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Inventive drummer-composer Chico Hamilton dies at 92

Ron Scott | 12/5/2013, 5:14 p.m.
Chico Hamilton, the composer and drummer whose cool melodic sound kept jazz audiences attentive for over six decades, died on ...
Chico Hamilton, composer and drummer

Chico Hamilton, the composer and drummer whose cool melodic sound kept jazz audiences attentive for over six decades, died on Nov. 25. He was 92.

Hamilton’s publicist April Thibeault noted that he died of natural causes at his home in New York.

Until October, Hamilton was performing monthly at Manhattan’s Drom. Last month, he was working with his Euphoria ensemble and completing his album “Inquiring Minds,” scheduled for release in 2014. He originally formed Euphoria in 1987. Over the years, the personnel changed, but the drummer kept the group relevant and active.

The trumpeter Jimmy Owens, a friend and one of the musicians on this upcoming recording, stated, “Chico wrote interesting music. His concept and music was purely Chico Hamilton. He will be missed.”

Hamilton recorded over 60 albums as a leader on such labels as Pacific Jazz, Impulse, Columbia and Soul Note. His most recent album, “Revelation,” was released in 2011 on the Joyous Shout label. He was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2004 and received the Kennedy Center Living Legend Award in 2007. He was also nominated to the President’s Council on the Arts in 2006.

Hamilton’s bands were the breeding ground for young musicians who eventually reached fame and stardom, such as guitarists Larry Coryell, Jim Hall and Gabor Szabo, bassist Ron Carter, and the saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Arthur Blythe and Charles Lloyd.

Hamilton earned a reputation playing with the quartet of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which also included trumpeter Chet Baker. The group’s pianoless swing separated them from the average jazz groups.

After leaving Mulligan in 1955, Hamilton started his own band with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith and Buddy Collette on flute, clarinet and saxophone. He introduced a new instrument, the cello, played by Fred Katz, from the classical school of music. The group’s strings introduced a new perspective, a more laid-back swing style, which played a major role in putting West Coast cool jazz on the map.

Hamilton’s quintet became very popular, making the rounds at jazz clubs, major jazz festivals and college campuses. The group’s visibility heightened as a result of their appearance in the 1957 classic film “Sweet Smell of Success,” which starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Hamilton was also featured in the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”

He composed the soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s English-language debut, the 1965 psychological thriller “Repulsion,” starring Catherine Deneuve. Upon moving to New York City in 1965, he formed a film and music production company, scoring the television film “Portrait of Willie Mays,” the popular children’s series “Gerald McBoing-Boing” and working on Madison Avenue, scoring many commercials for television and radio. He still continued to perform periodically, always pushing jazz in his own direction, from avant-garde to fusion.

In the 1970s, when jazz fusion became the new suit, Hamilton didn’t follow the crowd but incorporated his own creative sound with saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and newcomer Larry Coryell. In 1975, he formed the Players, which included the soulful free jazz saxophonist Arthur Blythe and trombonist Steve Turre.

He was born Foreststorn Hamilton in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 1921. His father, Jesse, worked at the University Club of Southern California, and his mother, Pearl Lee Gonzales Cooley Hamilton, was a school dietitian.

During high school, he was totally involved in jazz along with another pupil, Dexter Gordon. By 1940, he was touring with Lionel Hampton’s big band. Following his time in the U.S. Army (WW II), he sat in for Jo Jones in Count Basie’s orchestra and had brief stints with the bands of Jimmy Mundy and Charlie Barnet. In 1946, he became the house drummer at Billy Berg’s, the main Los Angeles jazz club.

Hamilton is survived by his daughter, Denise Hamilton; his brother Don; one granddaughter; and two great-granddaughters. His wife of 67 years, Helen, and his brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (best known for his role in “Starsky and Hutch”), both died in 2008. His son, Forest Hamilton Jr., vice president of Stax Records, died in 2000.