Between 1945 and 1972, only about a dozen groups changed the sound of jazz. In almost all cases, these highly influential ensembles introduced a completely new jazz style through innovative composition and instrument configuration. One of those groups was the Chico Hamilton Quintet, which in 1955 brought a new level of sophistication to jazz. Chico's vision was a group of enormously skilled players who also were highly sensitive and intuitive. Front and center was Buddy Collette, often on flute.
In fact, Buddy may well be the first post-war jazz flutist. As early as 1946 he was recording on the instrument (Jerome Richardson's first flute session was in 1949 and Frank Wess' was in 1954). Up until that point, the flute was viewed largely as a classical instrument most closely identified with the French Impressionist composers (think afternoons and fauns). In Chico Hamilton's group, however, Buddy used the flute as both a soother and an agent provocateur—creating warm textures as well as bold ideas that elicited equally exciting lines from the other musicians.
In Part 3 of my five-part series with Buddy, the virtuoso flutist talks about how the Chico Hamilton Quintet was formed:
JazzWax: Just curious. You were born William. How did you get your nickname?
Buddy Collette: From my mom. My father was Willie and my grandfather was William. My mom called me Buddy, so I'd stand out. That name stuck for the jazz world. And it became kind of funny when Bud Shank and I worked together often on record dates. We were Bud and Buddy, sitting right next to each other.
JW: You were in the original Chico Hamilton Quintet. How long had you known Chico?
BC: I had known Chico since I was 10 years old. He lived in the area where my grandmother lived. Also Jackie Kelso. I met them at the Ross Snyder Playground in Southeast Los Angeles. I also had recorded with Chico in other groups before he put together the quintet.
JW: How was that quintet formed?
BC: Chico and Fred Katz were out on the road backing Lena Horne. Katz was playing piano then, with Chico on drums. Chico always wanted to start a band, especially after working with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. He was a natural leader. We always talked about it when he was home in L.A. Then one day Chico and Fred quit Lena. Fred liked to play solo cello more than piano or anything. I knew about that but had never played with him.
JW: How did you come to be in Chico’s group?
BC: One day Chico called and said, “Bee"—that's what he called me, Bee or Mr. Bee—"we have a job at the Strollers in a week.” The Strollers was down in Long Beach, CA. I said, “I’m working with Scatman Crothers but Scatman said he’d let me come down after a week.”
JW: What happened next?
BC: Chico started at the Strollers in the summer of 1955 but he didn’t have the sound that he had in mind for the group. He had hired Bob Hardaway, a tenor sax player. That group played the Strollers for a week. Then Hardaway had to leave. When I arrived, I brought in four or five tunes, like Blue Sands, that were different. Chico liked the sound, but we weren't completely there yet. Something was missing.
JW: What instrument were you playing?
BC: The sax, but I could tell the group needed a different sound. Chico was stirring it up. He loved to improvise—and still does. Man, Chico can do it even when he can’t. At that point, I was a good flute player and had played it since 1940. I brought the flute in because I saw the cello and guitar and Chico improvising on the drums. I was thinking of this as a jazz-classical group. The flute would enhance that feel. [Photos of the Chico Hamilton Quintet here and below by Gordon Parks for Life]
JW: What did you think of the group’s sound?
BC: I had to respect the cello. We had a chamber thing going. But Chico at first didn’t figure the cello to play with the band.
JW: What do you mean?
BC: Chico figured on having Fred continue to play piano with the group and cello during intermissions. But I didn’t know this when I came in, and I started using the flute more because I saw the cello there and knew we needed a lighter sound from me. The cello is an instrument that loves to play alone. Loves to get out in front and play any wonderful solo—picking and bowing.
JW: So Katz played cello in between sets?
BC: Yes, he’d play piano with the group and cello on the breaks. But Fred had a tendency to stay on stage too long on the breaks. Once he got going with the bow, there was no stopping him. One night he stayed too long, for 45 minutes or so, lost in thought while playing.
JW: What did Chico think of Katz’s extended solo that night?
BC: Chico didn’t like that. After 45 minutes, Fred was still out front playing away on his cello with his eyes half open in the groove. I said to Chico, “Let’s sneak on and start"—me, Chico, bassist Carson Smith and guitarist Jim Hall.”
JW: Did you?
BC: We got past Fred easily enough. He was still on the step to the bandstand lost in his own world. The piano where Fred was supposed to be was in the back but my horn was up front. I’m the lead player so I needed to be where people could see me.
JW: Did Katz ever come up for air?
BC: Everyone got in their place on stage. Then Chico started playing, and Fred finally snapped out of it. But Fred couldn't get to the piano fast enough. We were all there and were starting to play. So Fred started bowing something and I played something on the flute. We didn’t have a pianist but we did have a guitar player in Jim Hall that no one can beat. When Fred played the piano, we couldn’t really hear him anyway. As we played, Jim left space for the cello. That’s why the group’s sound was no one’s idea. It just happened by accident, as a prank that turned into a sound we all dug immediately.
JW: Tell the truth, did you block Fred from getting to the piano?
BC: No way. Honest. He couldn’t get back to the piano once we started, so it worked out. The chamber-jazz thing gave us freedom to explore new ways of presenting the music. Jim had a different taste than other guitarists. It was more conversational than just keeping time. It was an equal voice in the group's sound, in terms of playing and listening and responding. The group was meant to sound like all of us were having an important musical conversation.
JW: So what was the precise turning point for the Chico Hamilton Quintet?
BC: When Fred moved onto the cello and off the piano, Jim suddenly could be heard playing as an equal sound, not a backup. If Fred had remained on piano, we wouldn’t have heard that special sound.
Tomorrow, Buddy talks about the historic unification of Los Angeles' white and black locals of the musicians' union, and pioneering the flute sound in the recording studios.
JazzWax tracks: The Chico Hamilton Quintet with Buddy Collette can be found on two Fresh Sound CDs: Live at the Strollers (here) and The Complete Studio Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet (here).
Another great Buddy Collette album from this period features Buddy as a sideman on a session in 1955 led by bassist Red Callender. It's available on Swingin' Suite (Fresh Sound) here.
Buddy's first leadership album was Man of Many Parts in early 1956 for Contemporary. This brilliant album featured Buddy on alto and tenor saxes and flute. Other key sessions for Buddy in 1956 included Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By (Contemporary), Buddy Rich's This One's for Basie (Verve), Tanganyika Jazz (Dig) and Nice Day with Buddy Collette (Fantasy).
JazzWax clip: Here's the Chico Hamilton Quintet playing Nice Day (1955) with Buddy Collette on clarinet...