Chico Hamilton, jazz drummer and composer, dies at 92


Chico Hamilton, jazz drummer, bandleader and composer, who died at 92. He appeared in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success” and was a key figure in the “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s. (Todd Boebel/Todd Boebel)
November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton, a drummer who helped define the “cool” West Coast approach to jazz in the 1950s and whose innovative groups echoed the delicate intimacy of chamber music, died Nov. 25 at his home in New York City. He was 92.

His publicist, April Thibeault, confirmed the death but did not know the cause.

Beginning in the 1940s, Mr. Hamilton brought a subtle, understated approach to jazz drumming that remained his signature style for seven decades.

After working with singers Billy Eckstine and Lena Horne, Mr. Hamilton was the drummer in the celebrated “pianoless” quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker that helped define the West Coast “cool jazz” sound of the early 1950s.

In 1955, Mr. Hamilton formed a daringly original quintet that included cello, flute and guitar. The group produced a captivating, airy sound that seemed to glide above Mr. Hamilton’s flowing drumbeat.

Jazz impresario George Wein described the essence of Mr. Hamilton’s style in a 2006 interview with NPR: “Taste. He didn’t have to bombast you to show you how good he is. I think that’s defining the quality of his art.”

Some critics dubbed his group’s sound “chamber jazz” for its classical overtones and its carefully wrought compositions, most by Mr. Hamilton. Key members of the group included Buddy Collette (and later Paul Horn) on flute, John Pisano on guitar, Carson Smith on bass and cellist Fred Katz, who died in September.

Mr. Hamilton and his quintet recorded many albums and were featured in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success,” a drama starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis about a malicious gossip columnist and a toadying press agent.

The group also appeared in the landmark documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” made by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The film included close-ups of Mr. Hamilton’s perspiring face as he performed a long drum solo with felt-tipped mallets.

His use of mallets and wire brushes set him apart from many other drummers, who relied more on the sharp rat-a-tat-tat sound of wooden drumsticks.

“Mallets — and brushes — are my lifeline,” Mr. Hamilton told the Knight-Ridder news service in 1987. “They show the tonal quality of the drums, and show that they were a melodic instrument, whether the general public will accept that or not.”

He sharpened his skill as a teenager when a bandleader insisted that he play exclusively with brushes, which produce a light, grainy sound on the drumhead.

“Every job I’ve had,” Mr. Hamilton said, “was because I was able to use the brushes, to get that sweeping effect, that rhythmic sound.”

Foreststorn Hamilton was born Sept. 20, 1921, in Los Angeles, and became known as Chico in his teens. His father was a maitre d’ at a private club. A younger brother, Bernie Hamilton, who died in 2008, was an actor best known for playing a police captain on the “Starsky and Hutch” television show in the 1970s.

As a child, Mr. Hamilton saw the Duke Ellington orchestra and was enraptured by drummer Sonny Greer.

“The band members sat on tiers in those days,” Mr. Hamilton said in 1987, “so there at the very top and in the center was this drummer who seemed to have so many drums that I could barely see him. I never got over that.”

In high school, Mr. Hamilton played in groups with other rising jazz stars, including Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Illinois Jacquet. After Army service in World War II, Mr. Hamilton worked with dozens of leading musicians, including several years on the road with singer Horne.

Later, as a bandleader, he was known for discovering young talent. Among the musicians who passed through his groups were guitarists Jim Hall, Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie; saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd; and bassist Ron Carter.

In the 1960s, Mr. Hamilton settled in New York and concentrated on composing for movies, TV shows and commercials, including the music for Roman Polanski’s 1965 film “Repulsion.” He returned to performing in the 1970s and appeared at jazz festivals worldwide.

He also helped found the jazz program at New York’s New School University, where he taught until 2010. Mr. Hamilton was designated a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2004 and was one of 35 “Living Legends of Jazz” honored at the Kennedy Center in 2007.

His wife of 65 years, Helen Hamilton, died in 2008. A son, Forest Hamilton, also predeceased him.

Survivors include a daughter, Denise Hamilton of New York; a brother; a granddaughter; and two great-granddaughters.

Mr. Hamilton released four new albums in 2006, when he was 85, and completed a recording last month, scheduled for release next year.

From time to time, he had musical reunions with bandmates from his 1950s chamber jazz quintet.

“We made music, we didn’t just play it,” he said in 1987. “We created a form, a pattern, a sound. You can be involved in music all your life and not have that happen even once.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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