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Matt Wilson Remembers Chico Hamilton

9.21.21 – 11.25.13

Chico Hamilton
Chico Hamilton

One of the greatest solo drum performances I have witnessed was by Chico Hamilton. It took place at guitarist Attila Zoller’s memorial service, held in the spring of 1998 at St. Peter’s Church in New York City. I can still recall the sound, spirit and strength of his statement.

I remember Mr. Hamilton, a pair of soft felt mallets in hand, approaching the front of the sanctuary. He said a few words to express his love for Attila and then sat down at the drum set. Mr. Hamilton welcomed a few moments of silence, and with a bold single stroke on the floor tom the sonic journey began. From that the point forward, a bountiful flow of ideas emerged: Melodious themes weaved and swirled throughout the piece with shapes that painted a vivid aural landscape. His fluid movements were dance-like and displayed the intimate physical relationship he had with the drum set. The drum anthem was dramatic, courageous and vulnerable.

I first became exposed to his artistry while I was in high school. My brother gave me the Impulse! LP box set The Drums. The performances on the records represented a wide range of the jazz drumming tradition, from Baby Dodds to Milford Graves. The selection chosen for Chico Hamilton was “Jim-Jeannie,” from the Impulse! album The Dealer. I dug the expansive sound of the track, and each time I would listen I would discover new strata of sonic activity. In the last few years, I have become a huge fan of the reissue of this recording, which was also the debut of guitarist Larry Coryell. One of the prized bonus tracks is a groovy boogaloo version of “Big Noise From Winnetka.” Do yourself a favor and check out The Dealer.

In a college jazz history class, I became further aware of Mr. Hamilton’s groundbreaking ensembles and his compositions. The instrumentations and approaches to improvising captured my interest, and the music contained grooves, colors and timbres that were fresh to my ears. Hearing this music at this juncture was liberating and inspired me to want to compose and be a bandleader.

Later, through a profile in Modern Drummer magazine, I learned more about Mr. Hamilton’s history and his diverse career. He performed with hundreds of artists including Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Lester Young. He was an important proponent of the cool jazz movement in the 1950s; in fact, he was so much a part of the Los Angeles scene of hipsters that he even appeared in a few movies, the most famous being Sweet Smell of Success. In the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, his quintet performs the exotic composition “Blue Sands.” Check it out on YouTube and you can see Mr. Hamilton exploring with the mallets.

The Modern Drummer article also makes note of Mr. Hamilton’s innovative drum set-up, which you can see in the Jazz on a Summer’s Day clip. He was one of the first to use single-head tom toms, way before they became a staple in rock bands during the 1970s. He mounted his ride cymbal on the bass drum shell and kept it very low. He reached down to play the cymbal-a very unique approach to addressing the ride. I saw Mr. Hamilton play this set configuration with his band in Boston, and it allowed him to be so connected to the instrument that it seemed as if he and the drum set were one.

Chico Hamilton was always looking for new talent and brought many young musicians to the attention of the public. He was also one of the founding members of the jazz studies program at the New School in New York, and offered guidance to hundreds of young musicians. I believe he maintained a youthful outlook by surrounding himself with young players.

My parents met Chico Hamilton when he played at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in Galesburg, Ill. I was away at school and I remember my father calling to convey how much they enjoyed his performance with a local college ensemble. I can recall him telling me, “Your mom and I sure enjoyed hearing him play, and we had a great visit with him after the concert. He’s a real character.”

Chico Hamilton was indeed a character, and I admire his audacity to follow his vision as a drummer, composer, bandleader and educator. Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for your passion for the music and the love you offered to the jazz community. Your legacy will not be forgotten.

Originally Published