Chico Hamilton pauses during a conversation, turns to Jazz-Times and asks, “How old did you say I was, man?”
It’s not that he’s forgotten, because his mind is as sharp as a direct hit on a snare. Hamilton is just seeking confirmation because, despite some significant setbacks during the past few years—heart problems, the death this past April of Helen, his wife of 67 years—the renowned drummer and bandleader, who hasn’t held a job outside of music since he was a shoeshine boy in his native Los Angeles, doesn’t feel old.
“Yeah, OK, 87,” he says. “And at 87, man, I can play all over the world and I don’t have to play anybody else’s music. I play my own. I don’t have to play Duke or Basie, which is cool. That’s my reward. I’ve been blessed because I’ve been able to make music, and I make music for music’s sake.”
Hamilton is seated at a table in his penthouse apartment, a block away from the headquarters of the United Nations on Manhattan’s east side. Small and cozy, the apartment has been home to Hamilton since the mid-1960s. On the walls are numerous photos, including Helen and daughter Denise, who lives downstairs in the same building. Several paintings, and a blown-up letter from President Bush, congratulating Hamilton on being named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004, also vie for space. The bookshelf is well stocked and diverse: bios of Bessie Smith and Dr. Martin Luther King, James Michener’s fiction, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, The Magic of Black Poetry and a volume on sailboating, among many others. A stack of New Republic magazines rests on the glass coffee table. “Reading is a luxury,” says Hamilton.
There are two keyboards on which he writes new music, one in a tight space adjacent to the kitchen (“Check out the dirty dishes,” says Hamilton, a self-described gourmet specializing in Mussels Italiano) and one in the bedroom. A small drum kit sits by a door that leads to a terrace that wraps around the apartment on three sides. Outside are potted plants of various sizes and shapes that do their best to survive New York’s erratic weather.
Hamilton’s once-clear view of the East River is obliterated now, and several blocks to the north rises one of Donald Trump’s monstrosities. “When I first moved here, this was the only apartment building on this block,” he says. “Now I can’t even park my car in front of the house anymore. But hear how quiet it is now? It’s always like that.”
And when he wants it even quieter, Hamilton drives the hundred miles to East Hampton, Long Island, where he has a second home, one he built himself in the early ’70s. He may appear frailer than the image peering from so many familiar album covers, his gait is slower, and the docs have him on all sorts of medication, but he’s not letting any of that stop him.
Just a few nights before this interview, Hamilton played a gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. “That was the first time I’ve played a club in New York in, shit, years,” he says. “What I’ve been doing is I play Borders bookstores, which is dynamite, man. We do a 45-minute set, sign autographs and they buy all my albums.”
If ever proof were needed that maintaining an active lifestyle is the key to a long, happy existence, this guy is it. In a few minutes he’ll welcome a young drum student into his home and, as he has for more than 20 years, Hamilton still teaches two classes at the New School University Jazz Program: rhythm and ensemble playing. For that he’ll now need to acquaint himself with the Mac laptop that sits near the table. “I just learned how to turn it on,” he says. “I gotta get into it because the school says no more paper. I’m getting it.
“This is my way of giving something back, man,” he says. “Music’s been very good to me all my life.”
That life is being documented in an autobiography. “I’m up to the Lena Horne chapter,” says Hamilton, which means he has roughly 50 to 60 years of experiences left to tell. Not a problem—work keeps him going; leisure time is not in his lexicon. “No, I don’t think so,” he says. “What’s that? That’s for when I’m sleeping.”
The Personal File
Close Encounters of the Presidential Kind, Pt. 1
“I worked for [President Nixon’s Chief of Staff and Watergate figure] H.R. Haldeman. I was doing commercials for him when he had the Ford account. [Ed. note: Haldeman worked at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency prior to meeting Nixon in the ’50s.] I used to do all the music for the Ford commercials. When [Haldeman] decided to go with Nixon, he made everybody join [the Republican Party]. I met Nixon and all those guys, but let’s put it like this: I’ve never been a starfucker. I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I’m still a Republican, but I’m very disappointed in the directions they’ve turned in. I’m an independent now but I think it’s about time [for an African-American president]. It’s past due. I hope [Obama being elected] happens, because we, as a nation, got a lot of undone things to take care of. ”
Close Encounters of the Presidential Kind, Pt. 2
“When I was with Lena [Horne] we played for President Truman and I’ll tell you something funny. On the dais, they must have had a hundred people sitting there, and the stage was in the opposite direction. I was standing in the wings and looking out at everything and Mrs. Truman had to go to the bathroom. Everybody stood up. I was wondering how she must feel walking to the bathroom and everyone is standing up as she passes.”
Built for Speed
“I drive a small SUV now. I love it, man. Matter of fact, the first day I got it, I was coming back into the city from Long Island and I got a ticket! I was doing 80 miles an hour! I didn’t even know I was doing 80. I had my special Suffolk County PBA badge and the fuckin’ cop took it, man, and still gave me a ticket. I told my friends and they said he was really wrong.”
Two Things You Never Knew About Duke Ellington
“Number one, man, he was the only person I know that sent his Christmas cards out in July. And the other thing is, you’ll be talking to Duke and you’ll want to say no, and he’ll make you say yes. If you want to say yes, he’ll make you say no.”