Chico Hamilton: Living the Beat

By Ryan Demler (Dembinsky) Feb 16, 2010 • 3:16 pm PST

Maine's Nateva Fest: July 2-4

Are people born with rhythm?

Sitting down at the kitchen table inside 88-year-old jazz legend Chico Hamilton‘s midtown Manhattan apartment, chewing the fat about jazz music and his storied career as a drummer and bandleader – a career that includes holding court for jazz royals “Duke” Ellington and “Count” Basie, playing storied musical engagements with his school kid pal Charles Mingus, receiving a living legend of jazz award from the Kennedy Center, and recording on over 60 albums – likely marks one of those stories I’ll tell my grandchildren one day. Not only did Hamilton leave a musical legacy that virtually mirrors the history of jazz since the 1940s, but in just a short visit I learned that Chico just recently suffered congestive heart failure, yet continues to play shows with guys half his age and just recently put out an incredible new album titled the Twelve Tones of Love (released last April on Joyous Shout Records).

This question of rhythm came up about midway through the chat and Chico said, “Well they all got a heart. They all feel the beat of their heart.”

From there, he ordered me, “Put you’re your hand on your heart. Now take your other hand and keep the beat. Now sing this, ‘Do Do Do Do; Doot Doot,’” as he nodded along with the four quarter notes and two subsequent half notes. “Let me hear you sing it,” he said, chuckling as I sang through the beat. “That’s the oldest beat that I know of; that’s the bottom line of jazz. That’s The Charleston.”

I think I just took a music lesson from a living jazz legend. Check that one off the bucket list.


Chico’s new album, Twelve Tones of Love, sounds at once fresh, mellow, listenable, funky, and melodic – as fresh a jazz album as I’ve heard in ages – but Hamilton downplays all of these in a charismatic, albeit humble manner.

“There’s no such thing as new music,” he says. “Somewhere, somebody played that same note. The only thing different is the rhythmic articulation. We still don’t know which came first, rhythm or movement. The freest thing that a human being can do is dance.”

In talking about his studio effort, I inquired if the title referenced the musical approach known as the twelve-tone method.

“Exactly. C, C#, and all the way up,” he says. “I do it because there ain’t no bad notes. Every note means something. It’s simple; you hear the sound, you play the note.”

If only it was so easy. Hamilton has a way of describing music where you know he feels it in a way not everybody can. “You’re playing in all the keys,” he adds. “Keys don’t mean a thing. That enables you to play what’s called a moveable ‘do’ [as in do-re-mi].”


In his early days, Chico made a quick study to jazz and earned himself early recognition on the West Coast.

“When I was eight-years-old, my mother took me to the Paramount to see Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Back then, the orchestra stood in a pyramid and at the top was Sonny Greer. Man, he had more drums than a drum store. People just went nuts for him. He was the first real percussionist.”

At eight years of age, Chico experienced that cathartic performance and subsequently realized he had a unique talent. “Play me anything, I can play it,” he claims. The West Coast jazz scene took to Chico like a burr on wool and before long he was playing with his idols like Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and George Jones. “Eight years later, I was in that exact same seat, playing with Duke at 16-years-old.”


Having tackled the drums and percussion with Ray Lewis authority, Chico stepped out front into the limelight in 1955 as a bandleader and he never looked back. This is a curious feat given the fact that Hamilton came from a largely self-taught background. Presumably, learning the drums and keeping time comes more naturally, but Hamilton evolved into one of the finest bandleaders of the day – many days for that matter – which comes as a direct tertiary of his dedication to the craft, his understanding of space, and the piecing together of different skill sets. Asked what makes a great bandleader, Chico responded diplomatically, “A better word is ‘good.’ What makes a ‘good’ bandleader? To be a good bandleader, you have to be a great sideman first. You can’t run before you can crawl.”

 The freest thing that a human being can do is dance.Chico Hamilton 


Similarly, almost from the get-go, Hamilton established not only a reputation as a virtuoso player, but also as a launching pad for aspiring jazz musicians. In fact, the seminal jazz bible, Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz, attributes the late legendary alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s earliest successes and notoriety to his association with Hamilton.

What drives Hamilton to make the effort to look out for the careers of younger musicians on the rise, while many musicians preoccupy themselves foremost with furthering their own careers?

“That’s just the way I grew up,” he says. “I got help from the pros like Lester Young and Joe Jones. Basically, I was self-taught, which is not easy. I’m still teaching myself new things. I still take lessons from time to time.”

This “what goes around comes around” attitude led Hamilton to become an original founding member of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 1987. Over 20 years later, while Chico rarely leaves the confines of his New York City apartment – equipped with a drum kit and keyboard parked in front of his living room television – he still makes the effort to teach an ensemble class at the New School. To this day, most of the players in Chico’s live band are former students from the program.

“What I stress when I teach is that it takes all kinds of music to make music,” he offers. “I don’t care if it’s country western or pop-rock, if it’s good, it deserves to be played and it deserves to be listened to.”

Film Contributor

Perhaps a tribute to the depth of Chico’s personality, which easily maneuvers a balance of quick wit, thoughtful emotion, and quirky philosophies, Hamilton has also enjoyed a long career adding his colorful contexts to the movie industry, contributing compositions, pre-recorded numbers for soundtracks, and even his well-worn face as an actor.

“There’s only been one producer/director that I actually liked and that is Roman Polanski. In the film Repulsion, we had 25 music cues and yet we only had a single discussion. For the rest, he was cool. The producers, they forget why they hired you.”

It’s funny, because you often hear how everyone in Hollywood wants a piece of the soundtrack and should have a say in the music, but Hamilton’s sentiments definitely mirror these notions.

“They ultimately become the music people. First, they want the music in a certain place, but then they take it out and put it in another place; the wrong place,” Chico states emphatically. “The interesting part about writing music for film is knowing where not to put music.”


To think that a jazz legend with over 70 years in the upper crust of music’s finest still gets hurt feelings may be mind boggling, but it’s also true. As a music fan, casual listener or even critic, sometimes we forget that we’re judging somebody’s life’s work, and it may well influence them.

“Every time I play – whether I sound good, bad, or different – I’m doing the best I can. You can’t please people as far as the music’s concerned,” he says. “I want to make something clear: I don’t play music for people; I play music for music’s sake. That way you don’t get your feelings hurt. I realize that I have been blessed to the extent that music is God’s will and God’s will shall be done.”

Hamilton returned to these themes a number of times throughout the course of our short visit. While a wise musical philosopher on the outside, the fact that he’s both a deeply emotional man and musician came across as clear as highway thinking.

“You know what my name is? It’s Foreststorn. Back when I was in the service, people kept looking at my name not knowing how to say it. So, people started calling me Chico. You know what Chico means?”

Doesn’t it mean boy?

“It means ‘little boy’,” he retorts. And there must be something to that, because 88 years later, Chico Hamilton still runs with the passion of a young boy, and frankly, it’s both inspiring and entirely contagious. We should all be so lucky to achieve such broad reach and versatility in our chosen field, and keep at it with the same unbridled furor after so many years – particularly when that field is music.

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