Chico Hamilton at 90: Still the Circus Master

Radio host Russ Davis reflects on his recent interview with the legendary drummer

The first time I interviewed Forestorn “Chico” Hamilton, the renowned drummer, composer, bandleader, NEA jazz master and living jazz legend, in his penthouse apartment in New York overlooking the East River and the UN it was 1999. He was in his late 70’s and still going strong with a hot, new release titled Timely, leading his great band of young players called Euphoria in concerts all over the world and teaching at the New School in Manhattan. I asked him about his incredible drive and enormous output and he told me…”I didn’t come to see the circus…I AM the circus!”

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Chico Hamilton
By Nick Ruechel
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Chico Hamilton

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Recently, I returned to visit Chico to celebrate his 90th birthday, September 20th, and talk about the three new releases with which he’ll celebrate this milestone in an incredible career in jazz that has spanned over 7 decades. Chico never does anything in a small way. I remember how he celebrated his 85th birthday in 2006 with 6 separate albums. The circus is still in town, and Chico is the ringmaster. Just ask him, as I did. He’s rightfully proud of his past, his output and his longevity, all of which have been marked by a unique vision of how he could express himself through jazz, create his own musical language, and bring every project to fruition and ultimate success with a combination of talent and an indomitable sense of drive that would make Madonna or Lady Gaga take notes. He may be 90, a time when the physical body seems to lose contact with the mind and spirit a bit, but the man has not lost his wit, wisdom and ability to recall the people and places he’s been or the things he’s achieved. An hour with Chico is time well spent from both an informational as well as an entertainment standpoint.

Firstly, here’s the skinny on the three releases that are all part of his 90th birthday celebration. The 22-song CD Revelation will be released September 27th, marking Chico’s 60th album to date, and two EPs, Revelation and Euphoric, will be released on September 13th. Chico assembled a great band, as usual, for this project including some who’ve been with him for quite awhile including Paul Ramsey on bass and Evan Schwam on flute & reeds. The band also features Mayu Saeki on flute; and Jeremy Carlstedt on drums and percussion. Another major new addition is Nick Demopoulos on guitar, whose rhythm and lead contributions join the long list of great guitarists who’ve played with Chico over the years including Jim Hall, Barry Finnerty, Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Eric Schenkman and his more recent discovery, Cary DeNigris, who was a member of Euphoria for most of the bands 2+ decades.

I believe that the key to staying young is to be forever childlike in nature and by staying creative in the same way that a child is, with every discovery an initiation experience. It seems to me that Chico is indeed living proof that creativity is the fountain of youth. After experiencing a health setback during the summer of 2010, Chico, instead of rehabilitating in total inactivity as most of us might, spent his time creating the many new works that are these three new releases. Chico showed me the little workspace or laboratory where the composing is done. It’s a keyboard and recording set up tucked away in a corner of his midtown Manhattan apartment with a full drum kit a short distance away. Once the music was composed and the band put through their paces with his non-stop rehearsal schedule, Chico was revitalized and the three-disc set that is Revelation was born.

Chico began his career as a leader with his 1955 recording The Chico Hamilton Trio on the Pacific Jazz label with Howard Roberts & George Duvivier. They featured no piano, Chico explains that a pianist takes up too much musical space and attention, and they sounded unlike anything else that was out at the time. The same can be said for most of the work he’s done over the years including the new album Revelation and the two EP’s. Along with the aforementioned Chico songs, the recording features some of the band members’ original compositions too, along with some classics, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” that feature a full band vocal section. The songs on Revelation are short, concise pieces with limited space for improvisation much like the music Chico probably played in his bebop days. There’s lots of variety in the collection with everything from Latin groove, to funk, to straight ahead swing and a little classical element as well. The reeds and woodwinds, most especially the flutes, stand out in this music, with the guitar work of Nick Demopoulos not far behind in importance. But that distinctive “Cheek’s Groove” is what makes this music so very special.

In a question I tried to explain what his unique drumming style is all about in a few words but stopped short, unable to complete my thought. Chico picked up the sentence with a short history lesson that took what one might call the kinesthetic of drumming and boiled it all down to one word…touch. I mentioned how players like Jaco Pastorious explained their unique style was also about touch and Chico mentioned how Jaco did one of his first sessions with him, and off we went into the history of Chico.

I asked about how he felt about the fact that I consider him “The Father of Jazz Fusion,” for bringing Larry Coryell’s rock-edged guitar improvisation into a “jazz” session for the first time with his 1966 release The Dealer. He told the story of how Chico and his band, including Gabor Szabo on guitar, were playing in Seattle, Larry’s hometown. Larry would come every night to hear them play and eventually end up auditioning for Chico and fusion history was born. I asked Chico if his fellow jazzers of the 1960’s appreciated his fusion of rock and jazz and he directed me to his album The Master that he recorded with members of the band Little Feat and repeated his personal mantra…”I didn’t come to see the circus…I AM the circus!”

And, he’s not only the ringmaster but also a DOCTOR! He’s been named a Doctor Of Fine Arts by The New School University. He’s also been saluted by the Kennedy Center as a “Living Jazz Legend”, appointed to the National Council on the Arts and, as mentioned before, been named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. But all of those awards and accolades mean much less to Dr. Hamilton, it seems to me, than all those sessions, all those tours, all those performances, and all those men and women he’s played with over these many years. All you have to do is mention Eric Dolphy, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Mingus, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and any number of other greats with whom he’s taken the stage and you’ll get stories and wisdom galore for as long as you care to take it in. I know I did.

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