Just a last week, while working on an essay to accompany the DVD release of a documentary about saxophonist Charles Lloyd, I came upon an early-1960s clip of Lloyd, on alto saxophone, playing in drummer Chico Hamilton’s group. The footage was fleeting, but long enough to convey the originality and intensity of that group, which also included guitarist Gabor Szabo. Lloyd had been suggested by Buddy Collette, who played flute, clarinet and saxophone in Hamilton’s first great ensemble, which he formed after his memorable tenure in baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s band, and which also featured guitarist Jim Hall and Fred Katz, a classically trained cellist.
Hamilton, who died at his New York City home yesterday morning, and who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was a subtle master, an understated innovator, a straight shooter and an active presence on jazz’s landscape through his final years, performing through late 2012 with his Euphoria group at Manhattan’s Drom. (There is a recent recording, “Inquiring Minds,” still yet to be released.)
As Peter Keepnews wrote in a New York Times obituary:
“Mr. Hamilton had a subtle and melodic approach that made him ideally suited for the understated style that came to be known as cool jazz, of which his hometown, Los Angeles, was the epicenter.”
Yet as Keepnews and others noted, that stylistic association was a starting point not an end.
Hamilton received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2004 and a Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007. (You can find a profile and audio clips at the NEA site.)
Hamilton was master most of all of subtle gestures that had great musical impact. When I interviewe him some 20 years ago, he told me that Charlie Watts had told him once that he was a big influence. “Charlie told me he used to call himself ‘Chico Watts.'” He told me that the Mulligan quartet was “four guys in the right place at the right time,” and that his first quintet was “five guys in the right place at the right time.” He wasn’t big on mystifying things. “Making music is just like chess,” he told me. “There are really no secrets in chess, it’s just combinations and order.”
Photo by Glen Dicrocco