Dealing in Human Emotions

August 19, 2008

Chico Hamilton

A fearlessly creative and inspired drummer, Chico Hamilton has exerted enormous influence on the world of jazz both as a recording and performing artist, as well as a keen-eyed (and eared) scout for fresh new talent.

Hamilton was immersed in music virtually from the start his early years saw him playing in a high school jazz group with the likes of Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, Ernie Royal, and Jack Kelso. Stints with Lionel Hamilton, Count Basie, and Lester Young followed and Chico eventually hooked up with Lena Horne, with whom he toured for six years.

Chico then assembled one of the most significant of the ’50s West Coast jazz ensembles, The Chico Hamilton Quintet. Initially featuring Buddy Collette, Carson Smith, Jim Hall, and Fred Katz, the group quickly became extremely popular and appeared in a number of high profile studio films including The Sweet Smell of Success and Jazz on a Summer’s Day. After launching a highly successful career composing music for commercials in the mid-1960s, Hamilton became one of the architects of the jazz program at The New School in NYC, where he continues to instruct young musicians to the present day.

Earlier this summer, Chico Hamilton took a break from his active performance and recording schedule (and teaching duties) to speak with JAZZed about his life as a student, performer, and teacher of jazz.

JAZZed: First off, thanks much for taking the time to meet today.
Chico Hamilton: Sure thing. Whatever you want to talk about it’s fine with me. Wanna talk about girls, booze, music?

JAZZed: I’d be up for shooting the breeze about all three, but let’s start off with music: How did you first get into jazz?
CH: Well, when I came up, man, I came up with the people who created this kind of music, as far as jazz is concerned, you know? I learned quite a bit from Jo Jones, Luther Henderson, Billy Strayhorn, and Duke Ellington.

JAZZed: You also started out of the gate hot: Your high school jazz band was a virtual “who’s who” of luminaries from that era.
CH: My high school band consisted of Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, Jack Kelso, Dexter Gordon, myself, Illinois Jacquet, and Ernie Royal.

JAZZed: That’s just a ridiculous lineup. Was that ensemble traditional band music with “jazzy” overtones that you guys would slip in, or was it straight-up jazz?
CH: It was stone-cold jazz, man.

JAZZed: Talk a little about being a music student during that time.
CH: The education system out in L.A. at that time… Every student was required to take some form of music either sing or play some instrument or something. It was a requirement before you could even graduate from grade school. Music was considered to be more important than it is today.

JAZZed: Who was the high school band director?
CH: The band director at the school was Samuel Brown.

JAZZed: Did he lead your jazz band or was he strictly in charge of the marching band program?
CH: He had nothing to do with our jazz band. The only reason why I joined the marching band was to get a sweater. You got a sweater free and my family couldn’t afford to get one of those sweaters, so I joined. [laughs].

JAZZed: Had you started out on the drums right from the get-go?
CH: My first instrument was the clarinet. I was about 8 years old and my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet and I wanted one, too. It took my folks about six months before I could have one because it cost two dollars to rent a clarinet. Jack and I have been friends ever since that age we’ve never had an argument, and we’re still good friends. He was Best Man at my wedding, as a matter of fact, and I just got through recording with him, recently. Anyways, when I finally got a clarinet, my older brother Tommy was playing drums in the school orchestra. I was fighting this clarinet, man, and when Tommy graduated from grade school I just figured, “Hey, well, I might as well try to play the drums,” and that’s how I got started.

JAZZed: Who were some of your early influences or mentors as far as drumming goes?
CH: Lionel Hampton, who lived in L.A. at that time, influenced me very heavily. He had an act where he played on the walls and the floors I used to imitate him.

JAZZed: Are you primarily self-taught?
CH: More or less self-taught. I didn’t learn how to read music until I went into the service.

JAZZed: Tell me about your time in the military.
CH: When I got drafted, they sent me to Anniston, Alabama. There were two camps: a white camp and a black camp. In the white camp there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exner who was with Claude Thornhill’s band. We used to meet in the woods and Billy would bring his drums he taught me how to read drum music in the woods of Alabama.

What happened was: when I got drafted, man you won’t believe this I went down there with my drums, right, and they wouldn’t put me in the band! They had about four drummers in this band and none of them could play a show. I grew up playing shows, you know? They put me in the drum and bugle core and they made me play a bugle! [laughs] But every time they had a show to play, they had to send for me because none of those drummers knew how to play for dances and singers.

Chico Hamilton JAZZed: Unreal.
CH: You said it.

JAZZed: What was next for you after the service?
CH: I went back to L.A. and enrolled in the L.A. Conservatory of Music. I was there for about six months and I got a gig playing for 88 dollars a week. All of a sudden Basie came into town and Jo Jones came by and got me and told me to come to the Lincoln Theatre that day. I was standing in the wings, watching the show, Jo comes off the stage, takes the sticks and puts them in my hand and says, “You got it!” Basie was really upset, but Freddie Green said, “Jo said the kid can do it let him do it,” and that’s how I got started with Basie.

JAZZed: What a break. How long did you play with Basie?
CH: Oh, that was about six, seven weeks. It was cool.

JAZZed: How did you hook up with Lena Horne?
CH: I played for a dancer a singer, comedienne, dancer, and all that and she and Lena Horne were very close. At that time, I didn’t even know who in the hell Lena Horne was. I got a call from Luther Henderson to come out and audition for her Charlie Dreyton and me. Man, that turned my whole life around. I didn’t know nothing about show business; I was a street musician. I made the audition for Lena, got the gig, and stayed with her for eight years.

In ’55 I decided I wasn’t going to go to Europe with Lena and I stayed in L.A. That’s how I got together with Gerry Mulligan and we got the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet going.

I recorded my first album with George Duvivier and Howard Roberts. That was the first time that guitar, bass, and drums were actually the solo instrumentalists as opposed to being just part of the rhythm section. From then it went on to my second album with Fred Katz, Buddy Collette, Carson Smith on bass, myself on drums, and Jim Hall on guitar.

JAZZed: Can you tell me about how you first got involved with teaching, yourself?
CH: It was the mid-’60s and I was in London working with Lena and I was making a movie with Roman Polanski, Repulsion I cued the whole film and I earned quite a bit of recognition from it.

While I was doing the film I got a call from a creative art director from Grey Advertising by the name of Mike Wollman and he wanted to know if I would do a commercial for them.

JAZZed: You did quite a bit of that type of work throughout the ’70s. How did that lead to teaching, though?
CH: Well, in the meantime, while I started this production company here in New York, Arnie Lawrence and Dave Levy decided that they were going to start this school. Dave was one of the big wheels at New School University. They wanted me to come on board and I held out for a long time, but then I finally decided that I would participate and that’s how I started at the New School. That was 20 years ago we started the jazz program there.

JAZZed: What’s your current teaching schedule like?
CH: I teach two classes a week: ensemble playing and rhythm classes.

JAZZed: How large are the classes?
CH: This semester I got about 20 kids in my reading class and about 10 in my ensemble right now.

JAZZed: What do you find to be the most rewarding element of teaching?
CH: It’s my way of giving something back. Music has been very good to me, man. I realized that the very first class I taught. I said, “This is a chance for you to give something back.” Let me tell you something, man: I believe that music is one of God’s wills and God’s will will be done. I’ll tell you something else, Christian: I don’t play music for people; I play music for the music’s sake.

JAZZed: That’s definitely my take on it not that anyone’s asking for my philosophy on how to approach being a musician.
CH: [laughs] No, you’re right, though. I don’t try to please anyone, because you get your feelings hurt, you know what I mean? I learned that from Louis Armstrong. “Fans are fickle,” he said. That’s why Pops converted all his fans into friends, because even after his chops were gone they still would go see Pops, right?

JAZZed: No argument here. So you’ve told me what you like most about teaching what do you find most annoying? What’s most frustrating?
CH: Listen man, I don’t let nothing frustrate me. That’s number one. Number two is: you’re always going to get an asshole in the class, you know? Not only just a village-idiot type, there’s always going to be at least one asshole, so you just take it with a grain of salt. I had something that happened to me just recently. The one black kid in my ensemble class always came in late, always had something to do, so yesterday he played one tune with us and then he said he had to leave and I just said, “Young man, let me tell you something: don’t come back.” I put him out of my class, man. I went to the front office and told them why, because this kid’s got to be spanked.

JAZZed: That makes sense in a lot of ways though, because being a musician isn’t just about reading charts and having technique. If you’re unreliable or impossible to work with, that’s just as big a downside as not being able to keep time or hit your notes.
CH: Exactly, man. I try to teach these students how to become professional musicians, as well as showing them how to play. Ensemble playing is nothing to be sneezed at, man. Ensemble playing will determine what kind of living you can make as a musician, you know?

JAZZed: With everything you’ve accomplished it’s probably difficult to pinpoint a single “best moment,” but what do consider some of your professional highlights?
CH: I’m proud of everything I do, man. I just consider myself blessed. Hey man, I’m 86 years old and I’m still able to play. That’s my reward.

JAZZed: How about highlights as an educator? Anything stand out as something you’re particularly proud of, or maybe something that you’ve learned, yourself, as an educator?
CH: I’ll give you a phrase: Those who dare to teach should never stop learning. Aside from that, the things that I have definitely learned are what not to do as a teacher.

JAZZed: Thanks again for sitting down with me. Any final thoughts you’d like to pass along to your fellow musicians and educators?
CH: We’re only dealing in human emotions. That’s what I’d like to impart. If you realize that, you’ll understand it all.

Chico Hamilton: Pre;cis

Awards Accolades: NEA Jazz Master Fellowship (2004), Congress confirms the nomination of Chico to the President’s Council on the Arts (2006), Living Legacy Jazz Award Kennedy Center’s “Jazz in Our Time Festival” (2007), honorary PhD of Fine Arts from The New School (2007).

Selected Discography: Chico Hamilton Quintet feat. Buddy Collette, Chico Hamilton Quintet in Hi-Fi, Chico Hamilton Trio (Pacific Jazz), Ellington Suite (World Pacific), With Strings Attached, Gongs East!, The Three Faces of Chico (Warner Bros.), Chico Hamilton Special, Drumfusion (Columbia), Man From Two Worlds, Chic Chic Chico, El Chico, The Dealer (Impulse), The Master (Stax), Peregrinations, The Players (Blue Note), Nomad (Elektra), Reunion, Arroyo, Dancing to a Different Drummer (Soul Note), 6th Avenue Romp, Heritage, Hamiltonia (Joyous Shout!).

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