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.


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.


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.


BARCO: And he got funky with Charles Lloyd.


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.

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