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Chuck Hammer: Ornette, Lou Reed & the Art of Improvisation

An Overdue Ovation profile of the genre-bending guitarist, composer and Bowie alum

Chuck Hammer (photo courtesy of the artist)
Chuck Hammer (photo courtesy of the artist)

The musical path traveled by Chuck Hammer, a forward-thinking player who fits neatly into the niche of “most influential guitarists you’ve never heard of,” has been chock full of twists and turns. From his beginnings as an improviser in the 1970s, under the influence of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, to high-profile sideman gigs with Lou Reed and David Bowie and, later, a lower-key career as a composer for TV documentaries, Hammer’s life has been nothing short of memoir-worthy. And his narrative is still very much in progress, with two new albums since 2016 and one in the can.

His work on two 1980 LPs, Reed’s Growing Up in Public and Bowie’s Scary Monsters, solidified his place in the rock history books, and the roots of those contributions can be traced to jazz. As an improviser playing in free-fusion groups during his early college years, and with John Coltrane, Davis and Coleman on heavy rotation, Hammer experienced the ultimate eye-opener while attending the University at Buffalo: a class in the black studies department taught by free-jazz pioneer Archie Shepp. “That was a rude awakening for me,” recalls Hammer, now 62 and based in New Jersey, about an hour outside New York City. “I was walking in there as a kind of blues guitar player. It was the first time I got exposed to the black studies perspective of things and the music and art side of it. I learned a lot from him.”

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