Today is the 85th birthday of jazz drummer and legendary bandleader Chico Hamilton. He has spent 70 years behind the drum kit, performing in a wide variety of styles and jazz flavors: from big band and R&B, to funky and experimental.
Hamilton has been leading jazz groups and sculpting his sound for the majority of his eight decades. He was born in Los Angeles and quickly rose through the ranks of the L.A. music scene, playing with small bands and large orchestras. In 1952, he joined a quartet led by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and trumpeter Chet Baker that soon became a leader of the Cool school in jazz. Three years later, Hamilton started his own group with an unorthodox mix of jazz and classical instruments. It was a new sound that critics dubbed “chamber jazz.”
Hamilton’s quintet rapidly evolved into a star attraction during the ‘50s: touring the country, appearing in movies like Sweet Smell of Success, and Jazz on a Summer Day. As he brought new musicians into his group, his music began to change. Chico Hamilton’s band began to serve as a proving ground for future stars. His alumni include guitar greats such as Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, and such saxophonists as Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd.
Today, Hamilton’s music remains as vital as ever. His drumbeats continue to be used by hip-hop deejays, and many of his recordings have been given a new edge by various producers. The National Endowment for the Arts crowned him a Jazz Master in 2004, and next year, the Kennedy Center will name him a “Living Jazz Legend.” To celebrate his 85th year, he has just released four new CDs that feature his current band and many old friends.