Chico Hamilton
Photo by Rick Malkin

Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton, who played an integral role in the formation of the West Coast–based “cool jazz” style of the 1950s, died this past November 25 at age ninety-two. He was never a _ ashy drummer in terms of technique, but his smooth sense of swing was perfect for the more laid-back type of jazz that developed in his hometown of Los Angeles.

Hamilton was an original member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which many credit with starting the “cool” movement. He later formed his own “chamber jazz” ensemble with the unique instrumentation of guitar, flute, cello, bass, and drums. That group achieved much popularity in the ’50s and can be seen in two movies: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Much like his contemporary Art Blakey, Hamilton became known as a leader who could spot and nurture young talent, and over the years such prominent players as bassist Ron Carter, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd, and guitarists Jim Hall, Gabor Szabo, and Larry Coryell got their start with Chico.

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts cites Hamilton as his first influence in those years. “The first thing I heard that I wanted to emulate was Chico Hamilton playing brushes on ‘Walkin’ Shoes’ by Gerry Mulligan,” Watts told MD in a 1990 interview. “For years I just played brushes on a banjo head.” Years later the two drummers became friends, and they played together on a track from Hamilton’s 2001 album, Foreststorn, called “Here Comes Charlie Now.”

Hamilton, in fact, was very proud of his use of brushes. “When I was about fourteen or fifteen playing with a band, the leader made me use brushes,” he recalled in a 2001 MD interview. “Every time I’d go to pick up the sticks, he’d say, ‘Put them sticks down, boy. Let me hear those brushes.’ It really paid off, because I spent about fifteen years playing for singers, and brushwork was the name of the game—being able to lay down a groove and stay quiet enough underneath them.”

Hamilton also had an impact on Peter Erskine. “I was directly influenced by a recording he made for the Impulse label in 1966, called The Further Adventures of El Chico,” Erskine says. “It was lightweight fare but somehow really great. Chico played bossa nova and samba in the coolest way. He was able to get inside of the beat and stay there, just simmering, but he could also add some terrific rhythmic counterpoint. He kept it all very focused. Listening to it again after so many years makes me realize I owe Chico Hamilton that much more respect and thanks.”

Erskine cites another way in which Hamilton influenced him: “He played single-headed toms, and that functioned as jazz’s permission to play our drums that way—a model I followed until Mel Lewis chewed me out in a downbeat interview for doing the same!”

Hamilton’s use of single-headed toms was originally born out of practicality during World War II. “It was hard to get calf heads,” Chico told MD. “So if I would go through a batter head, I’d replace it with the head from the bottom. I got so used to hearing the sound that way that when Gretsch started making my drums for me, that’s what they made.”

Born in 1921, Hamilton began working professionally with such musicians as Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, and Charles Mingus while still in high school. He toured with Lionel Hampton before serving in the army during World War II, and then he worked with the bands of Jimmy Mundy, Charlie Barnet, and Count Basie before becoming the house drummer at Billy Berg’s nightclub in L.A. in 1946. He toured with singer Lena Horne before joining Mulligan’s group in 1952.

In the mid-’60s Hamilton became active as a composer for advertising jingles and movie and TV soundtracks, while continuing to lead his own band. In the mid-’70s he went back on the road full time as a bandleader. He expanded from the cool-jazz sound and incorporated elements of free jazz, hard bop, and jazz-rock fusion into his group’s style. He continued leading bands until shortly before his death, and until late in 2012 he was appearing in Manhattan with his group Euphoria, which he formed in 1989. He also recorded throughout his life. In 2011 he released an album titled Revelation on the Joyous Shout label. He had recently completed Inquiring Minds, which is scheduled for release this year.

Hamilton received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2004 and a Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007. He became involved in education as well, teaching at the Parsons New School for Jazz in New York City and at Mannes College at the New School. One class he taught was titled Analysis of Rhythm. What did he feel the students needed to learn? “They don’t understand where their pulse is,” he explained in 2001. “Take a note—quarter note, half note, whatever. In that note, your pulse is either in the middle, up front, or behind. To familiarize yourself with that ahead-of-the-beat feeling, think in terms of Latin music, where everything is on top. If you’re right down the middle, that’s like Jo Jones; he started that with the Basie band, who outswung everybody. If you’re down the middle, it’s very easy to groove with the bass player, if he plays down the middle. If you play on the end of the beat, that’s like Erroll Garner, who played real delayed.

“It took me a long time to get into teaching,” Chico said. “Once I did, I realized that this was my way of giving something back, because music has been very good to me. So if I can help some young players develop into good musicians, that’s my reward.”