Vintage Gold: Chico Hamilton, the Enigmatic Jazz Drummer and Band Leader

Chico Hamilton 2022
Chico Hamilton Performing Live

During his decades-long career, Afro-Mexican drummer and band leader Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton would become incredibly influential in the ever changing and growing genre of jazz music. A subtle, yet creative drummer, he is best remembered for the series of quintents he led throughout 1955-1965. During that time, he and his jazz bands would play such fusions as cool jazz, post bop, and more, combining unique elements of multiple genres to create a larger than life sound. Hamilton’s music and band leadership exemplifies a great high point for jazz music in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Hamilton, born and raised in Los Angeles in a multi-racial household, first picked up drumming in high school, and soon, he was playing with other talented peers, many of whom would go on to become fine musicians themselves, including Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Charles Mingus, ​​Ernie Royal, Buddy Collette and Jack Kelso.

Hamilton’s overall sound is hard to encapsulate in any one mode, mood or even genre. Approaching composition (of a song or band) with a broad and sweeping style, his music moves quickly, spryly and with gusto. His 1965 album El Chico features an array of fun and challenging compositions that blend an unorthodox pairing of genres such as bossa, swing and rumba, all meeting at the intersection of jazz.

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A great drummer, though with a more laid back approach than some of his contemporaries, Hamilton was even more keen at spotting other talented players in the jazz scene. His quintets and other bands were highly sought after and featured other prominent players in the music scene; his first album as a band leader in 1955 was formed with George Duvivier (double bass) and Howard Roberts (guitar).

That same year, he formed the Chico Hamilton Quintet, a rather unusual construction featuring cello, flute, saxes, clarinet, bass and drums. This band is arguably considered one of the last important West Coast jazz bands and essential to the formation of the cool jazz music scene that sprouted in California during that time.

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The Chico Hamilton Quintet was extremely popular, and their performance during “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a concert film set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, was a particularly memorable performance for the group and a standout scene in the documentary film.

Throughout his career, Hamilton also wrote and composed music for major motion pictures and for commercials including the films “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), where the band itself was also featured in the film, and “Repulsion” (1965). His tracks “The Sage” and “Blue Sand” were also featured in two of PT Anderson’s films; the former in “Boogie Nights” (1997) and the latter in “Licorice Pizza” (2021).

Now passed on, Hamilton’s music is still finding an audience amongst jazz lovers and those who love eclectic, timeless music. The ebb an flow of his career never deterred him from continuing with his music, and as musical tasted changed, he adjusted and found outlets to stay relevant and in the scene, even if it was behind the screen of motion pictures.

His music can be found on many streaming platforms including Spotify and Apple Music, and many of his songs can be found on YouTube.

Words: Patti Sanchez

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