Friday, October 30, 2009

Chico Hamilton: Still Swingin' His Keester Off

You may have never heard of drummer Chico Hamilton before, but chances are you’ve heard him play. He has worked with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Slim & Slam, T-Bone Walker, Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett, Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne, with whom he spent eight years before striking out on his own as a band leader in 1955. Over the years, he also discovered many talented young musicians and introduced the jazz world to such notables as Jim Hall, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Lloyd.

Now 88, Hamilton looks a bit frail, but his wit is as sharp as ever. In this interview, he took over before Dr. Schoeder could get in even a word, telling the crowd, “you can ask me anything you want to ask me. First of all, I was born.” This got a slight chuckle from the audience, but after a long pause, he continued, “upstairs by the kitchen sink. And how do I know? I heard the water running.” Discontented with the mild response to his joke, Hamilton told the audience “I ain’t gonna be no funnier than that.” The crowd responded much more heartily to this last comment, although the stated fact was false.

Hamilton had many more one-liners throughout the afternoon. When a member of the audience got up to leave halfway through the interview Hamilton was quick to ask whether he was “boring” him, insisting “you’re gonna miss the best part.” Again, he milked the scene, pausing before telling the crowd “I’m gonna take my clothes off.”

It was Hamilton’s wealth of stories that held the audience’s focus for more than an hour though. He told the gathering about one occasion, when he was about ten years old, he got a gig playing with a few of his young peers and one their fathers, who led them on trumpet. Every time he’d go to pick up his sticks to play with that group though, the elder trumpeter would look at him and say, “put them sticks down boy, get them brushes.” This was revelatory for Hamilton, who claimed that on every gig he had since then, the most money he ever made was when he kept “time with those brushes, playing for them girl singers.”

Throughout the afternoon, Hamilton was full of such wisdom. He was grateful to the people that helped him rise from being a “lowly street urchin,” and in return, he hoped to pass on some of the lessons he’d learned to the next generation of musicians.

Not all of these lessons came easy though. Hamilton got his first big break at the age of 16, dropping out of school to join legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band. Within three weeks, he had been fired though. As Hamilton explained, “I could play, I could swing my keester off, I had a hell of an ear, but I couldn’t read music.”

Around that time, the Count Basie Orchestra came to town, and he got a chance to meet his hero, Basie’s drummer Joe Jones. When he finally got a chance to talk to him though, Jones simply told him ‘stay in school.’

His approach to drums was changed when he first saw Art Blakey playing with the Billy Eckstine band. He told the audience, “I never heard anything like that before in my whole life. I didn’t believe this guy. This guy was kicking, keeping time with his right hand. His left hand was doing something. His left foot was doing something different. His right foot was doing something, dancing all over the place, but that rhythm, that thing was there. It shook me up.”

Hamilton was quite the revolutionary himself though, leading one of the first jazz groups not to feature a piano. As he explained, “all the piano players I wanted to play with had their own thing happening.” Consequently, he went into the studio to record with guitarist Howard Roberts and bassist George Duvivier. The resulting 1955 album is one of the first examples of a jazz group where “the rhythm section instruments became the solo instruments.”

He continued to break ground in terms of instrumentation when he formed a band with flautist Buddy Collete, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith, and cellist Fred Katz. In speaking about that group, Hamilton explained that the instrumentation was the least of their problems. The group was racially mixed, and their regular gig was at a bar in Long Beach, California, a highly prejudiced Navy town. The place “wasn’t clean. It was nothing but hookers and sailors.” Hamilton asked the crowd, “could you imagine us going in there and playing? These two black dudes and these three white dudes with a cello?” Hamilton and his group did get to play though. The one week gig lasted for six months and the group “turned Long Beach completely around.” Hamilton tacked on, “we even started making money.”

The group gained enough notoriety that Hamilton was soon able to secure a job at Paramount Pictures working as the house drummer, “keeping time for Marilyn Monroe, Sheree North, and all those dance directors.” The Chico Hamilton Quintet was even featured in the 1957 Burt Lancaster classic, Sweet Smell Of Success.

Hamilton insisted that he’d been in the movie business since he was a kid though, beginning as one of “those little jungle dudes” in the Tarzan movies. In those films, Hamilton was able to get fifteen dollars for a day of work. The studio wouldn’t allow anybody back for more than one day though. Hamilton told the audience, “once you’d get painted, I used to hide, so I could get more than one day.” This was a running theme through Hamilton’s career, as he told the crowd later on, “if I didn’t have a gig, I’d go out and make one.”

Hamilton really got the crowd going though, when he demonstrated “the oldest drum beat.” He then handed his microphone over to Dr. Schoeder and began a simple repeated pattern of two claps. He soon began to chant, “Charleston,” right along to his rhythm. Hamilton then got the audience to join him in clapping and chanting the Charleston beat. Before long, he brought the room to a halt, telling the crowd to do it one more time so he could “blow a little bit.” This time he started up the rhythm by singing a great vaudeville-style introduction, and after helping the audience get the beat started once more, he took a wonderful solo, scatting a little melody overtop the beat.

Throughout the afternoon, Hamilton happily recounted story after story, each one making up only a sliver of his long and brilliant career. He continues to make music at a high level, going out on the bandstand and swingin' his keester off. He even put out a new album recently, Twelve Tones Of Love. As the interview came to a conclusion though, Hamilton was asked whether there was anything left for him to accomplish. In his response, Hamilton found an opportunity to get in one last zinger, telling the crowd, “I was thinking about becoming a zillionaire.”

Here are some clips from the interview:

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