Chico Hamilton answered the door of his midtown east penthouse in a big blue sweater and grey sweatpants. The apartment -- equipped with drum sets and keyboards -- was cozy, unassuming, like Hamilton.
Unassuming, especially in light of his stature. A jazz drummer and composer, Hamilton became a band leader at 35. Now 88, with a shuffle and a cane, Hamilton has played with stars including Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday; composed songs for The Sweet Smell of Success; launched Eric Dolphy's career; and recorded more than 50 albums.
And, shuffle or no, he's still playing and composing. Hamilton just released a new CD, Twelve Tones of Love, for which he wrote 15 of 18 tracks. He teaches music at the New School, and two of the album's tracks feature Jose James, a student of Hamilton's with a voice like honey.Chico Hamilton's EPK.
Hamilton came upon the drums almost by accident. In his elementary school in 1920s L.A., music was compulsory, and Hamilton started on the clarinet. When his family raised the $2 needed to rent the instrument after two years of saving, Hamilton discovered he "just couldn't play it." His older brother Oren, though, played the drums, so when he graduated from grade school and left his drums behind, Hamilton figured he'd give them a try.
Why did Hamilton, of all the drum-playing kids in that school, bloom into a jazz great? "God made me different," he said.
Hamilton's faith -- in both God and jazz itself -- is fundamental to his process. When he and his band record a song, they keep the first take nine times out of 10. "If the feeling is there, I'm satisfied. I don't care if I have wrong notes or things like that -- it don't bother me." Playing, for Hamilton, is organic; it's emotion, not technicalities. When he sits down to write, sometimes nothing comes out. Other times, the melodies flow from his fingers.
"I believe that music is one of God's wills, and God's will will be done," he said. "Can you imagine this world without music? That'll stun you. That'll make you think, right?"
Above all, Hamilton's jazz is about him having a good time.
"I don't make music for people. I make music for music's sake," he said. "I don't care where I make it. I could make music in the men's room, it don't matter."