Obituary: Chico Hamilton / Pioneer in the West Coast jazz movement

Sept. 20, 1921 - Nov. 25, 2013

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Chico Hamilton, a drummer and bandleader who helped put California on the modern-jazz map in the 1950s and remained active into the 21st century, died Monday in New York City. He was 92.

His death was announced by April Thibeault, his publicist.

Never among the flashiest or most muscular of jazz drummers, Mr. Hamilton had a subtle and melodic approach that made him ideally suited for the refined, understated style that came to be known as cool jazz, of which his hometown, Los Angeles, was the epicenter.

He was a charter member of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's quartet, which helped lay the groundwork for the cool movement. His own quintet, which he formed shortly after leaving the Mulligan group, came to be regarded as the quintessence of cool. With its quiet intensity, its intricate arrangements and its uniquely pastel instrumentation of flute, guitar, cello, bass and drums -- the flutist, Buddy Collette, also played alto saxophone -- the Chico Hamilton Quintet became one of the most popular groups in jazz. (The cellist in that group, Fred Katz, died in September.)

The group was a mainstay of the nightclub and jazz festival circuit and even appeared in movies. It was prominently featured in the 1957 film "Sweet Smell of Success," with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. And it was seen in "Jazz on a Summer's Day," Bert Stern's acclaimed documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Cool jazz had fallen out of favor by the mid-1960s, but by then Mr. Hamilton had already altered the sound and style of his quintet, replacing the cellist with a trombonist and adopting a bluesier, more aggressive approach.

In 1966, after more personnel changes and more shifts in audience tastes, Mr. Hamilton, no longer on top of the jazz world but increasingly interested in composing -- he wrote the music for Roman Polanski's 1965 film, "Repulsion" -- disbanded the quintet and formed a company that provided music for television shows and commercials.

But he continued to perform and record occasionally, and by the mid-1970s he was once again on the road as a bandleader full time. He was never again as big a star as he had been in the 1950s, but he remained active for the rest of his life, and his music became increasingly difficult to categorize, incorporating elements of free jazz, jazz-rock fusion and other styles.

He went on to record prolifically for a variety of labels, including Pacific Jazz, Impulse, Columbia and Soul Note. Among the honors he received were a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2004 and a Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007.



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