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Chico Hamilton: The Sweet Smell of Success

Chico Hamilton
Chico Hamilton

Chico Hamilton had his first brush with Hollywood in 1957. Riding high on the popularity of his adventurous quintet of the time-reedist/flutist Paul Horn, bassist Carson Smith, cellist Fred Katz, guitarist John Pisano-he and the band were cast in Sweet Smell of Success, a gritty black-and-white film about a ruthless Walter Winchell-style, New York City tabloid-gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, played by a dour Burt Lancaster, who wields his power like a club. The plot of this sharp-edged media satire thickens when J.J.’s younger sister, played by Susan Harrison, begins dating the clean-cut young jazz guitarist in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Steve Dallas, played by Martin Milner. Tony Curtis turns in a brilliant performance as the unctuous Broadway press agent Sidney Falco, who would sell his own mother to get an item in J.J.’s column.

As the story unfolds-intercut with scenes from the jazz club where Hamilton and his crew are holding forth each night-the overprotective older brother learns of his sister’s romantic dalliance and enlists Falco’s aid in ruining the reputation of the young jazz guitarist. The toadying Falco then plants marijuana on the young, unsuspecting guitarist and tips off a sadistic New York City cop, who not only arrests the jazzbo but also beats him to within an inch of his life. In the final act, J.J. gets his comeuppance, as does Falco. It’s your basic “guitarist finds girl, guitarist loses girl, guitarist loses gig but ends up with girl” story.

From the opening credits of Sweet Smell of Success, co-written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, Hamilton’s quintessentially jazzy, Papa Jo-flavored hi-hat work sets the tone for this penetrating, noirish melodrama set almost entirely at night in and around Manhattan’s Times Square (though it was actually filmed in Hollywood). And not only does Hamilton add to the film’s period richness with his hip presence and sartorial splendor on the bandstand, he also has a few lines in backstage scenes (actually a back alley behind the club). But as the great drummer-bandleader-composer maintains 44 years later, the script he was initially handed was well off the mark.

“The director [Alexander Mackendrick] was a British guy and this was his first American film,” recalls Hamilton. “He was a helluva director but the lines that I had to deliver were just not right. For instance, at one point I was supposed to say about Marty Milner’s girlfriend, ‘Throw a rope around her and keep her here while I go get him.’ And I told the director, ‘Man, musicians don’t talk like that! As far as I’m concerned, it’s dumb.’ And he said, ‘Well, what would you say?’ So I told him, ‘Well, I’d probably say something like, ‘Cool this chick here while I go get him.’ And he said, ‘Good, good, we’ll use that.'”

Given the controversial storyline-a marijuana bust against the backdrop of a Manhattan jazz club, and coming one year after jazz star Gerry Mulligan had been released from jail following a well-publicized drug bust-the producers of Sweet Smell of Success were hypersensitive about the real-life jazz musicians they would contract for this high-profile project. As Hamilton explains, “They had us under observation for six months before they gave us the gig. And the reason was they wanted to make sure that there was no dope in my band, because of the subject, you know? They definitely wanted to make sure that we were clean. And I didn’t find this out until later but they had watched us for six months, evidently all over the country, because we were touring at the time. But finally they decided, ‘Well, these guys are clean. Let’s do it.'”

The film was a landmark for its time, a model of street-smart cinematic cynicism that preceded Network by almost 20 years. And in choosing the Chico Hamilton Quintet as its in-house group for the nightclub scenes, the filmmakers not only demonstrated unusually hip taste in music, they also proved to be quite progressive in depicting an interracial band on-screen. But then, the Chico Hamilton Quintet had always been progressive in that regard since its inception in 1955: the original lineup featured guitarist Jim Hall, reedist Buddy Collette, bassist Carson Smith and cellist Fred Katz.

“Being a mixed group was not too cool out there at that time,” Hamilton says in his penthouse apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “We played our first gigs at a club on the boardwalk in Long Beach, which at that time was really redneck country. Plus the fact that the kind of music we played was so different made it a very unique, almost unheard of experience. But man, it worked.”

As word of mouth spread about the new band playing a savvy brand of chamber-jazz on the boardwalk in Long Beach, the in-crowd soon followed. And gradually the nature of the club itself changed dramatically. “The first gig we had, man, you wouldn’t believe. There was nothing but sailors and sawdust on the floor. You couldn’t get no funkier than this joint. And can you imagine us going in there with a cello, flute, guitar, bass and drums? We had the gig for a week and that turned into two weeks and then went on into three weeks. Next thing we know, people were coming in from L.A. to check us out. Within a month, the whole thing changed around. They remodeled this place and it looked great. The joint was packed every night.”

The enterprising club owner eventually put in radio equipment and the group began broadcasting every night, which helped spread the word about this exciting new West Coast phenomenon, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. “All of a sudden, I get a call from Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic Records,” Hamilton recalls. “He was interested in signing us. He came down to see us on a Wednesday night but Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz had come in the night before and signed us right away. So by the time Nesuhi got there, we already made a deal with Pacific Jazz. Neshui regretted it because at that time Atlantic had already established a sound with the Modern Jazz Quartet and they wanted us on their label also.”

Following in the wake of the quintet’s early successes on record, Hamilton soon became closely associated with “West Coast jazz.” “The original phrase ‘East Coast/West Coast jazz’ started as a publicity stunt,” he explains. “A publicist for a nightclub here in New York, Basin Street, first used that phrase. I was opening at the club [in the summer of 1956] with Max Roach and to get something started publicity-wise, they billed it as an East Coast vs. West Coast kind of thing and then Down Beat magazine played it up real big. That’s really how that got started.”

In retrospect, Hamilton says he was never bothered by the term West Coast jazz. “I don’t resent it, man, and I’m certainly not bitter about it. Being pissed off is a total waste of energy. So I could care less about it because I feel I’m swinging just as hard whether I’m in New York or in California.”

At 80, Chico Hamilton is still swinging with youthful vigor and old school panache. The elder statesman of the jazz drumming elite-Max Roach is 77, Roy Haynes is 75, Elvin Jones is 74-he appears remarkably fit and plays with a focused intensity and suppleness that belies his age. On Foreststorn (Koch)-Hamilton’s given first name and the name he passed on to his late son-Chico grooves with authority while coloring creatively on the kit in the company of his band Euphoria, featuring electric bassist Paul Ramsey, alto saxist/flutist Erik Lawrence, tenor saxist Evan Schwam and electric guitarist Cary DeNigris. This killer quintet made a series of consecutive one-nighters this past summer through the New York area to promote the new album (which also features guest appearances from such notable Hamilton alumni as Arthur Blythe, Eric Person and Steve Turre, along with two former students of Chico’s from The New School in New York City who have gone on to successful careers in the pop industry-harmonica ace John Popper from Blues Traveler and guitarist Eric Schenkman from The Spin Doctors). Their mini-tour culminated with an outdoor 80th birthday bash at Lincoln Center on Aug. 17 (although Chico’s actual birthday wasn’t until Sept. 21).

At the gig I caught at the Recreation Pier in Yonkers, Hamilton and Euphoria thrilled the crowd with an exhilarating set of originals along with one nostalgic Ellington medley. A consummate pro who learned the ropes of the business from working as a young man with the likes of Lester Young, Slim Gaillard,

T-Bone Walker, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and the Duke himself (he played a few Los Angeles gigs in Ellington’s band at the ripe old age of 16), Hamilton entertained his appreciative audience with old-school charm and grace, at one point holding the microphone with one hand to sing a rousing “Take the ‘A’ Train” while keeping time with the other hand and two feet.

“I honestly consider myself as being blessed,” says the ebullient octogenarian. “I’m still here and I’m able to do it. I’m in shape to play mentally and physically. And I’m playing with a dynamite group of young players who are as enthusiastic about making good music as I am. That’s my reward, you know? And I’ll be able to do this until I’m over, which is cool.”

Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton began his drum journey as a teenager in Los Angeles, where he played in a band with schoolmates Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and Jack Kelso. Following short stints with Ellington and Lionel Hampton, he hooked up with Slim Gaillard in 1941, ultimately recording his first session at the age of 19 with the zany progenitor of the jive patois “vout.” As Chico recalls, “I was a local boy. The older guys like Oscar Bradley and Lee Young [Lester’s brother] were the number one drummers in L.A. at the time and I was the up-and-coming drummer, so I’d just hang out and try to get gigs. Slim heard me play someplace and he gave me the gig, and I stayed with him for almost a year in a trio with Slam Stewart on bass. Slim was a genius. Man, he was just amazing! He would play the piano with his feet, with the back of his hands, his knuckles. He would play guitar, sing in eight different languages, and everything was spontaneous. He never planned anything; he just went. It was unbelievable, man. Very, very talented man; very funny and very sincere.

“Last time I saw him was maybe a couple of years before he passed [in 1991]. It was in Europe. I was doing one of those George Wein packages and he was on it too. I didn’t know he was going to be on the show; he didn’t know I was going to be on the show. We got on the bus…hey man, he saw me, we saw each other…he cried, broke out in tears.”

Shortly after his stint-oreeney with Slim, Hamilton made sessions in 1942 with Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young, the latter a particularly rich experience for the impressionable young drummer. “Pres was beautiful, man. People were in awe of him. I started smoking Tareyton cigarettes because he smoked them. And playing-wise, he was just phenomenal. When people first heard him back in the early days with Basie they thought he sounded like a little girl or a sissy because of the robust sound of Bean and Hawk, those guys [Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins]. But in a short period of time, man, people got accustomed to hearing Pres’ sound and that became the most beautiful sound of the tenor. Plus his lines! Oh man! [He sings a famous Lester riff] Cat could swing his ass off! Other than Louis Armstrong, he was the only player, as far as I’m concerned, who knew how to dance on one note and swing a hole in your head.

“When Pres left Basie [in 1942] and came to L.A., he joined his brother Lee’s band but when he got ready to record he gave me the hit,” he continues. “It was around that time that Pres introduced me to Roy Haynes. He says, ‘I want you two ladies to meet. Miss Haynes, Miss Hamilton.’ He was a funny cat but very sensitive…wouldn’t harm a fly. Pres invented a whole lot of phrases that only hip people knew about [‘Bells!’ and ‘Ding-dong’ signaling approval; ‘No eyes’ indicating reluctance]. And he would never curse. He wouldn’t say motherfucker. He’d say, ‘You dirty, stinking Tommy Tucker.’ He’d use phrases like that.”

After a hitch in the service, Hamilton came back onto the L.A. scene in 1945. “When I first came out I joined Floyd Ray’s big band,” he recalls. “Hamp Hawes was playing piano and the twins-Addison and Art Farmer-were in the band. And we went on the road with Sugar Chile Robinson, who was a midget kid piano player. The emcee of the show was a kid by the name of Sammy Davis Jr. He was in the Will Mastin Trio with his father and uncle. So I was in the rhythm section behind that trio and also for the big band and we toured around as a package. And basically, I was strictly keeping time.”

Shortly after hitting the road with that package, Hamilton would have his bebop epiphany. “Before I went into the service I was a straightahead Jo Jones-style drummer,” he explains. “That was the only direction I was going in. Fortunately, I swung pretty good so I worked a lot. But when I came back from the service, the first dude I heard playing bop was Art Blakey. Man, he turned me around completely! He was in Billy Eckstine’s band with Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. Man, we heard that band in Oakland and I had never, never in my life heard anybody play drums like that, dropping them bombs and everything. I’m telling you, man, Blakey’s concept turned me completely around. When you’re coming from ding-ding-da-ding-da-da-ding to this thing, where you’re dancing with the bass drum and dancing with your left hand and keeping the time going at the same time and playing that strong-man! It was something else; another world.”

Hamilton immediately tried to incorporate some of those avant-bop tendencies onto his own gig with the Will Mastin Trio, but met with considerable resistance from the group’s patriarch. “The next morning after I heard Blakey I went to the theater for the first show, which was at 11 o’clock. So I’m playing the gig, keeping time and all of a sudden I decided I’m gonna try to drop a bomb, right? Well, I did that and the old man, Will Mastin, stopped dancing. I mean, he froze! And he looked at me and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ When we got done with the show he said, ‘Come in my dressing room, young man, I’m gonna talk to you about something.’ And he says, ‘Man, you been playing really nice for us. What are you doing all that stuff for? You don’t wanna play like that.’ But man, I was already too far gone to turn back.”

Hamilton went on to become the house drummer at Billy Berg’s, the popular Los Angeles nightspot where every major jazz artist from New York eventually came through, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (with whom he later would record). There followed an off and on association with singing star Lena Horne from 1948 to 1956. “One year [1952] I didn’t go to Europe with Lena and was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band locally,” he recalls. “Gerry Mulligan used to come in and hang out every night and check out the band. And man, he was really on his ass at that time-busted, no money, no nothing. Anyway, we became friends. I’d bring him home, Helen [my wife] would make dinner for him, feed him. And he decided he wanted to start playing again and get a group together. He found Chet Baker and [bassist] Bob Whitlock and myself and we started rehearsing. And it all started in my living room out there in L.A.”

That pianoless quartet recorded in 1952 and had immediate success, launching Mulligan and Baker into jazz stardom and bringing Hamilton his first bit of national recognition. As Hamilton sees it, “We were four guys in the right place at the right time, and it happened for us.”

On the strength of those Mulligan Quartet recordings, Pacific Jazz head Dick Bock agreed to give Chico his first shot as a bandleader. “That’s when I recorded for the first time with my trio. I got George Duvivier, who was playing bass with me in Lena’s band, and I also got Howard Roberts on guitar. And that was the first time that guitar, bass and drums were featured as solo instruments on a record. Before that time we were just a rhythm section. And the record was very successful. People dug it.”

Hamilton left Horne’s group in 1958 and came to New York, but he returned to Los Angeles in 1960 when his mother became ill. “When I got back to L.A., it dawned on me that I had changed. I had grown-mentally, physically and musically. Because under the direction and the tutelage that I had gotten from Lenny Hayden, Lena’s husband, I learned what composing and orchestration was all about. I learned about creating moods and movement with music.”

Over the years, Hamilton not only honed his compositional and arranging skills to a high degree, he pushed the envelope on creativity and risk-taking. Along the way, he also developed a keen eye for up-and-coming talent. A startling number of major players have come through the ranks of Hamilton’s bands, from Buddy Collette and Jim Hall (1955) to Paul Horn (1956-1957), Eric Dolphy (1958-1959), Ron Carter (1959), Charles Lloyd (1961-1963), Gabor Szabo (1961-1965), Albert Stinson (1961-1965), Sadao Watanabe (1965), Charlie Mariano (1966), Larry Coryell (1966), Arnie Lawrence (1966), Richard Davis (1966), Steve Potts (1967), John Abercrombie (1970), Lowell George and Paul Barrére of Little Feat (1973), Arthur Blythe (1975-1977), Steve Turre (on electric bass! from 1975-1977), Rodney Jones (1976) and Eric Person (1988-1992).

“When young guys come on my band I know what their weaknesses are,” says Hamilton. “What I do in turn is I play to their weakness so they become stronger. So you’re giving them an opportunity to find themselves. They in turn begin to blossom. And one of the ways to let them find themselves is to encourage them to have no hesitation about reaching for something or trying to play something. Bad notes don’t bother me at all, especially if you’re trying.”

That philosophy also carries over to Hamilton’s approach in the studio. “These are all one-takes on Foreststorn,” he proudly announces. “Regardless of whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, this is me. This is what I sound like at this time. And I’ve always recorded under that philosophy. If we record a track and it felt good, I don’t even wanna hear the playback. My attitude is, ‘Let’s go to the next thing.’ I mean, if the feeling is there, why mess with it? That’s the most important thing-capturing a feeling and getting a groove on a record. There’s a lot of records out here that have unbelievable things on them, but there’s not that many records out here that groove, period. And the ones that really groove are the ones that are still around. People still play them, people hold onto them.”

Which is why Hamilton’s own recordings, from the mid-’50s to the present, will always have that sweet smell of success.

Listening Pleasures

“I still listen to Miles [Davis] and Gil [Evans]. Also Kind of Blue. How can you top that? I play a lot of Basie-things with Pres on ’em. And Erroll Garner. I listen to that era mostly. And then I hear a lot of contemporary stuff that somebody who just makes a record lays on me. I more or less stay pretty conservative in my listening. But I listen to these old records a thousand times and I hear something different in them. And it makes me realize how unbelievably creative these people were.”


“My drum set is basically homemade. Drummers World (a shop at X Street in Manhattan) just made me a couple of toms and I just make up a kit from various things I have. I don’t endorse anything. I used to endorse stuff years ago but they haven’t solicited me and I haven’t reached out to them. I design my own sticks. They’re very lightweight sticks, equivalent to Pro-Mark 7A. And I’m still using my original Zildjian cymbals that I got when I was in the Army. I use three cymbals, that’s all.”

Originally Published