Happy Birthday, Chico Hamilton, Drummer of the Age of Integration

Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton at the 2007 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. (Photo by Professor Bop via Flickr)



I think I was thirteen years old when I first heard drummer Chico Hamilton. It was the summer of 1965, when I was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, that my sister bought a brand-new jazz album called El Chico. I think she bought the record for two reasons: first, it was themed as Latin music, and my sister, at that time, was interested not in all things Latin but in all things Spanish, from bullfights to Lorca. This album got swallowed up in a kind of indiscriminate flood of her years of, what Jelly Roll Morton called, the “Spanish tinge.” Second, the record featured a Hungarian guitarist named Gábor Szabó, who was becoming the jazz rage of the moment. He had emerged, along with Larry Coryell, as one of the hip jazz guitarists of the 1960s. (Coryell recorded with Hamilton a year later on an album called The Dealer that featured a showcase tune for him, “Larry of Arabia.”)

I was misled by the album’s title, a cover photo of Hamilton wearing a bolero jacket and cape, and Hamilton’s name (a nickname in this instance) into thinking that Hamilton was Latino. Foreststorn Hamilton, African American, was born on this day in Los Angeles in 1921. His brother, Bernie, became a noted actor, who was the lead in the 1964 pathbreaking drama about interracial marriage called One Potato, Two Potato. In the coastal factionalizing of jazz that occurred in the 1950s, Hamilton was definitely of the West Coast School. His 1950s quintet featured a cellist as the lead instrument, three of the five musicians in the band were White, (when Buddy Collette left, four of the five were White), the overall chamber sound was experimental. Some might even have called some of the music pretentious. It was not East Coast hard bop, for sure. Ironically, this West Coast band was featured in the 1957 classic film about New York and those toiling in the underbelly of the fame industry, Sweet Smell of Success. Hamilton even had a few lines. It was not the last time Hamilton would be involved in making music for a movie.

When I first encountered Hamilton in 1965, I knew none of this. But I loved El Chico sort of in stages. At first, I loved the album’s most famous track, “Conquistadores,” an impro that features Szabó’s cool guitar against Hamilton’s hot drums, supported by two Latin percussionists. Hamilton or Willie Bobo can be heard egging Szabó on during the performance. It is a highly accessible jazz piece that sounds like something that inspired early Santana records. (Indeed, Santana had success recording Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen” for his second album, Abraxas.) After a while, my favorite song became the band’s recording of “People” which featured Szabó. Some months after that I preferred the moody track entitled “El Moors,” a reworking of a tune Hamilton had recorded earlier with his 1950s quintet. All of this music seemed so modern, so fresh, a new-sounding jazz. It was not the soul-jazz of Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Smith, Les McCann, and Ramsey Lewis that most of the Black adults around me liked. It was not Coltrane or Thelonious Monk. It was jazz for my generation.

I bought two other earlier Hamilton records, Man from Two Worlds (1963) and Passin’ Thru, (1962), both of these records featuring a saxophonist/flutist from Memphis named Charles Lloyd. Lloyd would become a big name in this new movement in jazz in the 1960s with his own quartet that featured a young pianist named Keith Jarrett. I loved Lloyd on these records. Szabó performed on “Man from Two Worlds,” where I first heard one of the jazz anthems of the 1960s, Lloyd’s “Forest Flower.” Passin’ Thru had Szabó’s tune, “Lady Gabor,” another of the jazz anthems of the 1960s which was played at a faster tempo as “Gypsy 66.” Kids who thought themselves jazz-hip loved this tune too. So, before the electric Miles Davis of the 1970s, before Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, or Weather Report, or the other fusion bands, there was Hamilton, Lloyd, and Szabó in the 1960s who introduced the elements of avant-garde, rock-ish melodies, and youthful vibrancy that joined both Black and White musical sensibilities which were to change jazz music forever. Here was jazz as a new racially integrated music. I was a child of the age of integration and Hamilton’s bands spoke to me deeply. His music was about the promise and optimism of integration and how the older and younger generation could speak to each other, as Hamilton was over forty when he made these records.

Oddly, as the years have gone by, I still listen to “El Chico,” remembering its power when it was new music, but my favorite track now is “Strange,” a pop tune of big band sensibility, composed by Marvin Fisher and John La Touche, the sort of tune that Jane Russell may have been singing in a nightclub when she first encounters Robert Mitchum in a movie like Macao. (Here is a vocal version by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole.) Hamilton performs the tune in a rather old-fashioned, mambo style. It even sounded old-fashioned to me as a teen in the 1960s. There is a sheer poignancy in the nostalgia of the song and the performance that I enjoy now. Perhaps it is age. Perhaps it is that I have finally caught up with the tune as I have caught up with my future.