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Drummer Chico Hamilton, Dead at 92

By , UK News Editor | The Jazz Line

Iconic drummer, band leader, and jazz legend Chico Hamilton passed away yesterday (November 25) in Manhattan, NY. He was 92.

His publicist, April Thibeault, who confirms he died of natural causes attributable to his age.

Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton,born in Los Angeles, CA on September 20, 1921, showed a keen interest in music from a very young age. Though not from a musical family, Chico was inspired to take up the clarinet when his best friend started playing the instrument at 8-years-old. Chico’s brother Tommy also played drums in his grade school orchestra, and when his brother graduated Chico tried out the drums and something stuck. He continued with the drums throughout his education, forming a high school jazz band with a motley crew of jazz luminaries in waiting, such as Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus, to name just two.

He went on the perform with the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Billie Holiday; establishing himself firmly as a force to be reckoned with in the jazz world. His experimentation with sound as part of Gerry Mulligan‘s pianoless quartet laid the groundwork for the ‘cool jazz’ movement of the ’50s. Assisted by the naturally melodic styles of bassist Bob Whitlock, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and trumpeter Chet Baker, Chico helped lead the quartet towards open improvised textures and away from the piano-enforced chord structures common at the time, setting the benchmark for what would later be called ‘cool jazz.’

In 1955 Hamilton stepped out and put together his own quintet – A rare feat for a drummer in the ’50s. The band used a unique mix of instruments; cello, flute, guitar, bass, and drums, which gave them a distinctive sound that lent itself well to cool jazz. Their success was immediate, and they quickly became one of the most important West Coast bands of the era, displaying a quiet intensity and extraordinary creativity in arrangements which would raise the bar for cool jazz artists everywhere. The Chico Hamilton Quintet was supremely popular in its heyday, so much so that the band would play in Hollywood movies, such as 1957’s ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ starring Burt Lancaster. As tastes changed, so too did the quintet. Line-up and style changes kept the band relevant up until it was disbanded in 1966.

Hamilton occupied his time without a band writing music for film and television, before hitting the road again as a bandleader in the mid-’70s. Although he never attained the heights of stardom seen in the ’50s, he remained an active musician for the rest of his life.

Hamilton received many accolades in his lifetime, including the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2004, and the Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007. He always had a strong commitment to education, which led him to help found the New School University Jazz & Contemporary Music Program in 1987. After teaching at the school for more than 20 years, he has been credited time and time again as a great educator by not just his students, but also his band members over the years.

Chico Hamilton continued to record well into his 90’s. He just completed an album, titled ‘Inquiring Minds’ last month. The album, which will be released posthumously on Joyous Shout! records in 2014, features Paul Ramsey (bass), Evan Schwam (woodwinds), Jeremy Carlstedt (drums), Mayu Saeki (flute), and Nick Demopolous (guitar).

He is survived by his daughter, Denise Hamilton, a great granddaughter, and two great-granddaughters.

“I’m happy to say that I’m able to find people wherever I go that are not black, not white – they’re just human beings. I don’t dig staying in one groove. At this stage of my life, I’ve dedicated myself to playing what I want to play, how I want to play it, for the rest of my time. Regardless of whether one might like it or one might not like it. That’s where I am, where I’ve been and where I intend to stay.” – Foreststorn ‘Chico’ Hamilton

Watch Chico Hamilton perform “Tickle Toe” below:

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