For Chico Hamilton, The Beat Goes On Today is the 85th birthday of jazz drummer and legendary bandleader Chico Hamilton. He has spent seventy 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.

For Chico Hamilton, The Beat Goes On

For Chico Hamilton, The Beat Goes On

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Chico Hamilton has spent 70 years behind the drum kit. Scroll down to read reviews of three essential albums by the legendary bandleader. Todd Boebel hide caption

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Todd Boebel

Chico Hamilton has spent 70 years behind the drum kit. Scroll down to read reviews of three essential albums by the legendary bandleader.

Todd Boebel

Hamilton Reworked

Hear Chico Hamilton tune, from 'Impulsive! Revolutionary Jazz Reworked.'

'El Toro (Mark De Clive-Lowe Remix)'

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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.

A Handful of Hamilton

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.

'The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings'

The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings

'Morning After'

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Cool and classical. Yes, this is an import but it's just been released and there's no better release that captures the group that grew from the West Coast "cool" jazz scene, helped coin the term "chamber jazz" and featured Hamilton along with guitarist Jim Hall, saxophonist/flutist Buddy Collette, cellist Fred Katz and bassist Carson Smith. It's a musical formula that Hamilton returned to repeatedly: a rhythm section without a piano but always a guitar, and any of a variety of horns ("I've never used keyboards but always guitar," he explains. "The reason for that is the guitar has sustaining power, which gives me a chance to dance.") Check out "The Sage," "The Morning After," "Chrissie" and the live performance of "I Want to Be Happy."

 

'Man From Two Worlds'

Man from Two Worlds

'Forest Flower'

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Moody, modal and modern. This is one of two CDs that are currently available collecting Hamilton's mid-'60s recordings for the famed Impulse label. This title features the music of the remarkable quintet band that included legendary sax man Charles Lloyd (channeling John Coltrane at his most spiritual), Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, future funk trombonist George Bohanon and bassist Al Stinson. If only for the original version of Lloyd's "Forest Flower," this one's a keeper. Also: the title track, "Passin' Thru" and "Lonesome Child."

 

'Juniflip'

Juniflip

'Mr. Hamilton'

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'Yeh Yeh' (For Carlos Santana)

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Fun, fun, fun. Of the four new CDs that Hamilton's been working on for the past three years, all to be released during his 85th year, this is the most consistent, varied and enjoyable. There's some strong new material ("Mr. Hamilton" and "Cary's Footsteps"), some familiar forms like a slow blues ("What's Your Story, Morning Glory?") and an R&B romp ("Yeh Yeh," dedicated to Carlos Santana.) There are also a few surprises, like Bill Henderson singing "Ain't She Sweet," Arthur Lee (yes, the guy from the group Love who recently passed) singing on that slow blues number, and a collaboration between Hamilton and an electronica group called Mudd ("Kerry's Caravan"). If they figure out how to bottle whatever it is that keeps a drummer in the pocket like Hamilton is at 85, I'm ordering a case to go.

 

Ashley Kahn is author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.