band and Jo Jones turned me completely around.
CH: Yes. We used to rehearse over at my wife's house. She wasn't my wife then, of course. Her brother James Henry played trombone in our band. The band consisted of Dexter [Gordon], myself, [Charles] Mingus, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette [pictured], Ernie Royal, Illinois Jacquet, who moved to Los Angeles when he was a kid, and people like that. His brother Russell Jacquet was there, too. We all came out of the same high school band.
JW: You played drums as an actor in the movie You'll Never Get Rich in 1941 with Fred Astaire when you were just 20 years old, and you play on the soundtrack to Bob Hope's Road to Bali.
CH: Right, right. I can't even remember how I got those jobs. I'm sure it was just being out there in Hollywood and meeting the right people.
JW: When did you first hear bebop?
CH: When I came out of the Army in 1946. I had gone into the service in 1942. After the war I was in Oakland, California, playing with Floyd Ray's band. We were playing a big show up there. As a matter of fact, the Will Mastin Trio was there with Sammy Davis Jr. [pictured]. Anyway, our band was accompanying a little kid who was supposed to be a midget who played boogie-woogie on the piano. We got word that Billy Eckstine's band was coming to town.
JW: What did you do?
CH: Everyone in the band went over to the dance hall where the band was playing. That was the first time I had heard Art Blakey. That’s the band that had Dexter [Gordon] and Jug [Gene Ammons] and all those guys. Hearing Blakey turned me completely around, man. I ain't never heard anyone play like that, you know?
JW: Blakey's style was a big early influence?
CH: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, the next day, on the early show with Floyd Ray, I was playing for the Will Mastin Trio and decided I was going to drop a bomb on the bass drum, like Blakey. I hit my bass drum so hard that Old Man Mastin [pictured] looked up and said, “What the heck are you doing?” [laughs] After the set, Mastin asked me to come to his dressing room. When I arrived, Mastin said, "Young man, you don’t want to play like that.” [laughs] But it was too late. Art Blakey had turned me completely around.
JW: You played and recorded with Lester Young in 1946.
CH: Playing with Prez was beautiful. One thing for sure, I could always brush very good. I played for singers for 18 or 19 years afterward because I could always get that pocket going for them with my brushes. That’s how I managed to keep a job playing for singers. I played for [singer] Lena Horne for eight years. It all started with Prez. He loved the brushes. He liked the way I played.
JW: What was Lester Young like?
CH: Prez was beautiful. He had a language all his own. He never swore. He never said a foul word. Instead of saying a curse, he'd say “Tommy Tucker” [laughs]. Things like that. The stuff he said would come right off the top of his head. He was a beautiful dude. Very amenable person, too.
JW: Did he ever not like something you were playing?
CH: I never heard him complain. Prez always did what he had to do. I studied with his brother Lee [pictured], and Lee taught me how to play for dancers and singers. So I used to sub for Lee at the Club Alabam in Los Angeles, which was the equivalent of the Cotton Club in New York.
JW: In 1950, you played in pianist Gerald Wiggins' trio and went to Paris briefly on tour.
CH: Wig [pictured] and I met when he first came to California. We stayed hooked up for 1,000 years. I got him a gig playing piano with Lena Horne in the mid-1950s. We did a lot of stuff together. Touring in Paris was great but it could be isolating. Fortunately I learned a long time ago when I was a young dude I’m happy with myself. I’m content. I can be alone. I don’t mind. I like to read. I like to study. I’m cool with it.
Tomorrow, Chico talks about how he became a member of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Chet Baker, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, touring Europe and facing a different kind of racial prejudice, and how his scenes from Sweet Smell of Success were filmed.
JazzWax tracks: Chico's first recording was with novelty-bop guitarist Slim Gaillard in 1941. You can find the song B-19 on Ice Cream on Toast at iTunes or here and African Jive on The Legendary McVouty at iTunes or here.
Chico's recording of Be Baba Leba with Helen Humes in 1946 can be found on Helen Humes: Today I Sing the Blues at iTunes or here.
Chico with Lester Young in 1946 can be found on The Complete Aladdin Sessions. His tracks are You're Driving Me Crazy, New Lester Leaps In, Lester's Be-Bop Boogie and She's Funny That Way. They're all at iTunes or here.
In 1947, Chico's bop recordings with Buddy Tate and His Orchestra can be found on Jumpin' on the West Coast at iTunes. Chico's tracks are Vine Street Breakdown, The Things You Done for Me Baby and Tate's a Jumpin'.
Chico's post-Lester Young recordings with the Gerald Wiggins Trio are key to understanding the drummer's advanced brush technique. All of his recordings with the pianist can all be found on Gerald Wiggins: 1950, on the French Classics label here.
JazzWax clip: It took some research and a big of digging at YouTube, but I found the clip from You'll Never Get Rich that features Chico. He plays a member of the Delta Rhythm Boys. That's him on the drums. Whether or not Chico is actually playing here or whether the drums were overdubbed later is unclear...