Chico Hamilton Day

September 20, 1921 – November 25, 2013

A tribute to the drummer-bandleader

Drummer and bandleader Chico Hamilton was born on September 20, 1921 in Los Angeles, California

Part of the Los Angeles jazz scene by the time he was in high school, he played drums early on with Charles Mingus, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Slim Gaillard (with whom he made his recording debut), T-Bone Walker and many others.

Hamilton first gained attention in the jazz world for his subtle playing as a member of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartet in 1952, leaving after a few months to tour with Lena Horne.

In 1955 he formed the first Chico Hamilton Quintet, a group comprised of Buddy Collette’s reeds, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith, and the leader’s drums plus the great jazz cellist Fred Katz.

Hamilton’s group found its own niche in West Coast Cool Jazz and, even with personnel changes (Paul Horn and Eric Dolphy spent time in the reeds chair), continued its success into the early 1960s, appearing in the film The Sweet Smell Of Success and making a strong impression at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1961 when Charles Lloyd joined the group on tenor and flute, the sound of the quintet soon changed with a trombonist replacing the cellist and guitarist Gabor Szabo and Lloyd leading Hamilton towards exploring freer sounds.

After 1965, Hamilton broke up the quintet, forming a film and commercial production company, but he continued leading record dates on an occasional basis.

Hamilton became more active again in the jazz world in the 1990s, leading the group Euphoria (which featured guitarist Cary DeNigris and altoist Eric Person) and recording extensively during the decade before his death in 2013 at the age of 92.

Here is one of the highpoints in Chico Hamilton’s career, a haunting performance of “Blue Sands” from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with Eric Dolphy on flute.

-Scott Yanow