Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton was a lynchpin of the West Coast jazz scene in the 1950s and '60s. The Chico Hamilton quintet created a new sound by adding cello and the drummer's groups became incubators for new talent. Hamilton continued performing into his ninth decade. He died yesterday in New York of natural causes at the age of 92.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this appreciation.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: He was born Foreststorn Hamilton in Los Angeles in 1921, where high school bandmates included such other future jazz stars as Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. He went on to become Lena Horne's drummer, as he told NPR in 2006.

CHICO HAMILTON: I ended up staying with Lena for about over eight years. I was in a different world, you know. I was on a first name basis with everybody, from Frank Sinatra to Tony - you name it, I was on a first name basis with him.

BARCO: Hamilton didn't really dig the world of entertainment, so he dove into jazz, making his mark with his first quintet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: The group featured woodwinds and cello. The sound came to be called chamber jazz. But its debut was anything but hoity-toity.

HAMILTON: Our first gig, man, was in Long Beach, California, in a sort of unrestricted whorehouse. You couldn't have been in a crappier place than that. And you come in there with a cello and a flute. Man, we stayed there about seven, eight months and sold out every night. You couldn't move.

BARCO: The guitarist in that group was Jim Hall.

JIM HALL: He was fearless. Nothing seemed to faze him. Chico had a combination of talent and he felt secure in what he was doing and what we were doing. And we were doing something a bit unusual, actually, in those days.

BARCO: The group made such a name for itself that it was featured in the 1957 film "The Sweet Smell of Success," starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Hamilton co-wrote the score. The group was also included in the documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day," filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival. George Wein booked the festival and described Hamilton's touch this way.

GEORGE WEIN: He didn't have to bombast you to show you how good he is. I think that's defining the quality of his art.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: But Hamilton wasn't just a drummer. He had an ear for talent and continued to pursue new sounds throughout his career. He got avant-garde with Eric Dolphy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: And he got funky with Charles Lloyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GERALD WILSON: Chico has played all kinds of music and also taught drums right in New York City, at the New School there.

BARCO: Pianist and bandleader Gerald Wilson was a friend of Hamilton's and another mainstay of the West Coast jazz scene. He recalls a time when the musicians unions were segregated in L.A. His friend helped change that.

WILSON: He made a statement that why did we have to have two unions. And it started from that.

BARCO: Chico Hamilton's influence extended beyond his own groups to R&B and hip-hop. His riffs were often sampled. In 1992, Hamilton told NPR he was always interested in what was going on now, not the past.

HAMILTON: You can't go back. I can't feel like I did 30 years ago about anything with maybe perhaps the exception of my wife, who I still love. OK?

BARCO: Chico Hamilton spent a career that spanned more than seven decades looking ahead. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.