In 2006, I spent an afternoon at Chico Hamilton's apartment, interviewing him for Time Out New York. I was underprepared; he was ailing and rightfully impatient. The conversation limped along until I mentioned, in quick succession, that I was 1) from Kansas City and 2) a drummer. The Q&A is no longer on the TONY site, but after I heard about his passing, I dug it out of the archives and transcribed it.
I still don't know Hamilton's music as well as I'd like to. I do love what I've heard of the early quintet material, and about a year ago, I caught a few pieces off Man from Two Worlds (a ’63 Impulse set with Charles Lloyd and Gábor Szabó) on WKCR and sat spellbound. The only time I saw Hamilton live was at the 2011 Winter Jazzfest; here's my mini review:
"I'm happy to be here.... At my age, I'm happy to be anywhere," joked 89-year-old drummer Chico Hamilton from the stage, before offering a textbook demonstration of how swinging propulsion can coexist with whisper-level dynamics.
I look forward to further listening. Hamilton seems to be someone who fits into no jazz school; from what I remember, those early records are exceedingly polished, while the Impulse dates are loose and raw. Anyone know of any detailed primers re: his body of work? I'd love a guided tour.
In the meantime, here's the TONY interview, in both photo and text form:
"Backstage with… Chico Hamilton"
By Hank Shteamer; Time Out New York – September 21, 2006
You're commemorating your 85th birthday this year by releasing four diverse CDs. They include your own tunes, pieces by Duke Ellington and the Who, plus DJ remixes—why cover so much ground?
Well, that's what music is all about, isn't it? Versatility in regards to sound, rhythms and melodic structures.
One CD has a vocal cameo by Arthur Lee.
Yeah, I was really shocked when I heard that he died [in August]. I think this was his last recording. My band performed with his group Love [in the late ’60s] out in L.A., where I'm from. It was unusual for a jazz organization to share the stage with a rock group.
Speaking of your past, you worked for years in commercial and movie music, scoring films such as Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Why'd you move away from that?
There's really no such thing as a film score anymore. Everybody lifts prerecorded tracks. As for my commercial period, that was the only time jazz was played on TV. Most of the commercials were recorded by jazz musicians, who had no choice in the matter—but that work drains you, you know?
I can imagine. You teach drums and lead ensembles at the New School—what led you to that?
I realized that this could be my way of giving something back, because music has been very good to me. Schools are the only place to learn jazz today, but sadly, a lot of people teaching this music know nothing about swinging.
Okay, how do you teach someone to swing?
It takes two things: patience and fortitude. [Taps rhythmically on table] You hear that? Okay, do that for me.
Good. Now can you talk at the same time?
Okay… [Still tapping] My name is Hank; I was born in Kansas City…
You're from Kansas City? Oh shit, okay! All right, keep tapping; now I want you to do this at the same time: [Sings] daaah-dah dah.
[Taps, sings] Daaah-dah dah…
See what kind of a groove you got in all of a sudden? Your whole body started to feel it, didn't it? It's just that simple, man.
Well, I actually play drums too.
That's cool. What kind of group do you have?
It's kind of a loud, heavy rock band.
Why loud? If you start loud, where you gonna go?
Down, I guess!
I think you should have some sensitivity to your sound, because the ear can only take so much.
Do you ever play loud?
I don't have no need for it. I play in the danger zone.
It's a way of playing that's very tensified, but at a volume where you can hear everything. And I stay in that zone, with that energy happening, you dig?