THE INTERVIEW: Chico Hamilton

A living legend, Chico Hamilton has played with the likes of Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, and Sammy Davis Jr. and recently celebrated his 88th birthday with a show at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. I had a chance to speak to the NEA Jazz Master for a very, very brief talk about his illustrious career and found that his craft for conversation was not as developed as his skills on the drums. He was a bit like “mean grandpa jazz” calling my questions stupid but I did coax a few replies out of him before his nap or Matlock or whatever 87 year old Jazz musicians do when they aren’t onstage.

I asked Chico what it was like being a jazz musician coming up in the heart of the depression in California and he thought it was a stupid question but did relent to say that “at that time in jazz, you were considered a sinner and there was only one kind of music being played at that time which was swing music.” After brushing aside a few more questions with Andy Warhol like short answers, I inquired about his experience in teaching and why he wanted to work as an educator to which he replied that it was his way of giving something back because music has always been very good to him.

Mr. Hamilton has had a few choice parts in the world of film, such as his role playing in Fred Astaire’s backing band onscreen in the 1941 hit You’ll Never Get Rich (which featured Rita Hayworth’s first big starring role) so I asked him about how he ended up in the world of movies. He told me that he had been in films ever since he was a kid in L.A.- “I was in all the Tarzan movies- you know those natives running around the jungle, I was one of those kids.” When asked about his feeling about contemporary music Chico stated that “it takes all kind of music to make music- that’s my philosophy” going on to say that music was “God’s will and God’s will, will be done.” Finally as for his advice to young people who want to make it as musicians Chico said to “save your money” and with that nugget of sunshine we bid adieu and I looked back on our five minutes together and thought about all the good times we shared as a montage of dead silence and aggravated short answers played in my head to the hit “Through the Years.”

Tim Needles

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