Today is the 85th birthday of jazz drummer and legendary bandleader Chico Hamilton. He has spent 70 years behind the drum kit, performing in a wide variety of styles and jazz flavors: from big band and R&B, to funky and experimental.
Hamilton has been leading jazz groups and sculpting his sound for the majority of his eight decades. He was born in Los Angeles and quickly rose through the ranks of the L.A. music scene, playing with small bands and large orchestras. In 1952, he joined a quartet led by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker that soon became a leader of the Cool school in jazz. Three years later, Hamilton started his own group with an unorthodox mix of jazz and classical instruments. It was a new sound that critics dubbed "chamber jazz."
Hamilton's quintet rapidly evolved into a star attraction during the '50s: touring the country, appearing in movies like Sweet Smell of Success, and Jazz on a Summer Day. As he brought new musicians into his group, his music began to change. Chico Hamilton's band began to serve as a proving ground for future stars. His alumni include guitar greats such as Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, and such saxophonists as Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd.
Today, Hamilton's music remains as vital as ever. His drumbeats continue to be used by hip-hop deejays, and many of his recordings have been given a new edge by various producers. The National Endowment for the Arts crowned him a Jazz Master in 2004, and next year, the Kennedy Center will name him a "Living Jazz Legend." To celebrate his 85th year, he has just released four new CDs that feature his current band and many old friends.
Like other band-leading drummers in the jazz tradition — Art Blakey, Max Roach, Chick Webb — it's difficult to know whether Foreststorn "Chico" Hamilton deserves most praise for the groups he has assembled, the compositions he has written, or simply his drumming. All facets of his musical personality reflect a dedication that has endured for more than seven decades, during which he has been an active participant in as many shifts in musical style and fashion. From swing and jump blues to bebop, Latin, funk and free, "Chics" is fluent in and has explored them all.
In 1958 at the Newport Jazz Festival, "Chics" was caught by movie cameras as he and his quintet of the moment performed the Eastern-tinged "Blue Sands," with Hamilton working out a rolling, mallet solo that built from whisper soft to thunderous climax. It's a featured moment in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day, and captures the focused precision, dynamic range and exotic flavor that are elements in his wide musical palette.
Three other moments worth checking from Hamilton's extended journey follow, each available and recommended highly.