Anyone familiar with the sound of West Coast jazz from the 1950s knows the sound of Los Angeles-born drummer Chico Hamilton.
A musician who often emphasized a subtle musical grace in his playing over snare-rattling runs, Hamilton helped forge the California sound dubbed “cool jazz” in the 1950s and launched the careers of a wealth of jazz artists both as a bandleader and an educator.
Hamilton, 92, died at his New York City home Tuesday morning. The cause has not been determined, but Hamilton was diagnosed with emphysema late in life, according to his nephew Raoul Hamilton, who confirmed his death.
Born Foreststorn Hamilton in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 1921, he started his music career quickly while attending Jefferson High School, where he first met classmates (and eventual jazz greats) Buddy Collette, Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus. After high school, Hamilton performed with a variety of artists, including Lionel Hampton and Lester Young before joining the Army in 1942. After his discharge in 1946, Hamilton returned to L.A. and briefly played drums with the Count Basie Orchestra before landing a gig backing vocalist Lena Horne from 1948 to 1955.
Between tours with Horne, Hamilton also played with fellow West Coast jazz star Gerry Mulligan and worked with numerous vocalists through the early ‘50s, including Billy Eckstine, Nat “King” Cole and Billie Holliday, who recorded with Hamilton for part of her 1956 album, “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Hamilton assembled his own band in 1955, a landmark group that included guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith and in a break from the established sound of jazz at the time — Collette on flute, clarinet and saxophone, and Fred Katz, a classically trained cellist. The group emphasized an understated, laid-back swing with a lush, chamber-like sweep and steadily grew in popularity through the decade. Hamilton’s quintet only grew in stature after a cameo in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success,” which also featured Hamilton’s music, and the documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” which was released in 1960.
Hamilton continued to tinker with his sound with notable appearances by reedist Eric Dolphy, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who recorded four harder-hitting albums with Hamilton’s group beginning in 1960. He later evolved into a new ensemble with “The Dealer,” a soul-jazz-leaning 1966 recording that introduced guitarist Larry Coryell. Hamilton eventually moved into a lucrative period writing scores for commercials, television and film, including the scores for the Roman Polanski thriller “Repulsion” in 1965 and Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 animated film “Coonskin.”
When Hamilton returned to touring in the ‘70s, he was criticized in some circles for assembling a band of all-white musicians. Speaking to Times jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1973, the drummer brushed aside such talk. “I’ve never gone around saying, ‘Hey, this is black music or white music,’” he said. “For me, it’s just gotta be valid music.” In 1975, he also reunited with bandmates Katz and Collette from his original quintet for a concert on San Diego television.
Hamilton kept writing and performing throughout his career, including with the popular group Euphoria in the ‘80s and ‘90s, an ensemble that he continued to lead in a monthly residency at a New York City club into this year.
He also moved into education as part of the original faculty at the Parsons New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City as well the Mannes College of Music at the New School University. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004 and continued to record up to his 90th birthday in 2011.
“I can play all over the world, and I don’t have to play anybody else’s music,” Hamilton told the magazine Jazz Times in 2008. “I don’t have to play Duke or Basie, which is cool. That’s my reward. I’ve been blessed because I’ve been able to make music, and I make music for music’s sake.”
Hamilton is survived by his daughter, Denise; his brother, Don, one granddaughter and two great-granddaughters. His wife of 67 years, Helen, died in 2008. His son, Forest Hamilton Jr., vice president of Stax Records, died in 2000. Hamilton’s brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton, best known for his role on the TV series “Starsky and Hutch,” also died in 2008.