“I’m as original as one can get in my approach to music.” These are the first words offered to me by Chico Hamilton, even before I can pose an interview question. Is this the start of a brash, indulgent expose? No. It’s the voice of a man who sees his uncompromising musical identity not as a stubbornly extroverted statement, but as a natural, inevitable fact. It’s just that Chico feels he has no other choice but to be Chico.
“Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, I don’t know. It all depends on what you like and what you don’t like. But it’s safe for me to say that I only play ‘myself,’ and that’s all anyone can do. I’ve never been fortunate enough to be able to play like any one of my peers, so I virtually had to invent a way of playing that was more conducive to me. The bottom line is that I ended up having this particular style of playing. If I had to describe my way of playing, I would point out the fact that I more or less caress the instrument as opposed to hitting it. I guess that’s the difference. I couldn’t care less about being the world’s fastest or whatever. I’m more interested in achieving a sound out of the instrument.”
Chico is careful with the words that are most important to him. The drums are reverentially dubbed “the instrument.” The word is intoned with a sense of history. It’s one of the key words in his vocabulary that pops up frequently. Anyone who has seen Chico play can’t forget how he carefully coaxes music from the instrument. He draws his audiences inward toward the instrument, rather than hitting them over the head with a chops barrage. A motif is developed, counter themes dance over it, and the cymbals swirl above in a textural blend demanding that the listeners focus their concentration as the volume of the whole descends to an impressionistic hush and then gradually crescendos to an orchestrated storm.
“Each instrument I play on the set is an individual instrument as far as I’m concerned. One cymbal isn’t the same as another cymbal. In my case, 1 use three top cymbals, and I approach each one of them differently. My whole premise is to get a sound, and the only way to achieve a sound is to acquire a touch. The touch gives you the sound. That’s what I’ve always gone for: getting a sound and approaching it gracefully—not so much in the movement or motion towards the instrument, but extracting from the instrument. As you know, you don’t have to hit that sucker hard to get a sound out of it or even to get volume. That has always been my thing.”
Chico’s respect for artistic integrity extends to all the arts. He speaks passionately of the originality, professional purity and immediacy of ballet (“They’re still doing fundamental dancing—no short- cuts”), live theater, and jazz. In his Manhattan penthouse, gourmet magazines lay on the glass coffee table, fine paintings and photographs adorn the walls, including a famous print of black mine workers once featured in Life magazine. The canvases and prints are, of course, originals.
Most jazz buffs think of Chico’s trademark style in the framework of the various groups he has organized and composed for over the years. A small-group format is a premium vehicle for Chico’s brand of expressive drumming. But Chico’s identifying sound has also remained undiluted, even in commercial contexts that would normally dictate artistic restrictions.
Many jazz musicians who made the pilgrimage to New York lost the battle between the conviction to make their own statement and the need to meet the harsh financial realities of The Apple. Some jazz innovators, prejudiced to any venues out- side of Greenwich Village, assumed that skyscraper-lined Madison Avenue was a confining corridor to the lion’s den. Not Chico—after establishing himself in California, he moved to New York City in 1966, and made the Madison Avenue scene just another vehicle for his own sound. His first jingles in New York were the beginnings of Chico Hamilton Productions, which bloomed into a steady business of scoring/playing for television and radio commercials, films, and television specials.
“I was very fortunate when I came to New York and got into the jingle business. At that time, producers were some of the most creative people around, for the simple reason that producers, directors and copywriters would reach out. They wanted something different. So when I came out here, they reached out. My reputation had preceded me as far as a particular jazz sound is concerned. They reached out and employed me to do commercials because they wanted my sound. They knew what my sound was going to be. So I never had any hassle about conforming. It wasn’t a question of, ‘Hey, I want you to sound like Chico Hamilton.’ They got Chico Hamilton!
“In a sense, I introduced the flute and guitar to TV. Previous to the time I came here, they had 20-, 25-, or 35- piece orchestras doing commercials. They had to have that huge sound. I came in and did my first commercial with a quartet including flute, guitar and cello. It caught on to the extent that people loved the sound. The sound was intimate enough. It became personalized and it identified with the product very easily. And that was the name of the game.
“So, I didn’t have to alter my way of musical thinking; I didn’t have to alter my way of playing. But 1 would say those were the good days for Madison Avenue. They were very inventive, and not only in music. During that time there were a lot of fantastic cinematographers and directors who worked at places like MPO and other studios. There were people like Mike Ciminopater to win Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Film in 1978 for The Deer Hunter] and Jerry Schatzberg [who directed such highly acclaimed films as Panic In Needle Park, 1971, and Scarecrow, 1973]—people who graduated from being cinematographers on Madison Avenue to the big screen. Those were people who were very inventive. They had open minds. Also, a lot of jazz musicians in New York were in the studios making commercials at that time.”
Another one of Chico’s key words is “blessed”—blessed to do what one does, blessed to carry on, and blessed to be what one will be. His first musical blessing was an inspirational childhood moment, which he recalls to this day with a youngster’s joy. “Sonny Greer was the first drummer that I ever saw. My mother took me to the Paramount theater in Los Angeles to see Duke’s band, and when that curtain opened up and that band hit, I didn’t see Duke at all. I just saw Sonny. The band was arranged in a pyramid up on the risers and on the very top was this drummer with about a zillion drums—a whole drum store. Man, that was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen in my life. That was it! Sonny Greer was perhaps one of the greatest percussionists ever—not drummer, but percussionist. The things that he could do, the sounds he could get, and the things that he did with his touch were miraculous.”
I reminded Chico that I’m too young to have seen Greer in his heyday. But I recalled to him a night I’ll never forget when I saw Sonny play in the last years of his life. I caught him at the West End Cafe, a very casual New York Upper West Side spot. It was a duet of Sonny with piano— just a small, informal gig. Very few people were in the place. Nevertheless, here was Sonny decked out dapper in spats and double-breasted pinstripe, lilting brushes in his 80-some-odd-year-old hands. Chico grinned wide, settled back, folded his arms decisively and concluded, “He played to the end. You can’t be any more blessed than that.”
As a young man growing up lugging his kit around Los Angeles, Chico found a fertile music scene in which to nurture his talents. Between the ages of 13 and 14, he played with a group that included later-to-be-famous schoolmates Buddy Collette on sax and flute, Ernie Royal on trumpet, and another local kid on bass—Charles Mingus. Dance-hall dates with a local trumpeter/bandleader gave Chico steady work, during which he developed stamina and brush technique.
“The leader hired me for about 75 cents a night. He wouldn’t let me use sticks. He would yell, ‘Get them brushes! Put the sticks down!’ I’ve always been very fluent with brushes from that time on. I’ve always been able to swing with them—to get that lilt. On the gig, I learned ways of keeping a good stroke without burning my wrist out or getting tired. At that time, we played taxi dances. They would charge ten cents a dance and it was continuous music. You never stopped. We would play four, five, or six hours a night straight. Every so often, you would take an intermission and someone would keep time for you. It helped develop strength and ingenuity with regard to relaxing.”
At only 16 years of age, Chico found himself waiting for the curtain to rise, “nervous as hell,” on stage with a legend and sitting in the place of the man who started it all for him. “There I was with Duke Ellington. Sonny Greer got sick and I always felt that they couldn’t find anyone else. [laughs] I played with Duke for about a month. I used to have to burn a match and draw a mustache on my face.
“Unfortunately, a lot of drummers today don’t have the chance to get that experience of playing with big bands, which they need. Playing with a big band is fulfilling—nothing like it. Knowing how to make the hits, then come back and recoup and—BOOM!—lay the thing down. You have all that brass shouting down over your shoulder. Man, you’re hearin’ it, holdin’ it—nothin’ in the world like it.”
The rocketing progress continued. While just entering his 20’s, Chico worked with Lionel Hampton, sax great Lester Young, and then later toured with Count Basie and Jimmy Mundy. Even his four- year period of army service turned out to be an unexpected rare musical opportunity, in that he studied with Papa Jo Jones. Like many of Chico’s influences, the guidance from Jo was as much spiritual as it was musical. “I met Jo before I went into the army, when Count Basie’s band first came to California. Man, 1 was nervous. Lester Young’s brother, Lee, who was a drummer, asked me if I would like to meet Jo Jones. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ [laughs] I was only in high school. I’ll never forget it. The first thing Jo said was, ‘Finish high school and go on to college.’
“I was drafted before he was and stationed in Alabama. When he came through there, I had the chance to really work out. We talked a lot. Jo is a very intelligent, worldly man. We would talk about religion, people, the world, and it eventually all ended back at the instrument because drums encompass the world.”
Chico’s growing reputation as a drummer who could hard-drive a big band or gently accompany soloists lead him to be in hot demand with singers. He swung with the vocal elite including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole. But his most cherished partnership with a vocalist was with Lena Home. Chico’s on-and-off eight-year association with Lena began in 1948 when he auditioned for bandleader/pianist/ composer Lennie Hayton, who was married secretly to Lena at the time because of the public intolerance for interracial marriage. During his stay, Chico grew to “tremendously respect” Lennie and the music as well. The importance of the drums in Lena’s act was dramatized by the stage setup. The drummer had to be physically, as well as musically, right behind the singer. “I was hired by Lennie because he liked the way I played and the sound that I got. I could read and swing at the same time, and I could do it very subtly with brushes. I had the right touch for her sound, yet I was strong enough to move a band at the same time. There was always a 15- or 16-piece band. Playing as an accompanist for Lena called on every ounce of musicianship you had.
“Every singer in the world sings with the drummer. Do you know what they sing to? They sing to your bass drum. For all hip singers—every singer that you have ever liked—you’ll find that the bass drum plays a very important part in the way that they phrase, or do anything. Any singer that’s hip will go for that—not so much the chord structure laid down by a piano or guitar, but by the drummer. The band was set up in back and I was in front of them, right behind Lena. No singer ever did that before.”
In 1952, while still playing dates with Lena, Chico helped form and became a member of Gerry Mulligan’s quartet. That fruitful partnership continued for a year. Then, in the mid-’50s, Chico took a risk— a big leap that marked his turning point. He had played for the best, and the time had come to form his own group with his own sound, concept and compositions. Because Chico’s drumming concept is a unique, textural approach, it naturally followed that his own group would breathe with a fresh new coloration. The resulting format was a quintet of guitar (Jim Hall), cello (Fred Katz), sax/flute (Buddy Collette), bass (Carson Smith), and “the instrument.”
The ensemble sound was as original as Chico’s solo sound. Some critics, groping for labels, called it “chamber jazz.” A landmark appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival sparked growing national attention, and boosted the group’s tours and records. Over the years, the quintet grew to be a jazz institution. The multi-reeds position has been filled by such inventive talents as Paul Horn, Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd. Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo and Howard Roberts have graced the band with their guitar magic.
Guitarists especially found the format to be a boon. Few jazz groups at the time featured guitar. Chico employed the instrument in an unusual manner that gave the guitarist wide freedom and, therefore, great responsibility in the band’s sound. But the prime influence in the sound was, of course, the source.
“The reason every group I’ve organized has an original sound is because of me. I’m my own gimmick. It’s not due to the fact that I might have odd instrumentation. It’s the sound that I get from the drums that achieves the sound, the timbre and flow in the arrangement of a particular composition. I feel that all drummers really determine the sound of the bands that they are playing with. The band’s sound belongs to the drummer.
“Everything I write has long, fluid lines so that it gives a drummer a chance to move—to dance. I combine the textures of smooth to rough to smooth to rough. With the right combination, you’ll get something happening without becoming boring. All drummers’ bands tend to be excellent bands because one of our idiosyncrasies is to be able to hit rhythmic articulations. When you want the band to hit an 8th note, you want it to be an 8th note. Our musicianship won’t allow us to be sloppy in these things.
“You get the biggest sound out of what you’re working with. Once you hear my band, you’re going to realize that I don’t use guitars like others use guitars. I don’t have such a thing as lead or rhythm guitar. The rhythmic articulations we use give the band a real fullness.
“The most important thing to a drum- mer is a bass player. Good ones who you can relate to and who can relate to you are few and far between. A bass player who understands your way of playing is priceless. You’ll start making music. I had this kid, Albert Stinson, in my band. He was 16 when he joined my band, man. He was a young genius in ability and musical knowledge—one of those few bass players who would pick out the best notes in a chord to play. The bassist with me now, Paul Ramsey, uses electric bass, but he sounds as close to upright as you can get when he walks.”
After several versions of the original quintet instrumentation, Chico’s band metamorphosed into various formats. Recording sessions and performances under his skillful leadership featured a parade of creative notables such as reedmen Harold Land, Charlie Mariano, Jerome Richardson, Sadao Watanabe, Arnie Lawrence and Arthur Blythe, bassists Ron Carter and Richard Davis, and percussionist Willie Bobo.
“Regarding the term ‘chamber jazz,’ I understand the commercial aspect. Anything to be sold has to have a title. That comes under the heading of marketing. I understand that, having worked on Madison Avenue. That’s alright. But if people are going to refer to my music, I would like for them to refer to it as ‘Chico’s Music,’ just like Duke wanted his music to be known as ‘Duke Ellington’s Music’—not ‘jazz.’ This is Chico’s Music. That’s all I’m doing—playing the way I feel.”
In the tune “El Moors,” a sinuous Eastern-flavored legato line of flute and trombone weaves above the delicate but insistent pulse of Chico’s mallet work on pitched toms. The descending toms motif unifies the piece, acting as a melodic/ rhythmic ostinato and the accompanying “tuned” cowbell serves as a pedal point. Rarely is the melodic drumming concept more literal. Some agile wrist work is involved in the piece, but what lingers with the listener is the sound—in this case, an exotic, haunting chant. The sound is the goal and so Chico shows only mild interest in discussing the means—technique.
“I maintain a triad in tuning. You’ve got three drums; get three different sounds. The biggest drum tends to be tuned as the root. I go by my own ear. I’m very interested in intervals. I’m more interested in constructing a composition or superimposing on a composition—working backwards towards it. I don’t think about the rudimental aspect—whether I’ll use a seven-stroke roll, flams, or whatever. In my solos, it’s just whatever it takes to duplicate the sound I hear. I want to do what any other instrumentalist would do who composes while playing; I try to keep the solos interesting.
“I never had a problem about being ambidextrous. I can lead off with my left or right. It doesn’t matter to me. I think it was always there but I developed it too. I figured that anything I could do with my right hand, I had to do with my left. Even now, when I practice, I probably don’t practice like the average player would, because once I’ve played something, I don’t want to play it anymore. That’s why, during the course of my band’s set, we’re going to run the gamut. We’re going to take you on all kinds of trips. I don’t stay in one groove. From tune to tune I change the groove, the mood, the feeling—everything. In practicing I just do a whole lot of press rolling, open and closed, because all I want to do is keep my chops nimble.
“The drummer’s job is like the loneliness of the long-distance runner. The drummer is the loneliest dude in the band. You’re totally alone because every member of the band depends on you. If you’re playing in a large, 20-piece orchestra, there are 19 different ideas of tempo, and where the beat and time are. So it’s one against 19, even with a conductor. You’re stone-cold alone. [laughs] You have to be strong-willed, because it’s a simple matter to get caught up in somebody else’s groove. If the trumpet players are playing here and the saxophone players are playing there, it’s very easy for you to get caught in either of their grooves. You have to make up your mind, ‘Hey, man, I am it. Either you go with me or forget it!’ It’s gone on from the very beginning. That’s why all drummers have a rapport. We have a rapport that other musicians don’t have.”
Because Chico’s concept is rooted in “the natural sound of the instrument” and he sees the drums as the sound that determines the ensemble, the trend of producer/engineer-dictated drum sounds common in contemporary recording is distasteful to him. “The so-called contemporary producers, or engineers, in studios are a danger. These are the worst people in the world, as far as I’m concerned, because they virtually tried to destroy this natural instrument. This instrument was here before any of those damn so-called electronic geniuses were on the scene, and this instrument will be here when they’re gone, man. They’ve done more damage to drummers than anything possible. That’s the only thing that I don’t really particularly dig about rock: They put a muffle on things. They have tied drummers’ hands and feet. They have tied their thinking and concept.
“You have got to understand that, in music, all we’re doing is dealing in human emotions; that’s all. We don’t create music, man. Music is here. It’s been here— all around us. We’ve been blessed to the extent that making music is what we do. We don’t make the music. All we do is create a mood. We take all these things that we hear and feel, and put them in a pattern. If the pattern is simple and has continuity, everybody says, ‘Hey, yeah!’ because it gets through to them. It’s not the melodic aspect of music that is the universal language; it’s the rhythm. It’s the pulsation.
“Everybody is talking about drum machines. I mean, in dealing with human emotions, man, how long can you keep your hand on a button? The electronic aspect—I don’t put that down because there’s a use for it if you can create a mood with it. But it will never take the place of a human being putting rhythm to something, regardless of how successful it may be from a commercial standpoint of selling records and all that bullshit. The one thing that you can’t substitute is a drummer—a live human being playing a set of drums.
“I have a student now. I don’t usually teach. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller. He wants to know how to get involved in playing jazz. He already has chops but his whole concept is different. This is a hell of a challenge. I’m going to try to instill in him touch, sound, concept and why you play and approach the instrument the way you do, as opposed to being restricted like he was keeping time for rock ‘n’ roll. I’m more or less changing his ’embouchure.’ Also, I want to show him how to get power without getting volume.
“One thing about playing with electronic instruments today is that you have to have power and strength. You have to sit there and keep that one damn beat going while somebody’s jumping up and down in front of you getting their jollies. Bands aren’t making any music, just variations of sound. It’s awfully disheartening for a drummer. It’s not right for what the instrument is. I mean, when you think about the people who invented ways of playing and approaching this instrument and have created things on this instrument—the way Jo Jones approached the sock cymbal, and things like Max Roach and Art Blakey have done—it’s a shame to let it go down the drain because some asses are into something else.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with just laying it in the pocket. But there is something wrong with laying it in the pocket and not being able to change your sound around. Cymbals aren’t supposed to be padded. Otherwise, why did Old Man Zildjian make them? [laughs] You don’t have to put anything on these drums. All it is is pure drum. You don’t get a chance to control your sound playing that form of music. I haven’t seen or heard anybody who really has. I’m not talking about the funk bands. That’s a different kind of thing altogether. As a matter of fact, I think that one of the most brilliant fatback drummers in the world is Bernard Purdie. You can’t get any better than that. I’d love to be able to do some of the things that he does. I’m talking about the so-called groups that are supposed to be heroes, or miraculous musicians you might see on Entertainment Tonight or MTV.
“Fortunately, every time I have recorded, I recorded for myself. That’s the reason I’m not recording. [laughs] When record companies recorded me, they recorded me because of my sound. That’s what people would buy. I’m not a phony and I’m not a thief. How could I tone my drums down to the extent that they have pads all over them? That’s not me.
“Some artists today have had to change their music in self-defense. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not what I’m talking about. There are some rock drummers who I hear and like. They play the hell out of it. There are some R&B drummers that 1 like. I’m not restricted in regard to what I like and don’t like. I probably like some things that might make you think I’m crazy. Whatever grabs me, grabs me. I’m not interested in how much chops somebody’s got. What interests me is what that person does with what. What can drummers do with the circumstances they are in? What are they doing to help make the sound? That’s the important thing. It’s not a question of putting rock ‘n’ roll drummers down. I just think it’s not right what the engineers have brainwashed the general public with.
“I really don’t know what the future is for a person who wants to learn the instrument and eventually play in a band or orchestra. Record companies are making it totally impossible for a drummer to make a living now. How many drummers actually see the inside of a studio now? Or if they do, are they actually playing the drums as opposed to working out a sync combination with a drum machine? It hasn’t affected me directly because I haven’t been in the studio lately. [laughs] Also, it hasn’t affected me because I’m not a sideman. I don’t depend on studio calls for a living. On the other hand, I’m affected by it because all record companies are prejudiced now to my kind of thing.
“The status quo is that mediocrity is king. It’s unfortunate because young people don’t know what excellence is if they settle for the stuff that they see and hear. They will never know the essence of the best unless they reach out and say, ‘There’s got to be more. I want to see more!’ You’re supposed to give your best to music. It’s for the people—for the world. And the world deserves to hear the very best there is. Having integrity will virtually keep you playing—keep you trying to progress and improve. It’s just like seeking knowledge.
“As long as record companies are in stone-cold control of their own destiny, things probably will never happen again like they were. This particular form of music will go on and on forever because there will always be X amount of people who will dig it. It’s not going to be multitudes, but there will always be a comfortable amount of people who will want to listen to this particular form of music which they call ‘jazz.’ Whether it’s in this country or not, the world loves it. Europe, Japan—if that’s where the market is, that’s where you go.”
A market certainly exists for Chico at home, but his tours abroad have been received with open arms as well. Some of his outstanding European ventures include a 1965 series of London appearances for which he reorganized his group in order to back Lena Horne, and outstanding performances with his own band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1972 and 1973. But Chico’s first journeys to Japan and London are the travel experiences he recalls with the most enthusiasm.
“I toured with my band in Japan and it was amazing. The first time I went to Japan—and this is the truth—when we got off the plane, I was standing in front of my wife when they opened the door of the plane. We looked out and it looked as if there were 50,000, maybe 100,000 people at the airport waving flags. I turned around to my wife and said, ‘Hey! Somebody really important must be on this plane.’ I thought it was a king or something, [laughs] I swear, I had no idea that it was for me. That was my reception. I had followed Art Blakey over there. It was just amazing.
“The audiences were incredible. They knew everything that we were doing. Everything! I went up to the northern extreme of Japan—up to Sasebo—where it was so cold. The people were dressed like Manchurians and they were as white as ghosts but they had the reddest cheeks because of the cold. We got up there and I thought, ‘Why the hell are they booking me way up here? These people don’t know anything about me or jazz.’ That was the most completely wrong thing I had ever thought in my life. Man, these people knew when I was born! They knew everything about me musically—who I played with. It was amazing and they dug everything we did, man. And when I played some of the Ellington things that they were more familiar with, they would sing along. Japan was very beautiful.
“The first time I went to London, I was the first American musician allowed to play in London in 25 years because of the union thing. I went over there with Lena Horne in 1950, and I met guys like Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth and Lennie Bush. Man, we used to have a ball. We used to play all night long for days—for days! It was amazing also to find that the English musicians were as hip to what was going on as they were. At that time, they were not able to hear American jazz other than what was brought over there on records. They didn’t get a chance to hear people live because the two unions were at war, and they didn’t allow American musicians to go over there and play. England was amazing too.”
The tool for the master’s touch is a drumset that he initially invented out of necessity, and later developed and fine tuned for his taste. The first thing a drummer will notice is the surprising choice of bass drum—a 16″ floor tom extended to 17″ length and fitted with spurs and a rack tom holder. While playing a steady date with Gerry Mulligan in a very small club with lively acoustics, Chico used a 16″ for a bass to keep tighter control over the volume and sound. “It was either no drum or stamp on the floor with your shoe.” Over the years, the 16″ became his standard bass—its sound naturally meshing with the whole sound concept of the kit.
Currently, Chico uses that bass with a 5 1/2 X 14 wood snare, 8 x 12 rack tom, and a 14 x 14 floor tom. To his right are an additional four toms mounted on a rack. (“I don’t even know the measurements. The two smallest are bongo size. I just know that they make a dynamite triad sound.”) The cymbals, all Zildjian, are 14″ hi-hats, a 20″, 22″, and an 18″ with rivets. They are positioned very low, with the right-hand ride being snare level. The drumset is a mixture of parts but primarily based on Gretsch shells.
All the toms have tightly tensioned single heads. The origin of single-head drumkits is often credited to Chico. A one-headed tom allows for easier control of pitch, and is ideal for the kind of definition needed by Chico when he approaches the drum with a sharp timbale-like crack. As Chico executes one of his trademark methods of one hand playing cross-stick on the rim, while the other hand alternates between striking the cross-stick, the rim, the snare (set for snares-off), and tom, the high-pitched, single-headed sound perfectly complements the rim and cross-stick sound to create the aural illusion of multiple Latin percussion. The single-head concept was also born out of necessity. “During the war—World War II that is [laughs]—before the transitional period to plastic heads, you couldn’t get calf heads easily. I used my ingenuity and said, ‘One head is cheaper than two, and you can only play on one head at one time.’ So, I started that, and the whole world is doing that now. For years, I was the only one using a set like that. And then, lo and behold, the rockers got into it. Gretsch used my model and it became very popular for them. I designed the model with Phil Grant, who was Vice President of Gretsch when Gretsch was located in Brooklyn.”
Like any individualistic musician, Chico has had his ups and downs with record companies. By now he knows the game, good and bad, after having dealt with many labels, including Blue Note, Mercury, World Pacific, Columbia, Solid State, and Warner/Reprise. Nomad, on Elektra Records, is his most recent album release and a disc he’s quite proud of. His most memorable and fulfilling association with a record label, however, remains his years contracted with Impulse/ABC.
This fertile period produced the albums Dealer, El Chico, The Man From Two Worlds, Passin’ Thru, Chic Chic Chico, The Further Adventures Of, and the compilations, Best Of and His Great Hits. Several Impulse record jackets portrayed the image of Chico as the man with high style—”chic Chico.” There he was, shouldering an elegant red cape, sporting an ultra-fine suit, or inhaling from a long cigarette holder with a sophisticated squint. But the real proof of personal flair was preserved on the vinyl within.
“Bob Thiele at Impulse Records was one of the best producers of all time. I think that Dick Bock is also one of the best producers. They were, in my career, the best I have come across. The reason why they were the best is that Bob Thiele would sit in the booth and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got it’ and Dick would do virtually the same thing regarding what you would play and how you would play. When it was time for them to give constructive criticism, it was in regard to the approach or presentation. That’s when they would comment. Other than that, they would let a musician go. That’s how ‘Trane was able to do the things he was able to do on Impulse Records. Dick Bock was with Pacific Jazz Records. Incidentally, I made the first record Pacific ever made. It was in conjunction with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.
“I’ll tell you what amazes me with recording now. I really don’t believe it takes a quarter of a million dollars to make a record, [laughs] I really don’t understand that it takes a whole year to make an album. We used to record an album in three hours, man. Go in and do it! Everything now is high-tech. If you’re buying a record for the high-tech aspect of it, that’s something else. That has nothing to do with the performance or music, unfortunately.
“The Impulse sessions were very loose and very relaxed. We tried to do our very best. We didn’t go in and goof. You know, the days of going in the studio, getting high and waiting until everybody’s knocked out to try to play—hey, that’s bullshit, man. There was nothing of this sort. You couldn’t play if you were high. And I defy anyone today to make some music—to really play—when they’re high. The instrument that you’re playing demands that you stay cool. First of all, when you went into the studio, man, you were prepared. You knew exactly what you were going to do as far as the tunes and concept. Then the creative aspect came with the improvisation.
“There was a time when record companies would get more involved with their artists. They would underwrite an act or group in a club—pay the salaries of the band so that the band could get the exposure so they could sell more records. However, a bad side effect resulted. Eventually, clubs got to the point where, if a band didn’t have a record, they wouldn’t use it, especially in the cities. That has done a lot to keep new talented people off the scene.
“I did an album for Blue Note called Pereginations. Unfortunately, it got caught in a trap because Blue Note went out of business as soon as it came out. The general public didn’t get to hear the album, but it was excellent. It featured Arthur Blythe on sax and Joe Beck on guitar. Unfortunately, most artists who record with record companies have very little to do, or nothing to do, with the exploitation of their product. Once you leave the studio and they pay you, that’s it. It’s left in the hands of the people in the companies that they consider to be their hot shots. And if the hot shot doesn’t particularly care for you or your record, it’s over—just totally over. It has nothing to do with whether the product is good or bad. It’s out of your hands.
“Of course, I’ve been a little more fortunate than a whole lot of people who record. My records have always sold, and they still sell. They might not sell in the hundreds of thousands, but they still sell. And whenever somebody grabs up a Chico Hamilton master and re-releases it, it sells. I’m going to be recording again soon and I’m looking forward to it.”
Chico’s lament for the jazz musician’s plight in the modern world of record company restrictions is spoken bluntly, but not in bitter tones. The urgency of his words reveals more specifically a concern for the danger of accepting limitations without questions—a danger for listeners as well as musicians. The rewards and struggles of Chico’s career have come from constant change, risk taking, and a firm stand on artistic standards. However, he does concede that, in some cases, compromises must be made on the climb to building a name, especially for today’s industry-pressured young players. It’s just that he hates to see anyone sold short when it comes to music. (“It’s not that some of the pop music isn’t at the peak of perfection that bothers me, but that it’s so limited.”) It pleases him to see young players get a fair crack at realizing their potential. He has always had a reputation of keeping an open ear for young, “unknown” talents and has often nabbed them for his group. Whenever the opportunity arises, he’s also quick to give aspiring drummers encouragement.
“The most important thing is to be able to establish the fact that you know what you’re doing, and you’re good at your craft. If you have to sit down and play straitlaced on something, then sit down and be straitlaced. Give anybody what they want. But when you reach a point where you’re tired of giving other people what they want, then you move on to something else. That’s all. You try to play with as many different kinds of people as is humanly possible. Try to play in all kinds of situations.
“I don’t have to play anybody else’s music. I make my own music. That’s how I know that I’m among the ones who have been blessed. I don’t care if anyone wants to hear it. I know what I’m doing. I’m not fluffing anything. I’m doing the best that I possibly can. When you reach a point where you say, ‘I’m going to do it myself; I’ll put together my own thing,’ you’ll be ready to do it because you’re willing to take the chance. It’s not so much that I had a special musical statement. It’s just that there was no turning back for me when I started playing for myself.”
Chico’s usual cautionary advice to developing players on the hazards of the music business includes a warning on the friend/foe of the musician—critics. Critics can help, he claims, but don’t let them hinder. “I don’t think critics influence at all. I don’t know of any critic who would influence any sincere, talented musician—one that has a gift. Whatever the musician’s direction is—dealing with the spiritual aspect of it, he’s called, man. I believe that. What the hell does a critic know of how you feel about playing your instrument? If there weren’t people who don’t care about critics, then instruments wouldn’t be as advanced as they are. Man, when they invented the trombone, nobody thought it could be played like J. J. Johnson or Trummy Young. Old Man Trombone would turn over in his grave saying, ‘Damn! I didn’t know they could get that!’ Where critics didn’t like it—hey, man, it was unbelievable! Mr. Sax himself never knew that the saxophone could be played like Charlie Parker and Pres played it.”
Film is a major medium for Chico’s sound. During his stay with Lena, Chico played on studio soundtrack sessions for Paramount Pictures, and years later, his quintet was featured on camera in a segment of Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1960), a celebrated Newport Jazz Festival feature-length documentary. Several major films have been scored by Chico (he usually also plays on the soundtracks), most recent of which was the Canadian release, By Design (1982). The credit that initially opened New York doors for Chico Hamilton Productions was his previous success with two films scored before his move to the East. The first film was The Sweet Smell OfSuccess (1957), scripted by major American playwright Clifford Odetts, and the second, which sealed Chico’s reputation, was Roman Polanski’s psychological suspense drama, Repulsion (1965).
Polanski’s film is effective in its unsettling subconscious prodding and bizarre, shadowy tone. The choice of music was crucial. A too-Hollywood sound would never do and cliche string parts would have clumsily ruined the film’s subtleties. Repulsion is an original, so the only musical solution was another original. Polanski gave full confidence to Chico. The resultant film is a classic. “Roman Polanski, without a doubt, is the finest director that I have ever worked with, and the reason why is that he never forgot, through the whole time we worked together, why he hired me. He wanted my feeling and he wanted the way I felt about his scenes—his movie. I’ve worked with directors who have hated everything I’ve done, [laughs) In that whole film, I had about 25 music cues and there were no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about any of it—none of it. I cued that film myself. In other words, he didn’t tell me where he wanted music. He left the entire thing up to me. I was his musical director.
“I didn’t realize at the time that I had a film sense. But 1 was very good at motifs and that helped me. I became successful doing commercials for Madison Avenue because I could think in terms of 30 seconds, 28 seconds, 59, or whatever. I was on the set every day and I would watch Roman direct a scene. That night I would go home, write it, and then put it all together. Working with Polanski was dynamite.”
This summer, Chico’s current lineup of two guitars, sax, bass and “the instrument” let their sound blow free at the closing concert of New York’s Jazzmobile series. The season’s largest turnout—all ages, all colors—arrived early to jockey for positions with their lawn chairs and blankets, in order to get the prime sight and sound of the one, the only, the original Chico. By the time the band climbed on stage, the lawn chair “front orchestra section” was bulging out to the bushes. The rear flanks were shoulder to shoulder, butt-sore from sitting on the grey stone steps of Grant’s Tomb, and the more adventurous found seating atop statues or perches in the trees. Then the instrument sang out. “Chico’s Music” shot high-spirited pulsations through the crowd, making them forget their cramped quarters. Old Man Drum probably never imagined it could be played like that.
“We had six-, seven-, and eight-year-old kids out there break dancing, and we had 60- and 70-year-old people dancing. So we covered it. From nine to 90, people flipped over it. If you see and hear me play, I’m pretty sure you’ll never say, ‘Hey! That’s just like so-and-so did.’ You won’t ever think that when you hear me play. What I do is natural; it’s mine. I think the greatest compliment that I could ever have is the fact that, when people hear me play, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Chico Hamilton.’ ” You can’t be more blessed than that.