Jazz legend Chico Hamilton celebrated turning 90 last monthhow else?but issuing another album.
With Revelation, the NEA Jazz Master's 60th project, Hamilton continues to build on a remarkable recording career dating back to 1941. That's included stints drumming with Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Nat King" Cole, T-Bone Walker, Gerry Mulliganand, over a memorable six-year periodsinger Lena Horne. Hamilton began leading his own bands in 1955, famously showcasing a still-emerging Eric Dolphy, and has worked with his current amalgam Euphoria for more than two decades.
In the latest SER Sitdown, this Kennedy Center living jazz legend" talks about growing up in the swing era, seeing his music transformed by hip hop artists, and playing music just for the music's sake ...
Nick DeRiso: You've been wildly productive over the last decade, issuing some 10 albums despite being in your 80s. A lot of people would love to know your secret. Chico Hamilton: I ain't got nothing else to do! All of this is very rewarding, but it's what I do. I think the thing about music is, God's will be done. That's the way I feel.
DeRiso: Schoolmates from your youth included Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. Was there a competitive streak there, later on? Did you feel the desire to try to top them musically?
Hamilton: No, we were never competitors. We all tried to play together, and get a sound going. There was no such thing as being competitive. We wanted to get together and form orchestras. We were just trying to make good music.
DeRiso: You helped bring Eric Dolphy to wider notice. Describe him for those who missed out on his shooting star of a career.
Hamilton: You heard him, right? So, you know how special he was.
DeRiso: You were a critical early influence on rockers like Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, Chris Wood of Traffic and Buddy Miles of Hendrix's Band of Gypsies. You were also associated with the Allman Brothers Band after Gregg called out your name from the stage on the classic Live at the Fillmore East album. Are you proud of your impact on rock music?
Hamilton: I'm proud just to be alive! (Laughs) I like all kinds of music. When I play music, first of allI don't play music for people. I don't play for people. People are fickle. I play music for music's sake. I believe all that music should be played well, extremely well, regardless of what form it takesregardless of whether it's rock, pop or so-called jazz.
DeRiso: We've seen a host of soul, R&B and hip hop acts build hit songs off tracks they lifted from your original songs. How do you feel about that?
Hamilton: That's what it's all about. Once it's out there, it's out there. The only thing I regret is that the money they make today is unbelievable. (Laughs.) Otherwise, I'm not interested in audiences. I like to I say I don't play music for people. So, if it's out there, it's out there.
DeRiso: Most of the songs on Revelation are original, and you've surrounded yourself by and large with a youthful group of musical collaborators. That seems to run counter to the sense of nostalgia that has taken hold in jazz. Does it bother you that so many younger players are so focused on the past?
Hamilton: An original sound is what I am still trying to express with this groupand all of my groups. Man, all you have going for you is your own sound.
I love jazz because...it's in my blood! My late father, Billy Ainsworth, was a musical prodigy who dropped out of school at 17 after he stunned the seasoned musicians of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with an in-off-the-street audition
I love jazz because...it's in my blood! My late father, Billy Ainsworth, was a musical prodigy who dropped out of school at 17 after he stunned the seasoned musicians of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with an in-off-the-street audition. He was on the band bus the next day as Dorsey's alto sax and clarinet player, and never looked back. He played with great bandleaders such as Freddie Martin, Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley, some before he was out of his teens (they had to lie about his age to get him into nightclubs). Many older musicians have told me he was the greatest alto sax player they ever worked with. He was equally great on clarinet and was clarinetist and harmony singer for cocktail jazz pioneers, the Ernie Felice Quartet.
He eventually left the road and settled down, and that's when I came in. By that time, he was, by day, vocal group session leader/player/arranger for classic jingles and commercial music produced in Dallas. At night, he played in society bands, jazz combos and elegant showrooms. Tuesdays were slow in the showrooms, so band members' families got in free, and my mom took me to see him backing such legends as Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Steve and Eydie, and a very old Ella Fitzgerald. Between that, hearing his record collection, growing up around the legendary musicians and singers who were like aunts and uncles to me, and just listening to him practice around the house, filling the neighborhood with incredible jazz sax riffs, I couldn't help becoming that weird kid who was listening to Peggy Lee, Ella and Manhattan Transfer when my classmates were listening to rock, country and soul.
Even though he died before I ever sang professionally, he remains my inspiration and all my CDs are dedicated to him. I like to think that he'd like my music, since it's built on the foundation he handed down to me.