Jazz Drummer Chico Hamilton Passes Away At 92

Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton, an influential jazz drummer and bandleader who was an architect of the West Coast cool jazz style and was known for discovering young talent, has died. He was 92.

His publicist, April Thibeault, said Hamilton died Monday night of natural causes at his home in New York.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
Performing a drum solo in the East Room of the White House during a reception to honor Black Music Month.

A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master who was saluted as a Living Jazz Legend by the Kennedy Center, Hamilton recorded more than 60 albums as a bandleader, beginning in the 1950s, and also appeared in and scored films.

He continued playing into his 90s and recorded an album Inquiring Minds last month with his Euphoria ensemble scheduled for release in early 2014.

Some of the future jazz stars nurtured in his bands included guitarists Jim Hall, Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd, and bassist Ron Carter.

Born in 1921 in Los Angeles, Hamilton performed in a high school jazz band that included saxophonist Dexter Gordon, bassist Charles Mingus and other classmates destined to become jazz greats. He told jazz writer Marc Myers that he believes he acquired the name Chico because “I was always a small dude.”

He worked as a sideman in the 1940s with Slim Gaillard, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and others. He toured with singer Lena Horne from 1948-55, and between tours did studio work and played with bands in Los Angeles.

That’s where he hooked up with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1952. Hamilton’s subtle, creative drum playing was a key component of Mulligan’s groundbreaking piano-less quartet featuring trumpeter Chet Baker that was pivotal in the creation of the mellower, more lyrical West Coast cool jazz sound. Hamilton’s understated, seductive approach to the drums contrasted with the driving, hard-bop style typified by East Coast drummer Art Blakey.

“I’ve always seen the drums as a melodic instrument, not a percussive one,” Hamilton told Myers in 2009. “I developed a touch. It may not be as loud but it’s mine.”

Among those inspired by Hamilton was Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who as a teenager heard a recording by Mulligan’s quartet.

“As it happened, Chico Hamilton was playing drums on the first record I bought,” Watts said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “I can’t really explain how the music made me feel. It was just something with the sound of the brushes. But I just fell in love with it.”

Watts later was interviewed for the 1994 documentary “Chico Hamilton: Dancing to a Different Drummer” and made a guest appearance on Hamilton’s 2001 album Foreststorn.

In 1955, Hamilton began his career as a bandleader. He recorded his first album as a leader for the Pacific Jazz label in a trio with bassist George Duvivier and guitarist Howard Roberts that was noteworthy because all three musicians played as soloists rather than strictly as rhythm section players.

Later that year, he formed an unusually instrumented chamber jazz quintet – which included cellist Fred Katz, flutist Buddy Collette and guitarist Hall – that became one of the most influential West Coast jazz bands and gained national prominence.

The group – with flutist Paul Horn and guitarist John Pisano – made a cameo appearance in the 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis film, “Sweet Smell of Success.” Hamilton’s band – with Dolphy on flute – gave a memorable performance in the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” He later revamped the band’s sound, replacing the cellist with a trombonist, to give it a bluesier, more hard-edged sound, recording albums for the Impulse, Columbia and Soul Jazz labels.

In the mid-1960s, Hamilton formed a company to score films and commercials. He wrote the music for the 1967 movie “Repulsion,” director Roman Polanski’s first English-language film, and also composed the theme for the TV cartoon series “The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show.”

In 1987, Hamilton was a founding member of the jazz faculty at the New School University, where his students included John Popper of Blues Traveler and Eric Schenkman of the Spin Doctors. That same year he formed a new band called Euphoria that toured and recorded extensively for the independent Joyous Shout! label, including releasing four new albums to celebrate his 85th birthday in 2006.

Hamilton is survived by his daughter, Denise; his brother Don; one granddaughter and two great-granddaughters. His wife, Helen, and his brother, Bernie, an actor who played the police captain in the TV series “Starsky and Hutch,” both died in 2008.