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Unidentified Man: Now with emotion, technique, precision and imagination, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Chico Hamilton.

(Soundbite of music)

LYNN NEARY, host:

Today's the 85th birthday of jazz drummer and legendary bandleader Foreststorn Hamilton, better known as Chico.

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NEARY: Chico Hamilton 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. He spoke recently about his extended and still active career with journalist Ashley Kahn.

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ASHLEY KAHN: Chico Hamilton shimmered where others pounded. Those are the words of one jazz writer, one of many who have fallen under the spell of the legendary jazz drummer. And those words still ring true: Hamilton remains a master of grooves and of subtlety.

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KAHN: It's not just the critics who feel Hamilton deserves recognition and celebration. 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. Lofty titles for a guy who likes to keep it simple.

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KAHN: Mr. Hamilton, if there was one way that you..

Mr. FORESTSTORN CHICO HAMILTON (Jazz Drummer; Bandleader): Just Chics(ph) or Chico, you know.

KAHN: Okay, Chics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMILTON: Most of my friends call me.

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KAHN: Chics has been leading jazz groups and sculpting his sound for the majority of his 85 years. For George Wein, the jazz festival producer who first presented the drummer more than 50 years ago, the secret of Hamilton's enduring popularity can be summed up with one word.

Mr. GEORGE WEIN (CEO, Festival Productions): Taste. He didn't have to bombast you to show you how good he is. I think that's defining the quality of his art.

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KAHN: Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, whose long and distinguished career began in Hamilton's original quintet, feels just as strongly.

Mr. JIM HALL (Jazz Guitarist): He was the first recognizably super-gifted drummer that I ever worked with. A lot of humor in Chico's playing and his solos were really inventive I thought.

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KAHN: Chico Hamilton was born in 1921 in Los Angeles, and he remembers the day he saw his future.

Mr. HAMILTON: When I was eight years old my mother took me to the Paramount Theatre to see Duke Ellington.

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Mr. HAMILTON: That's when the band sat up on a pyramid and Sonny Greer was sitting at the top with all those drums, man.

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Mr. HAMILTON: As fate would have it, when I was 16 years old, Sonny Greer had an accident and they sent for me to replace him. I was playing in Duke's band on those same drums.

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KAHN: Hamilton quickly rose through the ranks of the L.A. music scene, playing with large orchestras and small bands.

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Mr. HAMILTON: I ended up playing with Lena Horne, 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 Bennett. You name them, I was on a first name basis with them.

KAHN: So you were on the entertainment side, not so much the jazz side?

Mr. HAMILTON: On the entertainment side, which is a different side, man. That's the reason my devotion today is stone cold to the music.

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KAHN: In 1952, Hamilton rededicated himself to music. He left Lena Horne and joined a quartet led by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker. The group was soon leading the cool school in jazz.

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KAHN: In 1955, Hamilton took the idea of a piano-less band from his experience with Mulligan, a concept that helped loosen the structure of the music, and started his own group with an unorthodox mix of jazz and classical instruments. It was a new sound that writers soon dubbed chamber jazz.

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Mr. 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 and a guitar and a bass and a drum. Man, we stayed there about, what, seven or eight months and sold out every night. You couldn't move.

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KAHN: Hamilton's quintet rapidly evolved into a star attraction in the ‘50s, touring the country and appearing in movies like The Sweet Smell of Success and Jazz on a Summer's Day. As he brought new musicians into his group, his music began to change.

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KAHN: Again, jazz producer George Wein.

Mr. WEIN: I'll never forget we wanted to take Chico to Europe. And he had changed his musical style, went more avant-garde, and they wouldn't take him. He stuck by what he wanted to do. He lost that gig because he wanted to stick with the music. I always gave him a lot of credit for that.

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KAHN: Chico Hamilton's band began to serve as a proving ground for future jazz stars. His alumni include guitar greats like Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, and such saxophonists as Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd.

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Mr. WEIN: He always wanted to be part of what was happening musically. He was never wedded to the past.

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KAHN: Today, Hamilton's music remains as vital as ever. His drumbeats continue to be used by hip-hop DJ's, while many of his recordings have been re-mixed and given a new edge by young producers.

And to celebrate his 85th year, he's just released four new CD's that feature his current band and many old friends.

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KAHN: On his birthday, Chico Hamilton should be proud of a time-keeping career filled with music that's always kept up with the times.

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NEARY: Ashley Kahn is the author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. You can hear more of Chico Hamilton's music and read an essay about one of his most important albums at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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