Chico Hamilton Dies at 92
Posted 11/26/2013

Chico Hamilton, a prolific drummer and bandleader who was also an important jazz educator, died on Nov. 26 in Manhattan. He was 92.

Hamilton’s career spanned more than seven decades and included work with Lionel Hampton’s big band in 1940, a stint as Lena Horne’s touring drummer in the ’40s and ’50s, and a fruitful partnership with Gerry Mulligan in the saxophonist’s early ’50s quartet, which also included trumpeter Chet Baker.

Hamilton played an integral part in the “cool jazz” movement, and he enjoyed tremendous popularity as the leader of the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

His lengthy discography includes The Three Faces Of Chico (1959), The Dealer (1966), Peregrinations (1975), Euphoria (1988), Trio! (1992), It’s About Time! (2008) and Revelation (2011).

Hamilton was named a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master in 2004 and received the Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007.

The NEA released a statement that read, in part, “It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of 2004 NEA Jazz Master Foreststorn ‘Chico’ Hamilton, who was not only a subtle, creative drummer, but also a skillful bandleader who continually discovered talented newcomers.”

Hamilton’s 1955 quintet had a unique sound that combined his drums, the bass of Carson Smith, the guitar of Jim Hall, the cello of Fred Katz and the flute of Buddy Collette. In 1962, Hamilton formed another quintet with bassist Albert Stinson, guitarist Gabor Szabo, trombonist George Bohanon and tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

“I’ve always considered the drums a melodic instrument, and as far as other drummers are concerned, I have tremendous respect for all drummers,” Hamilton said in an article published in the April 20, 1978, issue of DownBeat. “I know what it takes to play drums. Anybody who is able to play them well and get something out of the instrument is doing a tremendous thing.”

In 1987, Hamilton cofounded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, and he remained on the faculty there for two decades.

In 1989, he founded the group Euphoria, which would be the leader project he performed with for the rest of his career. Euphoria toured the United States, Canada, Europe and South America, and frequently played at the Manhattan venue Drom.

At the time of his passing, Hamilton had recently recorded newly composed material with his Euphoria ensemble: Paul Ramsey on bass; Evan Schwam on flute, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano saxophone; Jeremy Carlstedt on drums; Mayu Saeki on flute; and Nick Demopoulos on guitar. In early 2014, the music will be released by the Joyous Shout! label on an album titled The Inquiring Mind. Bohanon and trumpeter Jimmy Owens also appear on the recording.

Over the course of his career, Hamilton performed with hundreds of artists, including Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Fontella Bass, Shuggie Otis, Jon Faddis and José James.

Hamilton appeared in the Hollywood films You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which chronicled the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

He composed the music for Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion and then formed a company to supply music for TV shows and commercials.

“Music has been very good to me,” Hamilton said in the June 15, 1967, DownBeat cover story. “The money I’ve made comes from investments and business—not music. I don’t play music now to make money. But I can’t divorce myself from music, and I want to dedicate the rest of my life to giving something back to it, to encourage people who are devoted to it, new and older talent that hasn’t been appreciated. I’ve been very fortunate.”

He was born Foreststorn Hamilton in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 1921. He worked with Hampton in 1940, served in the Army during World War II, and after leaving the service worked with numerous bands, including Count Basie’s.

As a teenager, Hamilton played in a band that included Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Illinois Jacquet.

Among the notable musicians who worked in Hamilton’s bands are bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Eric Dolphy and guitarists John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell and Jim Hall.

In a 2003 interview with the NEA’s Don Ball, Hamilton said of his playing, “You create a mood. That’s the only thing you can do—the music’s already here. It’s been here. It’s all around us. So what you do, you take a little bit of this, a soupçon of that, and you put it together and you create a mood. That’s all we can do.”

Hamilton is survived by a brother, a daughter, a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

The venue Drom will host the event “Celebrating The Life & Music of Foreststorn ‘Chico’ Hamilton” on Dec. 15. Members of Euphoria are scheduled to perform. See the venue’s website for details.


Chico Hamilton (Photo: DownBeat Archives)


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