Pianist Jimmy Rowles didn't show up. So on June 10, 1952, Gerry Mulligan went ahead and recorded three tracks with just Red Mitchell on bass and Chico Hamilton on drums. That's when Mulligan realized that the sound of his baritone sax could carry a session and that maybe a small group didn't need a piano after all. Small was big in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Unlike the clubs in New York, Southern California jazz spots were shoebox tight, and their stages could support maybe three or four musicians, tops. The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard, for example, could seat just 85 people.
A short time later, when Gerry Mulligan met Chet Baker during one of the Haig's famed Monday night jam sessions, the pair decided to form a piano-less quartet with Chico and bassist Bob Whitlock. The Haig's piano had already been removed when the Red Norvo Trio preceded the quartet at the club. Short a piano, the group had to focus on counterpoint to fill the gaps—functioning in effect like the very instrument it did without. Chico went so far as to replace his bass drum with a smaller, 16-inch model.
In Part 2 of my three-part series with Chico, the legendary drummer talks about playing with Lena Horne for the first time in Europe, meeting Gerry Mulligan in Los Angeles, the formation of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, recording at Phil Turetsky's house in August 1952, and the similarities between Chet Baker and Miles Davis:
JazzWax: When were you with Lena Horne?
Chico Hamilton: I joined Lena in late 1949 and traveled to Europe. I tell you, going to Europe during that time was difficult for me. The Paris newspapers had mistakenly said Lena was using a French drummer. Everywhere we’d go I had to virtually wear my passport on the outside. In France, they thought I was from Martinique, and the French hated people from Martinique. When we went to England, people thought I was Indian, and they hated Indians there then. No matter where we went in Europe, I looked like all them people they hated.
JW: So you experienced European racism because you didn't look African-American enough?
CH: That's right! Also at that time, right after the war, it was unusual to see black people in Europe not in uniform. I couldn’t escape racism over there. I always looked like someone somebody didn’t like.
JW: You returned with Horne to the States and California in 1950?
JW: Was the dope thing ever your scene?
CH: I got into it very early and out very quickly, at around this time. I ended up in the hospital and then cooled it. I promised God that if he brought me through, I would never even take as much as an aspirin ever again.
JW: How did you turn things around?
CH: I was cool with what I had to go through. What wakes you up is when you realize that God is giving you moments of reality to make you aware of your choices. When I was laying in the hospital bed, I looked up and saw my wife and Lena, Lena's husband Lennie Hayton [both pictured], and other friends looking down on me. That's when I decided, maybe this ain't for me.
JW: What did you do when you got out?
CH: Charlie Barnet hired me when he was on the West Coast. While we played for an extended period at a club in L.A., Gerry Mulligan used to hang out in the joint. He had just come to the West Coast, and he was on his ass, man. He didn’t have nothing. He used to hang out at the bar.
JW: How did you meet?
CH: I guess on a break. We became friends, and I took him home a few times and my wife made him dinner. The next thing I knew, he called me and said he wanted to start a quartet. It's funny, I don't remember that first trio date you mentioned. Maybe it wasn't me on drums.
CH: I wanted to stay in California with my family.
CH: Gerry and the group got together to rehearse in my living room. It was Chesney [Chet Baker], Bob Whitlock, Jeru [Gerry Mulligan] and myself.
JW: How did you meet the rest of the guys?
CH: Through Gerry, at our rehearsal. I thought right away that these guys were great players. We just happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time. Hell if I know how this stuff happens.
JW: Why did you record at Phil Turetsky's house?
CH: Turetsky [pictured] was an engineer and had all his equipment at his place in Laurel Canyon. Dick Bock, who was the Haig's publicist at the time, wanted to start a record company. The first record the label recorded was Bernie’s Tune [sings four bars]. That was the first record, man. After that Dick, [Roy Harte] and Phil Turetsky started Pacific Jazz Records. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet was the label's first record.
JW: When Mulligan told you there would be no piano, was that a problem for you?
CH: No, not at all. But Gerry didn’t want me to use my bass drum. And that’s when we went to war [laughs]. I finally went out and got myself a tom-tom instead, a small bass drum, and converted it into a bass drum. Gerry didn't want any bass drum at all. But I told him I needed something there for my right foot, to keep my rhythm. My timing depended on it. I’m still using a smaller bass drum today.
JW: Why didn’t Gerry like the regular bass drum?
CH: You know Gerry. He didn’t like a lot of things [laughs]. Gerry didn’t like the way other guys played it. But he got hooked behind mine.
JW: What did Gerry want, a lighter sound?
CH: The smaller drum was cooler for Gerry. But more important, it fit.
JW: How was Chet Baker as a player?
CH: Chet was unbelievable. There were just two guys like that: Chet Baker and Miles Davis. One was black and one was white. They were both dynamite-looking dudes, they had small chops and both could play their asses off. When I saw Chet [pictured] in Europe years later, he looked like a 1,000-year-old man. Because of the drugs. It was painful. Bob Whitlock, the bass player, was a beautiful dude, too. He eventually got a little fed up with music and went back home and did something else.
JW: Did you know Bernie’s Tune before you recorded it?
CH: No. I think it was an East Coast tune.
JW: Your playing with the quartet was firm and light and set a new drumming style and standard.
CH: That’s the name of the game, man. Gerry loved my playing. Gerry was more than happy with the sound. We got along, although we went to war every now and then.
JW: Over what?
CH: We never battled about music. Mostly stuff about our different outlooks.
JW: Did Gerry and Chet get along?
CH: At times they didn’t. Imagine a little bandstand, with the drums in the middle and Chet on one end and Gerry on the other. We were on top of each other at that place, and at times they’d be at it, playing almost back to back.
JW: As an African-American, was there any friction playing with them?
CH: None at all. I played with a whole lot of white groups before Gerry. I did a lot of Country & Western stuff.
JW: Is the Gerry Mulligan Quartet vivid in your memory as a standout career experience?
CH: It was just another gig, man. I left the group first and went back with Lena [Horne] because I had to make some dough. The quartet wasn't making hardly anything. When Lena came back from Europe, I went with her because I had a wife and two kids to support.
CH: When I left the quartet, the sound went with me. Gerry never had that sound on drums again. The group didn’t have the same sound after that.
Tomorrow, Chico talks about playing with Billie Holiday and his groundbreaking trio and quintet, which changed the sound of modern jazz.
JazzWax tracks: The Gerry Mulligan Quartet's Pacific Jazz recordings can be found on a two-disc set here or as a download at iTunes.
You also can hear the quartet's sound leveraged to a tentet in 1953 here or at iTunes on Gerry Mulligan: Tentet and Quartet. The tentet was comprised of Chet Baker and Pete Candoli (trumpets), Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone), John Graas (French horn), Ray Siegel (tuba), Bud Shank (alto sax), Don Davidson and Gerry Mulligan (baritone saxophones), Joe Mondragon (bass) and Chico Hamilton (drums). The tracks are Westwood Walk, A Ballad, Walkin' Shoes and Rocker.
JazzWax clip: Even if you've heard Bernie's Tune 100 times, listen once again—but this time focus solely on what Chico is doing on the drums. Listen to the dramatic tension he creates with brushes and his light percussive thuds on the smaller bass drum...