Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.
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Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:
[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, "Around The Corner" (1992)]
TP: We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography. Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth. It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people. The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.
CH: That’s absolutely correct, Ted. As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him. I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old. But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast. We began to get his records. Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal. As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.
TP: Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences. You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…
CH: Well, I’ll tell you. It was two weeks before baseball. How does that grab you?
TP: Do you care to elaborate on that one?
CH: [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties. I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band. It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest. I think he was about 19 at the time.
TP: What was the age range?
CH: The age range was from 14 to about 19.
TP: From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?
CH: From the neighborhood and from all over. We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…
TP: Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.
CH: Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something. It was in the curriculum. You had to be involved with music. Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music. And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place. As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody. Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today. That’s how it really came about. Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended. Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area. But the school actually was the common denominator.
TP: There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.
CH: Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians. At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A. As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.
TP: Where did they play?
CH: Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually. I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places. The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…
TP: So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…
CH: Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show. For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…
TP: Helen Humes?
CH: Helen Humes. And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet. All of these were fantastic dance acts. And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country. At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.
I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time. Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.
TP: I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums. If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…
CH: All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.” All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band. It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing. Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton. Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano. But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.
Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four. He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing. Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove. Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.
Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?
CH: Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.
TP: When did you start playing drums? When you were 15 or 16?
TP: In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.
CH: I did. I started out playing clarinet. And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet. So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.” But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums. This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old. When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right! So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums. And I just started. I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.
TP: You did it on his pair of drums?
CH: Well, it was the school drums. The school had the drums. As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.
TP: That was a lot of money then.
CH: Oh, tell me about it, man. Tell me about it. That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started. The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.” I started reaching out, and everyone helped me. Everyone. Everyone I played with.
TP: How would they do that? Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.
CH: Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians. You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…
TP: You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.
CH: Well, I probably was older than Charlie. I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California. He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.
But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast. And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm. And we jammed a lot, man. We jammed all day and all night long! It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions. That’s how we learned to play. If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.
TP: This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer. First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones. It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s. Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.
CH: Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS] I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right. I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play. They virtually really… I mean this. They couldn’t play. So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps. Now, I came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm. This is the truth, man! And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did? They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]
Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was. When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man. They would not let them in the band! Man, it just broke my heart. They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that. Well, anyway…
TP: Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.
CH: Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man. First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man. He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo. What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated. Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez. But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing. We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice. We would talk drums constantly, and talk music. It was priceless.
[Basie, "Tickletoe" (1940); Ellington, "Ring Dem Bells" (1931); Basie "Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, "Tain't What You Do" (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, "Indiana" (1944); Prez/Chico, "Lester Leaps In" (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, "Tickletoe" (1992)]
TP: We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.
CH: Well, just about. Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…
TP: The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.
CH: As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A. I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall. We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow. So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…
TP: Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.
CH: He was from the West Coast. But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.
But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing. It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing. They swung very heavy, right? Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going. I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…
TP: How would you put into words the Southwest sound?
CH: Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra. There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…
TP: Now, did those bands come to California?
CH: No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast. But this was a Midwest type of band. Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.
TP: That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.
CH: That’s right.
TP: What was that band like?
CH: It was just a swinging thing. Just out-and-out swing. I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about. But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it. Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing. In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot. That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man. You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.
TP: Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there. So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way. True or false?
CH: Not necessarily. Not during those days. I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about. And the majority of those guys…
TP: They were from L.A.
CH: They were from L.A. Before then, who knows? We all came from…
TP: I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…
CH: Oh, no. Well, this was before then. That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs. But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play. Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.
TP: Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after. A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…
CH: That’s right.
TP: …and many other people.
CH: Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945. But I came back to L.A. Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it. Right? When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this. Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man. Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing. And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.
TP: Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…
CH: What records?
TP: Oh, you didn’t get any of those records. Okay.
CH: [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there! No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records. But it was really amazing. As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray. In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass. The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore. People like this. It was a big band. We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters. We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson. We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player. The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior. Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.
We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance. And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES "Blakeley"], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away! I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey! Right? And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums. And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”
But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music. Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around. Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.
TP: He gave you a sense of the feeling.
CH: Oh, man, did he ever! Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist. He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.
[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, "Blues In Teddy's Flat" (1947); Bird, "My Old Flame" (1947); Dexter/Wardell, "The Chase" (1947); Howard McGhee, "Thermodynamics" (1946); Eckstine, "Blowin' The Blues Away" (1944); Hamp/Mingus, "Mingus Fingers" (1947)]
TP: …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”
CH: Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man! That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946. Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that? It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.
TP: That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.
CH: It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself. The band was swinging, man. It was cookin’. You know?
TP: And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.
CH: Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance. Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance. Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing. Basie’s was a 2/4. Duke Ellington? Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music. But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.
TP: It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.
CH: Well, different strokes for different folks!
TP: Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.
CH: I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor. Jimmy Bunn is still playing. He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good. He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned. But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…
TP: He had first call, is what it sounds like.
CH: Exactly. If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls. Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa. Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…
TP: Pittsburgh, I think.
CH: Pittsburgh, yeah. But man, Dodo could play, too.
TP: And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.
CH: Yes, he did.
TP: Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.
CH: Jimmy Rowles. My man, Jimmy Rowles! I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together. His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.
TP: Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.
CH: He was a very good drummer. Very good. As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing. And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…
TP: Roy Porter?
CH: I don’t think Roy is playing any more. But before Roy you mentioned…
TP: On one of these tracks?
CH: On one of the tracks.
TP: Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee. And… Well, I don’t know who that was.
CH: He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.
TP: Oh, Lawrence Marable.
CH: Lawrence, yeah!
TP: He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.
CH: Hey, Lawrence is a fantastic player.
TP: He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area. Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles. And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter
Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles. I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries. Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young. How old were you when you first met? Do you remember?
CH: Well, let me see. I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12. As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church. Do you believe that?
TP: Which church was that?
CH: It was some church in L.A. I don’t recall the name of it. Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church. So actually she knew Mingus before I did. But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes. We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing. But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand. He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician. I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was. It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper. Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.
TP: Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old! Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them? Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?
CH: Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall! I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…
TP: Or come up with musically.
CH: Or come up with musically. And I guess he might have thought about me the same way. A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again. I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.
TP: A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.
CH: All the Jazz, that’s where it was.
TP: That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.
CH: Bird and Diz, right. That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.
TP: What were the chain of events that led to that? It couldn’t have been just luck.
CH: Me playing at Billy Berg’s?
TP: To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.
CH: Right. Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service. He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s. As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS] You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur. But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group. These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most. Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time. That was it. If you played that room, it was fantastic.
The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…
[END OF SIDE 2]
…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers. He kept me on brushes. He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man. We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week. Right? I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar. But I would play brushes constantly. Constantly. Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!” So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.
TP: This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time. I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.
CH: Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall. Then he shrank! We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.
Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school. That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system. Her name was Mrs. Smith. And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!
As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper. Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school. And he loved Prez. He just adored…
TP: Took apart the solos and…
CH: Everything was note-for-note. So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing. But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player. And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…
TP: And you went out and played.
CH: And we went out and played.
TP: And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…
TP: A few words about Red Callender.
CH: George “Red” Callender. George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso. But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already. When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names. And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something. It meant something to us. We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.
As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time. Because at one time it was a no-no. But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player. I was like the rehearsal drummer. I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together. But it got boring after a while, and I split.
TP: But the money must have been nice.
CH: Hey, man, listen. It was steady. Right? To get paid every week? It was unbelievable, man. But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate. I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.
TP: Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.
CH: Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession. Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional. I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do. In other words, this is the jokes, folks. And I don’t fluff it off. I never blow a gig, man. Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out. I’m playing the best that I can at that time. And that’s it. That’s the way I came up. And I believe in music. I believe in what I’m doing. People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next. I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next. But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change. I don’t like to get bored.
TP: Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years. The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately. Is that right?
CH: No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was. I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience. I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship. Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is. And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayden, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think. Even to this day, man, we’re still friends. I don’t see her that often. But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.
TP: Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.
[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, "It's You" (1956); Tony Bennett, "Lazy Afternoon" (19 ); Gerry Mulligan, "Frenesi" (1953); Billie Holiday, "Too Marvelous For Words" (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, "2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West" (1958); C. Hamilton, "Where Or When" (19 )]
TP: That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers. That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.
Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.
CH: At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends. When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony. He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together. He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there. He wanted to record with all of us. Tony has always been a rhythm man. He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…
TP: It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exner, Sabu…
CH: Billy Exner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?
Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.” And it turned out gorgeous. It really turned out dynamite. We were more than pleased. That’s how that came about.
TP: That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records. Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.
CH: Yes, she did.
TP: Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?
CH: No, no, I was part of her group for a while. I played for Lady in several different groups. At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!
TP: Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!
CH: Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’! We were swinging.
TP: Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?
CH: Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing. I just played myself, you know. As a matter of fact, all of us did. That’s what we did. She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves. As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way. I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!
TP: What were the circumstances?
CH: Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Fluornoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time. I was just a kid, man. I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?” I didn’t believe it was her, man. She was at the session, right, in the house. That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right? She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case. And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…” I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is! That’s Lady.” And when we went inside, Prez introduced us. From then on, from time to time I would see her then. Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything. At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…
TP: He was the pianist.
CH: He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist. Bobby was with Eckstine. He was with B for thirty or forty years almost. When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.
TP: And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.
CH: I worked with Billy Eckstine. Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald. And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…
TP: All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.
CH: Exactly. Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne: I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me. It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me. It worked. It worked beautifully. I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.
TP: Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?
CH: No, Lady was cool, man. She was cool. Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did. And I’m saying that in a complementary way. Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man. It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.
TP: Why is that?
CH: Well, you never know what a singer is going to do. Because some singers react differently. They react to what people… They react to the audience. If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever. And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer. “What’s the matter? Can’t you keep time?” That sort of thing.
TP: So we’re talking about temperament now.
CH: Exactly. That’s the reason drummers are cool, man. You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something. You know? Because there’s only one drummer.
TP: Well, sometimes there’s two.
CH: No, you’ve only got one drummer, man. One drummer’s keeping time, man. Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.” But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time. This is amazing, man. This is really something.
TP: You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well. Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.
TP: Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.
CH: No. Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time. That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing. No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did. Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time. I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year. In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS] As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!” Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band. Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind. He was a prince, man. He was a dynamite dude.
But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening. And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play. I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was. That’s how it came off. That’s the reason it came off. It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.
That’s putting it simple, man. Mild.
TP: Would you like to get complex? At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika. You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.
CH: Right. We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene. As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing. Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass. I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him. I asked him could I sit in, and I did. One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A. It was interesting.
TP: How did that band develop a repertoire? Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.
TP: I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.
CH: What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note. We even played the same solos, that type of thing. All the licks. I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing. And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that. There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing. So in a sense, it was relatively easy. Because hey, there was only one way to play.
TP: We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.
CH: Hey! He was amazing.
TP: So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…
TP: You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.
CH: Well, I’m fortunate. I’ve been fortunate, man. As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that. Because it was broad. It was very broad. That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about. Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.
TP: And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.
CH: Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.” But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.
TP: Things were in the air…
CH: Things were in the air, and it happened. Because no one knows why it happened. But it happened, and it worked.
This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made. This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites. Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was. And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”
TP: From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.
[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, "Something To Live For"; C. Hamilton, "Mandrake"; C. Hamilton, "Taunts of An Indian"; C. Hamilton, "Guitar Willie"]
TP: A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton. That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970. Do you recollect, Chico? Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.
CH: Probably around ’68. Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials. That’s music for commercials. Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…
TP: Russ Andrews on tenor.
CH: Yes, Russ.
TP: Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.
CH: That’s right.
TP: And Jan Arnett on bass.
CH: Jan Arnett. It was a happening.
TP: Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria. Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.
CH: I dedicated to it to my mother. She was an Indian maiden, you know?
TP: That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.
CH: Well, he’s playing electric on that. He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it. He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.
TP: Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.
CH: It’s an interesting thing. Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music. And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.
TP: Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.
CH: Not that many. Hopefully this will shake them up again.
TP: The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive. But it’s obviously not. You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.
CH: Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about. I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for. I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music. I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it. So that’s what it’s all about. Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done. Right? That’s the name of the game.
TP: If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.
CH: Hey, that’s what it’s all about.
TP: A few words about the people in your group. A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians. Eric Person, first of all.
CH: As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence. Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis. I think he was at Eric’s school. When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it. Right away we hit it off. I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.
TP: You may not be able to hold on to him.
CH: Well, it’s not a question of holding on. He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things. That’s what I’m all about, again. Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.
TP: He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.
CH: Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways. I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me. Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.
TP: Cary De Negris, the guitarist.
CH: Cary met me. Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think. His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play. He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player. He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played. He’s doing it.
TP: Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.
CH: Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison. At one time he did dates and things with me. He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.” As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player. He’s got chops.
TP: Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.
CH: Exactly. So I’m more than pleased, man. I’m having a ball. Because hey, we’re making music.
[MUSIC: "Song For Helen" (1992)]
* * *
Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):
[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer: “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums. I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer. I had never seen anything like this in all my life. Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than a drum store. But he was really something special. And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got. He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds. Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played. Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”
TP: Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?
CH: I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember! I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.
TP: So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.
CH: It probably was. You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast. A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that. Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in. Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…
TP: Grew up in the same area.
CH: We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…
TP: Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up? Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?
CH: Yeah. Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West. I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town. Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street. It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…
TP: You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.
CH: The late 1930’s and the ’40s. They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago. It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools. Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.
TP: It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.
CH: Exactly. From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played. Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of. They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel. But Central Avenue was the avenue, man. When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints. This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…
TP: When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…
CH: This is what I’m getting ready to say. After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs. Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me. But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball. This is how I learned to play. One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players. They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today. It was really, really different.
When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different. Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central. That was it. It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time. But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely. As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop. Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.
TP: You got back when?
CH: Late ’45.
TP: Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.
TP: Did you come from a musical family?
TP: Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.
CH: That’s a very good question, man. I don’t know. I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music. My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing. We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out. To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.” And I went in, sat down and started playing. I had no idea what I was doing. And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play. Other than that…
TP: Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?
CH: Yes. A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley. Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra. I used to hear them play. They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived. Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother. That was about the size of it.
When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exner, who played with Claude Thornhill. Billy taught me how to read music. He’d climb over a mountain, man! It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.
TP: This was at Fort McCullough.
CH: Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.
TP: It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.
CH: I was there, man, when that happened. But Billy Exner taught me how to read drum music. Actually, I was more or less self-taught. Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill. That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period. I was blessed because I always was able to hear things. I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that. The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.
TP: Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager. When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?
CH: A sum of money? It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter. My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers. He had a family band. One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone. It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras. Most families who were musical had a band…
TP: Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…
CH: Exactly. So it was a very common thing. Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band. We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play. As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses. We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes. Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there. They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”. They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”
TP: Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music? Were you expected to play in a certain way.
CH: That was the feature. They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.
TP: What type of things did you play in that orchestra?
CH: We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.” No original material. We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time. It was relatively simple. As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time. He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes. I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it. Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers. But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me. Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”
Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half. Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing. This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.
TP: And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.
TP: At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…
CH: Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school. It was a school in the area, on the East Side. As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California. It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…
TP: Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.
CH: Yes. And there was no such thing as all-Black. There were just as many White students as Black students.
TP: So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.
CH: The community wasn’t segregated at all. Because it was a deep mixture. I was born that way. I grew up that way. So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started. Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas. In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…
TP: The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.
CH: Exactly. And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills. They started up Beverly Hills.
TP: I’d still like you to talk about Samuel Browne.
CH: Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher. But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him. I didn’t really take music in school. As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time. I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys. As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.
TP: This was around ’38 or so?
CH: ’38, ’39, something like that. This is before Prez left Basie. I was big-time, man. I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough. I had my own car. I was slick. I was cool. But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.
TP: That band played a rather challenging repertoire. According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!
CH: Well, yeah. See, that was after my time.
TP: What was he doing in the late 1930’s?
CH: They were playing Swing music. Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts. But here again, I never did anything with them. But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period. We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it. We were all about 15-16-17 years old. As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time. Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’! They were so happy…
TP: Get rid of the competition.
CH: From then, we were all in union. I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous. But then we started rehearsing at the union. One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…
TP: So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…
CH: Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat. We would imitate them. We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite. Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…
I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band. Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready. I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.
TP: What were you lacking, would you say?
CH: Well, my reading was bad. I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing. I could keep good time. But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well. I wasn’t quick enough. They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it. That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.
But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career. I really got serious. I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid. You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.” It turned my whole life around, man. I really got serious about what I was doing. From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.
TP: In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.
TP: Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.
TP: So you had reached that level of proficiency.
CH: Yeah. I could play, man, and I could always keep good time. I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned. I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player. I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing. There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it. I’m into sound. I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood. The supply and then the demand, that type of thing. But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune. If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones. It was groovy. It was cool.
It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army. The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing. Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland. Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…
TP: This was with a band called Floyd Ray. A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…
CH: Yeah, Art, Hamp. I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there. I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…
Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night. That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums. Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life! I was just flabbergasted! Art Blakey turned me completely around. I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.
TP: How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?
CH: For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING. You keep that going. DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand. But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot. DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!! CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM. Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked! I’d never had no idea of this style of playing. I was just flabbergasted.
So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!! I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”
TP: You didn’t do that any more, huh?
CH: Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable. After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer. Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing. It was funny as hell. But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.
TP: When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?
CH: I had just come out of the Army.
TP: And you went right out on that job?
CH: I went right out.
TP: Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.
CH: No, I didn’t. But I played with Bird. After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast. And I used to jam with Bird all the time. There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…
TP: There was a place called Jack’s Nest.
CH: Jack’s Nest.
TP: And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.
CH: Yeah. Maggie was…all the guys. It was just a happening. Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out. Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was. That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.
TP: There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young. What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level? That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.
CH: Charlie was really nice to me. Well, he was nice to everybody, man. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being. Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig. All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player. It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.
Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing. That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that. I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that. Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East. It didn’t linger on the West Coast. Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left. Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.
[MUSIC: Prez-CH, "New Lester Leaps In" (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) "Street of Drums", "Nuttye" (1955); CH-5, "The Morning After" (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, "Too Marvelous For Words" (1956); CH-5, "Gone Lover" (1956)]
CH: This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section. Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured. The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things. Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album. Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this. Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.
TP: What were some of the inspirations for the idea? You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.
CH: I played with Nat Cole also. As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding. I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration. It just happened. The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different. Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums. So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off. It came off beautifully, I thought. When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.
TP: We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career. I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.
CH: Let me tell you something about Prez. Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of. He was a very sensitive man. And he was total, total music, man. Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music. Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing. Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what. But he was cool. He was very cool. Also he was very proper.
TP: Well-mannered, you mean?
CH: Well-mannered in regards to being respectful. Prez was cool, man.
TP: Did he have a nickname for you?
CH: [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool. In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that. But Prez would call everybody “Miss.” Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned. As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.
TP: He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?
TP: Any memories of that house? I gather it was a congregating spot.
CH: No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session. We used to put the pots on. In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad. This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady! I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!” Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.” That’s when I first met Lady. She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.
TP: You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos. You went way back with him.
CH: Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.
TP: You grew up near each other.
CH: Well, no. I was in L.A. He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts. But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.
TP: Do you remember which church?
CH: No. I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters. People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that. He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing. We got along beautifully. As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…
TP: You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.
CH: Right. Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie. As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor. Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy. Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello. These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show. Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job. But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band. Man, they had a helluva show. The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band. That’s how we ended up being one very good band.
TP: In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.
CH: I’ll tell you. The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayden, her husband. Between Lennie Hayden and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods. I guess the real me started to happen. I’ve always been a different kind of player. It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…
TP: That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.
CH: You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you. That’s what it amounts to.
TP: By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.
CH: I sure did. As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!” And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing. Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you. Duke wants you to play.” Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City. Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that. And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there. My heart stopped. I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it. It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off! I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…
TP: Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…
CH: Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band. The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids. And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton. So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!” Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.
TP: Did you get drafted shortly after that?
CH: A little later, after I got married. I was about 21 years old. But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records. Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band. I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos. I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost. So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements. It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music. You either knew the charts, or that was it. So this is how I got around that.
TP: I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.
CH: Well, you develop that. That’s something you develop. For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.” Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing. If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else. That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part. You give the drummer the first trumpet part. Because that’s where he’ll make the hits. He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.
TP: Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years. And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.
CH: That’s right.
TP: I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.
CH: We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter. Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over. That was it. He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing. Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did. By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant. He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that. Prez was the master. They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…
TP: Hold the horn sideways.
CH: What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem. Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t. He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.
TP: That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.
CH: Right. And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound. That was the bottom line to it. It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show. That was the only way he could play his horn.
We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that. As young as we were, we were all total music, too.
TP: It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music. If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.
CH: Exactly. Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room. Music deserves to be played well. I grew up with this understanding. I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done. That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.
TP: Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.
CH: Man, that was a bad time period. It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating. It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band. I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler. The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on. And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show. So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments. I mean this. And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band. It was disgraceful. It was unbelievable. I still can’t get over it. But it’s part of my past. It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS] I don’t want to talk about that.
TP: It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exner and learning how to read music.
CH: That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends. Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band. But other than that… Hey, that was then. This is now.
TP: Right. And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music. The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…
CH: Freddie Gambrell.
TP: He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.
CH: Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco. He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear. This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period. I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…
TP: Studio productions. But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?
TP: Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum? Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish? What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?
CH: Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time. It was dynamite, it was cool. It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it. It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.
TP: You just worked with him in Los Angeles?
CH: Just in L.A. I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A. Clubs, that is.
[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, "Lullaby Of The Leaves" (1957); Tony Bennett, "Lazy Afternoon"; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), "Take The A-Train" (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, "Something To Live For" (1958)]
CH: Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record. Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York. It came off beautifully. Jo Jones is on there as well. It was really something. Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time. His phrasing is really very unique. Besides, I like him. We’re friends. We’ve been friends a long time.
TP: The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since. That really orchestral piano style. He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…
CH: I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period. This was just a young kid, man. He was blind, but he could play his keister off. Fantastic pianist. Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long. The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him. So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time. But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.
TP: A couple of points you raised. In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.” Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole. What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation? Why is it different?
CH: Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.
TP: Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?
CH: Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers. It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers. Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment. It all depends on what their mood is all about. If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do. In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet. Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with. And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time. They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower. So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times. Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune. They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.
Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it. I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden. All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister. I was right behind her. I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that. Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in. She could sing, man. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians. You don’t have to be a player to be a musician. In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen. So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.
TP: Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine. Or how brief was it?
CH: With B? I did several shows with B. That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s. Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class. He was cool! He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman. B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs. B sang good songs. Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way. Everything he recorded became big.
TP: Well, he was a style-setter. Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.
CH: That’s right.
TP: He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.
CH: Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people. He was very hip.
TP: What was his manner like with the musicians? He was always supposed to be totally at one with…
CH: Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned! He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes. B was cool. I mean that in a complimentary sense.
TP: I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.
CH: Lady? Playing with Lady was dynamite.
TP: Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…
CH: No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned. Lady swung. Her and Ella were good swingers. They swung. Their phrasing was different.
TP: Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?
CH: Not so much as Lena would. Lena would treat material different. Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged. It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going. With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.
TP: So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.
CH: Well, they were. Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums. And man, we swung a hole in her head! I’ll tell you, we had a ball. It was a happening.
TP: So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…
CH: That’s the name of the game, man, steady work. Go ahead.
TP: I understand. And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job. That was the first order of business. But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations. Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.
TP: Fred Katz.
CH: Fred worked with us with Lena Horne. Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section. We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that. Fred Katz was the cellist in that group. We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing. At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well. So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill. Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with. I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any. They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things. I got bored.
I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did. Originally I was going to use the French horn. There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas. I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days. Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute. So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that. Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places. So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them. One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing. He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.” I said, “Yeah!” So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time. That’s the bottom line to it.
TP: Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?
CH: No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn. So it developed, and then it went on and became history.
TP: When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax. When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?
CH: Eric followed Paul Horn. When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric. I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson. Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly. So that was it. Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well. That was it. I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.
It’s a funny thing. Some people didn’t like him at first.
TP: What was it about him that caused that reaction?
CH: What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing. Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned. I watched him grow. I watched him grow. I watched him develop into a tremendous player. And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going. At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.
[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, "Gongs East (1958)," "Don's Delight," "Miss Movement" (1959), CH-5 (1992), "Mandrake"]
CH: That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend. If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording. On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’ Everybody wanted me to fire him.” Of course you did not do that. You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate. Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…
CH: You’re on your own. You’re strictly on your own. Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression. This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically. So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo. If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me. It’s cool. Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something. This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music. You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel. There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera. This is what Classical music is all about. But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it. This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.
TP: You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians. Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.
CH: Man, let me tell you. We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night. We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing. We were following Sonny Stitt in the club. So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon. I think we’d just gotten in that morning. I had Eric with me. Eric always carried his horns with me. We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player. Tell him to come up and play something.” I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.” Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand. So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…
TP: Played about eight keys…
CH: Yeah, and things like that. Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.” Right? Man, Eric started playing. Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy? Where did you get this guy?” Eric was something else. He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really. And that’s saying something.
TP: In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit. You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling. I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums. I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around. I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.” Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C. Moses on drums. It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth. Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.
CH: Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea. He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?” The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music. I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players. They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy. Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.” Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play. Most guys find it problematic structurally. So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach. As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it. It makes a difference. As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]
TP: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?
CH: Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice. He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them. He was very kind to everyone. I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man. I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.
TP: The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music. Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line). A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians. Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?
CH: Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.” That says it all. Do you understand that? Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?
TP: That’s clear, I think.
CH: That’s what I do. I don’t know what anyone else does. I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.
TP: Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.
CH: Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind. He had the player in mind. He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.
TP: And that’s why he got them.
CH: Well, you dig? That’s the bottom line. In my case I did the same thing. I would change up on groups. After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up. It becomes time to change. No one did that any better than Miles. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that. And Art constantly had new groups. Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on. And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player. Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound. They need their own space.
[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, "Witchcraft", "People"; w/ Mariano and Richardson, "Manila", "Conquistadores", "Jim-Jennie"]
CH: Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time. I never play it.
TP: You never play your old music?
CH: No. As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.” But I don’t know. Only rarely do I play any of my music.
TP: Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?
CH: I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music. To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music. I mean that sincerely. The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique. Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.
TP: It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things. You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.
CH: First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar. Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that. From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend. I’ve always used guitar. It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!
TP: I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…
CH: Oh, the Latin feeling, man. It’s part of my life.
TP: A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.
CH: And what did he say?
TP: He said, “Chicano music? I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.” But I didn’t say it to them. I’d like you to be saying it.
CH: Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.
TP: Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.
CH: Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference. The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands. I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets. Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion. Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat. TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set. Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different. But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket. You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat. If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up. It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash. It’s cool. And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going. It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.
TP: In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal. Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.
CH: Well, I was on the road. I was virtually on the road at the time. Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson. That’s mainly the Impulse period.
TP: Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.
CH: The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band. I took him on the road. I took him out of L.A. He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A. He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life. And Gabor? We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group. As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him. Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson. He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena. When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old. He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned. Here again, man, I’m very fortunate. There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.
TP: A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.
CH: Sadao’s a big superstar now. He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.
TP: Was he part of your working group?
TP: And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.
CH: You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world. It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s. If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out. As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar. Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s. I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band. One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day. After my sessions I would hang out there. It just happened. I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together. I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.
TP: Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.
TP: Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.
CH: You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.
TP: Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?
CH: [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.
TP: Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?
CH: No. I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything. In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial. So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.
TP: What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?
CH: Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing. It’s difficult for me to say how I play.
TP: This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale. Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time. This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]
[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale "Guitar Willie," "Theme For A Woman"; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, "Without A Song" (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty "In View" (1973); w/ A. Blythe, "Sweet Dreams" (1972)]
TP: A long set of music by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.
The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist. Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.
CH: First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less. They joined me when they were very young, young guys. I think both were very new to New York at the time. We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music. They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.
TP: Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?
CH: First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite. Do you understand that?
TP: If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.
CH: Exactly. Because in the beginning they’re not fully developed. They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there. And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.
TP: What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth. But is that the quality you’re looking for? Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow? Is that the main thing for you?
CH: Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow. They have a story that they want to tell.
TP: How do you determine that when you first meet someone?
CH: Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell. I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well. It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned. I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries. Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound. That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself. Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature. And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself. That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players. They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound. I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it. That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?
The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie. The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him. Since then we’ve done several films. The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me. Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer. But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite. As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter. It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.
[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, "Sorta New," "Jeffrey Andrew Caddick," "Song For Helen," "Every Time I Smile"]
TP: Are you always writing new music? Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?
CH: Always. It goes in spurts, though. If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing. Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.
TP: Do you practice a lot? Are you past practicing at this point?
CH: No, I practice, man. I’d better. There’s too many young players out there, man! No, I try to practice every day. As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.” And vice-versa, that type of thing.
TP: What’s your practice regimen?
CH: There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing. I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument. I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man. So I get as much from them as they probably get from me. As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing. But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.
TP: You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style. I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.
CH: Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play. It’s fantastic. For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike. It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa. This is how you approach the instrument. They each have something different that they’re saying. Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder. It’s dynamite. It really drives you. Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument. And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max. And I’m completely different from all three of them. Plus the fact, I like anybody, man. Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.
TP: Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.
CH: Yeah, if I can remember them. Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing. There are a lot of them. It’s just a question of not remembering their names. I don’t make the scene too much any more.
TP: A few words about the drums and dance. There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.
CH: That’s what it’s all about. The tap-dance. That’s what drumming is all about, really.
TP: Did you ever play with any tap dancers?
CH: Did I ever play with any tap dancers! Quite a few, as a matter of fact. There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers. I kept time for them. I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another. When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did. You played for all those dancers. Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show. There was a complete show. They would have dancers and singers and things like that. So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself. But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing. I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.
TP: Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.
CH: I appreciate it immensely. The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact. It don’t happen every day!
[MUSIC: solos, "Tap Drums," "The Snare Drum"]
* * *
Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):
1. Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)
I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.
2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)
I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.
3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)
Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.
4. Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)
It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.
5. Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)
That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.
6. Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)
Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.
7. Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)
I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.
8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)
See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.
9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)
Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.
10. Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)
When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.
11. Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)
Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.
12. Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)
I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.
13. Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)
That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.