Drummer Chico Hamilton, whose career stretched back more than 70 years, died last night (Nov. 25) in New York City. He was 92 and died of natural causes, according to his publicist, April Thibeault. An NEA Jazz Master, Hamilton served behind dozens of the all-time greats in jazz, but he spent most of his time leading his own groups, releasing more than 60 albums as a leader beginning in the 1950s, and creating music for film and television. Described on the NEA’s website as a “subtle, creative drummer,” Hamilton was also an educator, having taught at the New School University Jazz Program for more than 20 years.
Born Foreststorn Hamilton on Sept. 20, 1921 in Los Angeles, Hamilton first played clarinet before switching to drums. In high school, he formed a band whose membership also included Ernie Royal, Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon and Jack Kelso. In the 1940s, Hamilton accompanied Lionel Hampton, Slim and Slam, Lester Young, T-Bone Walker, Duke Ellington and others. While serving in the Army from 1942-46, he studied drums with Jo Jones and upon his release he toured with Count Basie and others. In 1948 he joined Lena Horne, with whom he stayed for six years.
Hamilton became involved with film early in his career. He appeared in the 1941 film You’ll Never Get Rich, staring Fred Astaire, 1952’s Road to Bali, starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and later had a prominent roll as actor and bandleader in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. He was also featured in the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, and composed the soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s English-language debut, 1965’s Repulsion.
Although the 1950s saw him playing behind such stars as Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Barnett and Sammy Davis Jr., and co-leading a quartet in 1952 with Gerry Mulligan, Hamilton began to lead his own outfits by the middle of that decade. His preferred format at that time was the quintet, and the membership of his groups yielded several major jazz artists through the years, among them Jim Hall, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo, Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter, Steve Turre, Arthur Blythe, Larry Coryell and Paul Horn. Hamilton incorporated unusual instrumentation for small jazz combos at that time, including cello and flute.
In 1965, Hamilton moved from Los Angeles to New York City, where he formed a production company, creating music for commercials on television and radio. His TV scores included the children’s cartoon series Gerald McBoing-Boing.
Hamilton was also an original faculty member of the New School University Jazz & Contemporary Music Program in New York City in 1987. Two years later, he debuted his Euphoria ensemble, with which he toured in the U.S., Canada, Europe and South America. Various lineups of Euphoria continued to perform and record until as recently as 2011. Hamilton was the subject of a 1994 documentary film by director Julian Benedikt, Dancing To a Different Drummer.
Hamilton continued to record prolifically until his last years. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004, appointed to the President’s Council on the Arts in 2006, and received a Living Legacy Jazz Award at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 2007. He was also named an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by the New School.