Chico Hamilton remains one of the greatest living drummers of our time. In the 1950s, Chico developed a sound on the instrument that was radically different from the bop-heavy style favored by his more explosive contemporaries. Chico's technique was whispery and tenacious, turning the snare, bass drum, cymbals and high-hat into coaxing co-conspirators. Understated and knowing, Chico's layered style was more about cool seduction and surf-like persistence than brawn.
In the years after leaving the pioneering Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952, Chico led his own groundbreaking trio, backed leading singers, formed a piano-less quintet that became a national sensation, appeared in and wrote the music for Sweet Smell of Success, discovered Eric Dolphy, and was early in the free-jazz and jazz-fusion movements. From the late 1960s onward, Chico has released upward of 25 albums, each different yet related in their search for a new sound and experimental syncopation. His new album, Twelve Tones, will be released on April 14.
In Part 3 of my interview with Chico, the legendary drummer talks about the East Coast-West Coast jazz rivalry, the formation of his famed trio and quintet, filming Sweet Smell of Success, what he learned from Count Basie, and his big life lesson:
JazzWax: After you left the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, you re-joined Lena Horne?
Chico Hamilton: Well, I never really left her. She went to Europe, and I didn't want to go. Working with Lena was one of the best experiences in my whole life. Before I went with Lena, I had never heard of her. I was a so-called street dude then. Working with Lena in the late 1940s and again in 1952 turned me completely around and got me into show business.
JW: Show business?
CH: There’s a big difference between show biz and the so-called music business. With show biz you put on a show and entertain. I’m not an entertainer by nature. I’m a musician. But through Lena, being exposed to Sweet Pea [Billy Strayhorn], Luther Henderson, Duke Ellington and Lennie Hayton, I learned all about entertaining and how to bring the two together.
JW: Was there a rivalry between you and Max Roach during this period?
CH: Nah, it wasn't like that. Max was beautiful. We were friends. Matter of fact, Max [pictured] was the first musician I met in New York when I came there with Lena Horne in the late 40s. Charlie Drayton, who was a childhood friend and played bass with Lena, we both went to the Capitol Theater. I can't recall what we saw. But Max came to see Charlie. That's how Max and I met.
CH: [Laughs] No, no. It was all mixed. I played with Bird [Charlie Parker] quite a bit out on the West Coast. I was the house drummer at Billy Berg's and before that the Club Capri. Musicians were all developing their own thing, their own sounds back then. Nat King Cole was a good friend of mine, too. He played at my wedding in the late 1940s. My wife and I were married for 67 years. She just passed away last April.
JW: How did the so-called West Coast Jazz name stick?
CH: The first time I took my trio to New York, in 1953, we played Basin Street East opposite Max Roach and Clifford Brown. I think Down Beat wanted to get a campaign going, so they called it East Coast v. West Coast. That’s how that whole West Coast Jazz thing started. It was like a publicity stunt.
JW: Your first trio was exceptional. How did it come together?
CH: Dick Bock [co-founder of Pacific Jazz Records] had promised me a record date when I recorded with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. When I left the quartet in 1953, Dick asked if I wanted to record with a trio. I was going to put together a piano trio but all the piano players had their own things going. Gerald Wiggins, Hampton Hawes, and so on.
JW: Were you close with Hawes?
CH: We were married to cousins. We used to call each other "Cuz" [laughs]. In fact, Hamp was in one of the hippest groups I ever had: Me, Hamp on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Wardell Gray on tenor sax.
JW: The 1953 trio was unusual, wasn't it?
CH: Yes. It was the first time a trio—guitar, bass and drums—were featured on a record as solo instruments as opposed to a rhythm section. I got George Duvivier on bass because he had been with me with Lena Horne. Then I got Howard Roberts.
JW: After your trio date, you recorded with Billie Holiday in 1954.
CH: I did a lot of time with Lady, including the "Lady Sings the Blues" concert at Carnegie Hall concert in '56. Working with Billie always depended on what kind of bag she was in. If she was cool, she was cool. If she was high, look out. She could get angry, but she never gave me a bad time. I had an attitude too.
JW: How did your attitude help you?
CH: It kept a lot of people from picking on me. I’d fight in a minute and people knew it. You have to draw the line. Otherwise people take advantage of you.
JW: In 1955, after a series of albums with singers that year, you formed your first famous quintet.
CH: Yeah, we had Buddy Collette on reeds, Fred Katz on cello, Jim Hall on guitar, Carson Smith on bass and me on drums. Originally the cello was supposed to be a French horn. But the guy I wanted, John Graas, wasn't available. About a week later, I was doing a thing with Fred Katz. We had played together with Lena. I told him about my plight. He said why not a cello? I said sure, OK, bring it over. Why not? [laughs]. [Photo of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1956 by Gordon Parks for Life]
JW: You left out the piano.
CH: Every now and then Fred would play some piano with us. But it didn’t work. Piano got in the way, as far as I'm concerned.
JW: The popularity of your quintet was something
CH: It was ridiculous. We were supposed to play a week at The Strollers in Long Beach [California]. We wound up staying three months. The club brought in a disc jockey named Sleepy Stein. He started broadcasting us live, and people came from all over. Long Beach was a rough place. It was a hooker’s town because it belonged to the Navy. Even the sawdust was funky.
JW: A tough gig?
CH: Can you imagine? Two black dudes and three white dudes going into a place like that with a cello [laughs]. I tell you man. And sailors. Half the time we had to fight our way out of there. But the whole world dug our sound.
JW: Did you know how that group was going to sound before you brought everyone together?
CH: Absolutely. I could hear it in my head. At that time, we just wanted to play in tune. That was the beginning of the rock era, when the musicians and kids were shouting and carrying on. We were hip. We just wanted to play in tune.
JW: The quintet's sound was delicate and aggressive, thanks to your brushwork.
CH: That's how I played, man. It wasn't a mood thing. It was pure drive, you dig? My brush stroke is strong. It grooves. I get into the pocket. By doing that, I play at the right tempo. That's what I learned from Count Basie. You have to find a groove, a pocket, and then work it.
JW: In 1957 you wrote the incidental music for Sweet Smell of Success.
CH: I tell you, man, that was great. The actor Martin Milner, who played the quintet's bandleader in the movie, he didn't know how to play guitar. So what happened was Milner put his left hand behind him and John Pisano, my guitar player, put his hand on the strings. It looked like Milner was playing the guitar, the way Jimmy Wong [Howe] shot it [laughs].
JW: Was it exciting to write the music and appear with the quintet in the film?
CH: Sure. You know what happened? Before they offered me the gig, they watched me for six months all over the country to make sure that I wasn't into dope. I wasn't, but they wanted to be sure. They didn't want that bouncing back.
JW: You discovered Eric Dolphy.
CH: Yeah, Eric went to school with my brother Bernie. Bernie turned me on to Eric. Eric was born in Los Angeles. His folks lived in my neighborhood. Man, he could play.
JW: Did you enjoy scoring Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in 1965?
CH: That was the hippest movie I’ve ever done. Roman never forgot why he hired me. I had about 25 music cues in there. He only had a discussion about one of them. Roman let me be. Unfortunately, most producers and directors forget why they hired you. They think the music is theirs, and they get in your way.
JW: Why do other drummers seem to get a greater share of attention than Chico Hamilton?
CH: I don’t know. Maybe because I've always seen the drums as a melodic instrument, not a percussive one. I developed a touch. It may not have been as loud but it's mine. Look, it’s impossible for any two drummers to sound alike. If you’re tall, you sit away from the drums. If you’re short, you sit close. I play down on my instrument. I found early on that it’s easier to hold arms down than up. I sit so I’m playing down on them. And that's my sound.
JW: You have a new album coming, Twelve Tones.
CH. Yes, it’s a good album. It's very listenable. I think you're going to dig it. I wrote just about everything on there. It’s all my music, which is cool.
JW: What's your big life lesson?
CH: You can’t please everyone. I’m blessed because I can make music, and I make music for music’s sake. Music demands to be played and executed extremely well. I believe music is God’s will.
JazzWax tracks: The Chico Hamilton Trio of 1953 with bassist George Duvivier and guitarist Howard Roberts (replaced in 1956 with Jim Hall) can be found here. Chico's Billie Holiday session from 1954 can be found on Recital by Billie Holiday here. The 1956 Carnegie Hall concert can be found on Lady Sings the Blues here.
The early Chico Hamilton Quintet sessions are spread over three different CDs: The Chico Hamilton Quintet: Live at Strollers here, the Original Chico Hamilton Quintet here and The Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Sessions, 1956-57 here.
Chico's compositions and his quintet's playing on Sweet Smell of Success can be found on Jazz and Orchestral Themes Recorded for the Soundtrack of the Sweet Smell of Success here.
Eric Dolphy as a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet can be found on The Original Ellington Suite here and With Strings Attached here. Gongs East and The Three Faces of Chico are on a single CD here.
Two offbeat albums you may want to sample that I dig very much are The Dealer (1968) and Nomad (1980). The Dealer, a funky album, can be heard at the Verve site here. Nomad, a fascinating quasi-World recording, is available as a download at iTunes.
JazzWax clip: To hear the Chico Hamilton Quintet in Sweet Smell of Success, and to see John Pisano's left hand up under Milner's arm, dig the clip below (move the bar to 7:16 into the clip)...