Chico Hamilton: Living the Beat

By: Ryan Dembinsky

Are people born with rhythm?

Chico Hamilton by Todd Boebel
Sitting down at the kitchen table inside 88-year-old jazz legend Chico Hamilton's midtown Manhattan apartment, chewing the fat about jazz music and his storied career as a drummer and bandleader - a career that includes holding court for jazz royals "Duke" Ellington and "Count" Basie, playing storied musical engagements with his school kid pal Charles Mingus, receiving a living legend of jazz award from the Kennedy Center, and recording on over 60 albums - likely marks one of those stories I'll tell my grandchildren one day. Not only did Hamilton leave a musical legacy that virtually mirrors the history of jazz since the 1940s, but in just a short visit I learned that Chico just recently suffered congestive heart failure, yet continues to play shows with guys half his age and just recently put out an incredible new album titled the Twelve Tones of Love (released last April on Joyous Shout Records).

This question of rhythm came up about midway through the chat and Chico said, "Well they all got a heart. They all feel the beat of their heart."

From there, he ordered me, "Put you're your hand on your heart. Now take your other hand and keep the beat. Now sing this, 'Do Do Do Do; Doot Doot,'" as he nodded along with the four quarter notes and two subsequent half notes. "Let me hear you sing it," he said, chuckling as I sang through the beat. "That's the oldest beat that I know of; that's the bottom line of jazz. That's The Charleston."

I think I just took a music lesson from a living jazz legend. Check that one off the bucket list.


Chico's new album, Twelve Tones of Love, sounds at once fresh, mellow, listenable, funky, and melodic - as fresh a jazz album as I've heard in ages - but Hamilton downplays all of these in a charismatic, albeit humble manner.

"There's no such thing as new music," he says. "Somewhere, somebody played that same note. The only thing different is the rhythmic articulation. We still don't know which came first, rhythm or movement. The freest thing that a human being can do is dance."

In talking about his studio effort, I inquired if the title referenced the musical approach known as the twelve-tone method.

"Exactly. C, C#, and all the way up," he says. "I do it because there ain't no bad notes. Every note means something. It's simple; you hear the sound, you play the note."

Chico Hamilton by Todd Boebel
If only it was so easy. Hamilton has a way of describing music where you know he feels it in a way not everybody can. "You're playing in all the keys," he adds. "Keys don't mean a thing. That enables you to play what's called a moveable 'do' [as in do-re-mi]."


In his early days, Chico made a quick study to jazz and earned himself early recognition on the West Coast.

"When I was eight-years-old, my mother took me to the Paramount to see Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Back then, the orchestra stood in a pyramid and at the top was Sonny Greer. Man, he had more drums than a drum store. People just went nuts for him. He was the first real percussionist."

At eight years of age, Chico experienced that cathartic performance and subsequently realized he had a unique talent. "Play me anything, I can play it," he claims. The West Coast jazz scene took to Chico like a burr on wool and before long he was playing with his idols like Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and George Jones. "Eight years later, I was in that exact same seat, playing with Duke at 16-years-old."


Having tackled the drums and percussion with Ray Lewis authority, Chico stepped out front into the limelight in 1955 as a bandleader and he never looked back. This is a curious feat given the fact that Hamilton came from a largely self-taught background. Presumably, learning the drums and keeping time comes more naturally, but Hamilton evolved into one of the finest bandleaders of the day - many days for that matter - which comes as a direct tertiary of his dedication to the craft, his understanding of space, and the piecing together of different skill sets. Asked what makes a great bandleader, Chico responded diplomatically, "A better word is 'good.' What makes a 'good' bandleader? To be a good bandleader, you have to be a great sideman first. You can't run before you can crawl."

Continue reading for more on Chico Hamilton...

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