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The man who would save jazz
Chico Hamilton may not be a household name. But that doesn't mean he's not a legend.
 
Chico had a way...
Chico had a way... (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

1958

Time was running out. The sun had set hours earlier, and with it any lingering goodwill the residents of Newport, Rhode Island had for the crowd in Freebody Park. It was the Fifth Annual Newport Jazz Festival, and, as would come to be the case once every summer for decades, the picturesque town was overrun with artists and fans. The police descended to try to calm the audience.

The evening lineup would feature performances by Gerry Mulligan and Dinah Washington, and next up was the Chico Hamilton Quintet. So while the noise levels were being subdued, Chico — a drummer known for his subtlety, precision, and originality — was just offstage with his four sidemen, perhaps the most celebrated of all the incarnations of his celebrated group. Waiting for the masses to take notice.

2009

He emerges from a curtained-off room behind the audience, on a Tuesday night in December. First comes the cane, followed by slow, methodical shuffles of his feet. It takes him one minute and twenty-seven seconds to make his way from the back of the Jazz Gallery in Soho to the stage up front — some fifty feet. Finally, with a little help from the balding man from Indiana who flies in to serve as his road manager, he makes it all the way to his black-lacquered drums.

As the rest of his quintet, Euphoria, readies for the upcoming set, he looks out over the audience, which fills maybe two-thirds of the chairs set up in the center of this second-floor loft. Here, before a crowd of thirty-eight people. Chico Hamilton gets ready for his final performance of the decade.

And he looks annoyed.

The man behind the drums is different now, but he is the boy who grew up playing in Los Angeles high school bands with an eccentric bass player named Charles Mingus and a tall, lanky saxophonist named Dexter Gordon. He is the same man who played drums for Duke Ellington and Count Basie and toured Europe with Lena Horne. Who returned to the United States in the 1950s to raise a family and lead his own series of prolific — if unconventional — lineups. Who in 1965 graced the cover of an album, El Chico, with his hand on his hips, a scowl on his face, and a cape on his shoulders. The man whom Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts admired so much growing up that he referred to himself as "Chico" Watts. The man who willed the jazz-club dance scene into being on both sides of the Atlantic.

But that was then. The man behind the drums in this loft in 2009, looks…tired.

"Let's get the lights down so we can get a groove going," he barks into the hand-held microphone he'll use in between songs the rest of the night. Someone shuts off the lights over the front rows of the audience but Chico doesn't budge.

"How about the other ones?" he says. "This is a jazz club."

Gradually, they flick off, one-by-one, until the only lights left shine directly at the stage. Signifying his delayed approval, Chico lets out an expletive that's more of a growl than a word:

"…Sheeeeeeuuuuttt"

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Immediately, the thirty-something conga player seated next to him onstage starts tapping a rhythm. Chico, who moments before had been reliant upon a cane, erupts into a rapid-fire assault on the hi-hat. Before long, the rest of the group jumps in, too. The opening tune, called Happiness Prevails, is courtesy of Evan Schwam, a thirty-year-old saxophonist wearing a suit and the bottom half of a reddish-brown goatee. Schwam features on the piece, playing variations of a melodic chorus over the top, showing off the restrained tone, range, and pace that will lead Chico to tell the crowd to stop applauding for him because, "He's gonna want more money."

A few more numbers go by, and when the applause quiets, Chico enters into a music history lesson. The Charleston, he tells his audience, is the oldest beat he knows. The simplest, too. "So I'm going to play a few tap-dancing beats," he continues, "and if any of you want to get up and do the splits that's fine by me. If not, then keep your ass in the chair."

Brushes in hand, he rolls the beats — Dut-Daah. Dut-Daah. Dut-Daah. The crowd remains seated.

2004

Evan Schwam wasn't there the first time I saw Chico Hamilton perform. Neither was Euphoria's Jeremy Carlsted, the percussionist who'd spell Chico from time to time during shows. Instead, they were lost, somewhere in Connecticut.

Both are Chico Hamilton sidemen and former Chico Hamilton students — at the school Chico co-founded in 1986, now called the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. They were drawn to Chico for similar reasons. As Jeremy would explain, while most of their classmates flocked to younger, more familiar musical names at the school, "I've always gone against what's considered popular." And then there was the Chico Hamilton history. "It was like going to a wizard," Evan says.

Beyond the resume — the sixty-plus records, the long tenure at the school — Chico Hamilton was jazz history. He'd learned from the originals and played with almost everyone. On arguably jazz's most historic night, when NYPD officers beat Miles Davis outside the legendary Birdland jazz club in 1959, he was on the bandstand inside. And then there was Newport 1958.

As the legend goes, that 1958 Newport crowd eventually quiets down and the Chico Hamilton Quintet is allowed on stage. They enter into Blue Sands, a composition by Eric Dolphy.

It starts softly, Chico keeping time with mallets and Dolphy soloing on the flute. Soon, as if foreshadowing what's to come, Johnny Pisano enters into an eerily building solo on guitar. And as he builds, so does Chico in the background, to the point where sweat is running down his face. And then… nothing. Or so the applauding crowd thinks. That's when, steadily growing in volume, Chico Hamilton stopped time.

(More from The Big Roundtable: The man who hid in an airplane bathroom)

As it's captured in Bert Stern's 1960 masterpiece of jazz and youth culture, Jazz on a Summer's Day, the audience starts to cheer for Pisano's just-completed solo and Chico disappears from the soundtrack. Steadily, like a long train coming from the distance, he keeps playing the same rhythm. And, steadily, the beat gets louder. The beat gets faster. Before long, the only things on the screen are the white flashes of Chico's mallets as they cross forward and backward and sideways past his face. He'd later say this was the one moment in his career that he felt as if he were one with the drums. The crowd, so wild before that it had to be subdued, sits in silence as Chico plays a mallet solo just short of two minutes in length that is such a moment he'd be invited back four decades later just to reprise it.

For Newport 2004, Evan and Jeremy had set off for Rhode Island in the morning, in Evan's thirteen-year-old Toyota Camry. After a few hours on the highway, the saxophonist and the drummer stopped at a deli in Greenwich for lunch and, before leaving, asked the man behind the counter for the quickest route back to I-95. Two hours later, they were lost on a two-lane road — far from Newport and far from Chico Hamilton — their teacher, their mentor, their boss, or, as Evan likes to call him, their "sensei."

Without his kid saxophonist and hand percussionist there for support, Chico took to the stage facing out into the harbor, fifty years after the first festival at Newport. And there on stage he gave a drum lesson, on the differences between mallets and sticks and brushes, to nearly 10,000 people spread out on beach towels and lawn chairs and under umbrellas. One of whom — me — was a senior in high school, resisting the idea of going to college for music despite a private instructor's serious campaign.

2010

Yeah? said Chico Hamilton, on the other end of the phone. It was a straightforward and confident voice but worn by the years. The tone suggested that I had interrupted something.

He asked who I was. I explained that I was the writer he had run into while he was on tour, in Washington, D.C., and told to call. I explained the gist of my story, too — about his continued involvement at The New School, his continued recording and performing, this long-haul fight for jazz's relevancy that he'd been locked in for seventy years. Two months had passed since I'd watched Chico try, and fail, to goad that Jazz Gallery audience in Soho into dancing.

He listened to my story angle and replied: "Who else am I supposed to hang out with? All my people are gone. I'm the last of the Mohicans."

I didn't want to believe that jazz was dead.

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It seemed to have almost become the hip thing to write, though. Over the years I'd heard the arguments: that rock and roll had tapped into what it meant to be an American teenager, the demographic responsible for popular culture, and spirited them away. That as jazz evolved and bebop ushered in a focus on fast tempos, improvisation, and instrumental virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity, jazz ceased to be the music for young people to come together with. You certainly can't make love to Charlie Parker playing Ko-Ko. Chico himself has suggested that jazz's problem is just a case of teenagers rebelling against their parents' music, which happened to be jazz.

No matter what the reason, it's true that decades have passed since a generation knew jazz as the dominant music. But, condemning it to death?

"Jazz is still around," suggested the raspy voice on the phone. "It's just that the names and places have changed.

"Why don't you come down to The New School?" he said. "I'm down there on Wednesdays."

READ THE REST OF THIS STORY AT THE BIG ROUNDTABLE.

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