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Interview One: Something Different
American drummer and bandleader Chico Hamilton talks to Les Tomkins twice in 1972.
Source: Jazz Professional
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The type of band that I have now, the type of music that we’re playing you either like it or you dislike it. If you dislike it, you probably don’t know why. By the same token, you can’t even really say why you like it. It’s not anything new, but it’s something different.
Along with my drums, the other components are the saxophone of Mark Cohen, the guitar of John Abercrombie and the bass of Victor Gaskin. The thing is, we are electrified; we play in a very contemporary vein, using the electric saxophone and guitar. We incorporate various electronic devices–the echo plugs and things like that. Actually, all we’re trying to do is make that sound musical. As opposed to just making sounds, we do musical things with them.
But it seems to be shocking to some people. Not most, but some. I don’t know what they expected; they know the name, especially the older people who recall my music for Sweet Smell Of Success, Repulsion and such, and they say: “Hey, man, what the hell is this?” What they don’t realise is the fact that I must continue to progress just like everyone else. I don’t dig staying in one groove. Most people would be disappointed, myself particularly, if I were to come up with the sound of the early ‘sixties, or of the ‘fifties even. It was fine then; it’s still fine but that was then, not now. And it’s impossible for me to have those players play with me at this stage of the game; all those guys are famous and, I suppose, wealthy now. Also, I don’t know whether I would want to play that kind of music again, to that extent.
I’ll say this much, about the direction we’re in: I think we are as contemporary with what we’re doing as the young pop/rock players are with their thing. You know, there are a lot of jazz players that aren’t as contemporary as these young pop players are; they haven’t kept up with it.
What’s happening with us is an intermingling. My roots and Victor’s are jazz, basically, but these two young fellows that we have with us come out of rock bands. And they’re tremendously exciting players. That’s what the name of the game is today: excitement. I’m not doing this just to please myself, although I do hope that it can become successful. Because it also has to do with the fact that, like: “Hey,. I’m back in the music–playing business again.” While in London, we were also occupied in making our first album, at Morgan Studios. The playbacks sounded tremendous. I hadn’t recorded with these musicians before, other than a live concert at Montreux last June, when the band was first organised. In the studio together we produced some pretty groovy things, I think.
Yes, there is a lot of volume involved. This was one thing that was difficult at first for me to get adjusted to. In fact, I had to make an enormous adjustment to this, not only in listening to it but in playing with it. It’s a full sound. In some instances, you must have the volume to get the effect. Fortunately, I would say that, with anyone under the age of twenty–five, that’s all they know is this volume.
But then, my experience comes into it, where I apply shading and things. We mix it up pretty well, as far as volume and highlights are concerned, to .make it interesting, rather than just at one level. It really is a very emotional sound, and you get caught up in it. Two-thirds of our material are originals; we’re dealing with polychords, you know—triads upon triads, things like that.
As for freedom: as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as freedom in music, regardless of what form it takes. Music is a plan or a form, whether you’re doing polytones, scalewise patterns, twelve–tones or anything. You have a certain amount of restriction because of the tones themselves. So we’re loose—let’s put it like that. But you can’t extend, or go beyond any point musically, without the basic fundamentals. I suppose, in the sense of the percussive aspect of the structure of everything we’re doing, you can call it swinging. It moves, in a pulsation sort of approach. It’s not the one, two, three, four type of thing, or even the relaxed, finger–snapping, walking bass type of thing. We have a jettison type of movement, constantly; everyone is percussive at the same time, to a certain degree. It’s interesting.
I’ve changed my drumming considerably. I’ve had to, in order to play this way, in order to have a fulfilment with regard to the overall sound. Sometime: I might be more or less playing the part of the piano, or of a baritone saxophone, or of a trombone or a trumpet. I’m constantly weaving, in and out; so there’s no holes, as you might say, yet it’s not offensive to the extent that it gets in anyone’s way. The other players are able to interweave. That’s the only wav that it really is effective. Otherwise, if it was a straightaway, right–on–the–head type of playing, it would fall very, very flat.
Everything I’ve done in the past has led to this: otherwise I wouldn’t be in this direction. And there’s no turning back; I’ve declared myself: “This is where my head is now.” Just as I’ve said in the past, and I’ve been very fortunate. Now whether it’ll go so well this time, I don’t know.
One thing for sure, though, about this time with this group, as opposed to the groups I’ve had before, this is what I’m going to be doing. At this stage of my life, I’ve dedicated myself to playing what I want to play, how I want to play it for the rest of my time. Regardless of whether one might like it or one might not like it, this is where I am.
Luckily, I’m in the position now of being able to play purely because I have the desire to do so. It isn’t a question of me having to play because I depend on it for my livelihood.
I don’t. For the last five years I’ve been in the production business. I have a company in New York City producing music for commercials, for radio, TV, features, etc. That’s how I’ve been making my living. And now the company is very successful—to the extent that I can afford to come out and play.
This is rewarding to me, because I’m still able to play—and I’m playing with some young dudes who love to play. Mentally and physically, I find I can play with these people. Sure, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some fine talents—the late Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo. Jim Hall, Buddy Collette. Ron Carter, just to name a few of the people that I’ve introduced throughout the years.
But this group is really something. At Ronnie’s, we had young kids who enjoyed it so much they came in every night. Something else—a lot of the old jazz diehards dug it, too.
They’d say, well, they didn’t understand it, but they liked it. Plus the fact that they liked watching us doing what we’re doing. Because we don’t have that angry approach about it. What’s there to protest about? Not for music’s sake.
I mean, there’s a hell of a lot of grounds for protest, but you don’t do it through music. Well, that’s my own personal opinion, anyway. You know, music is so demanding that you don’t have time for that other thing. If you’re going to do that, then you should do it by way of the proper channels, where it’s really going to mean something. All you can do is try to play your instrument to the best of your ability, to perform the music to its peak form.
I’m quite sure that all true professional artists, of every description, in all walks of life, whether their craft is painting, music, sculpture, medicine or anything, have one primary concern—mankind. Not to protest at all, but to give of themselves, for the benefit of man. Now, I don’t know about all this other junk that came later. Personally, I can’t see how anyone can produce any beautiful music out of being angry. My views are my own, but I don’t think I’m wrong. I’ve been a little more fortunate, perhaps, than a lot of people have, for the simple reason that I’ve constantly been moving: so nobody can hit me—you know what I mean? Protesting is not the answer—not along those lines. It’s not that I’m that religious, perhaps I’m not religious at all, but I do believe in the human race of mankind. And I’m happy to say that I’m able to find people wherever I go that are not black, not white—they’re just human beings. That’s where I am, where I’ve been and where I intend to stay.
When I think back to the ‘forties era . . . during that time, people were doing a lot of things away from their regular jobs, regardless of whether they were musicians or not. People enjoyed themselves. There wasn’t that much money around; consequently you had to make do. I was involved here, in London, back in 1950, when I happened to be the first American musician in twenty–five years to be able to plav in Britain.
At that time I was accompanying Lena Home. This was in the old Club Eleven days, and I met Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie, Lennie Bush, all the guys. As a matter of fact, Charlie Short was playing bass with us. We’ve all been friends since that first time over here. Heck, it does my heart good to see these guys still on the scene. We played all over this town for nothing—just to be able to play: Unfortunately, there is no such thing as that any more. It just doesn’t happen—not only here, but anywhere. It’s a question of economics; guys who can’t make a living playing music have to fill their daytimes doing other types of jobs. But whenever they can get a chance to play, they will. A lot of musicians aren’t proud; they’ll do other work, just to be able to play music. I guess that’s the way it’s always going to be—musicians will have to suffer to a certain degree in order to obtain their outlet.
It was just circumstantial, really, that I got involved with small groups. Coming out of the big bands, I started accompanying, and I guess that is what led up to it. Because I learned quite a bit, by being an accompanist. I’d like to pay tribute to the late Lennie Hayton. I thought he was a tremendous musician, one of the most fascinating that I have ever known. He was a fantastic composer, arranger and so on; he taught me plenty—even how to play chess! Of course he helped Lena a lot; he helped anyone who came in contact with him musically. For me, he was a Robert Farnon—that’s who he reminds me of.
Incidentally, I must mention here that I also think Robert Farnon is a really wonderful musician. Music is music, regardless of what form that it’s in; a C7th chord is still a C7th chord, whoever plays it. I heard something that Farnon did on a Tony Bennett TV show, man—it just wiped me out! And the drummer on that show,. Kenny Clare—he’s dynamite. My kind of drummer? I’ll say he is. And so is Tony Crombie—Tony’s playing his ass off, too. All these guys are playing—they really are. They’re doing it as they feel it, and good things are coming out.
That first early ‘fifties quintet of mine, with Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, Fred Katz and Carson Smith, was organised in self–defence, just to play in tune and play some good music. I didn’t think in terms of it being a big step; it wasn’t organised for that reason. I don’t know what success is, really. If I’ve had some, it’s just that on several occasions I’ve had the luck to be in the right place with the right people at the right time, as far as the music scene is concerned. I’ve always been considered a forerunner in a lot of directions, I know.
Here again, my reward has been in the fact that there’s always good young players who want to play with me. They seek me out and say: “Hey, man, I’d sure like to play in your band.” And I get just as much from them as they do from me.
Yes, I was a part of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It was the cool era; well, everyone was cool then. Everything was by design, you know. You didn’t have the competitive aspect of music as you do today.
There was only one kind of music being played, and that was strictly jazz. No matter what form it took, it was just jazz. There was no pop or rock. As you recall, even the singers during that time were considered jazz singers. The only exceptions were the ones who specialised in the chic café type of acts, because they had chic cafés then. And people had been playing the blues for years: it wasn’t question of rhythm ’n’ blues or anything like that.
But what happens today: when you have a contemporary band or orchestra or group, people in general always put a group on a competitive basis with other groups. If it’s a jazz group, they’re going to compare it to a rock group; they don’t know the difference. So you’re forced to compete.
The fact is, music is a multi–billion dollar business now; it’s come a long way. They’ve got away from using the word jazz, in many cases, and, as a matter of fact, it’s not too good a word, anyway. Originally, it didn’t have anything to do with music.
That’s Mr. Ellington’s bone of contention also, that it should be called something else. But people have to identify, and that’s the only way they can. Unfortunately, the average young people have no idea what it’s all about, and they automatically turn off, because of the word. That’s why I’m glad to see so many young people listening to what we’re doing. If it’s presented to them under the title of jazz, then they might think a little different about jazz, or the average jazz player, the next time they hear it or read about it.
The thing about becoming the leader of any kind of a musical group irrespective of what instrument you play, is that, if you intend to keep a group, you must become the gimmick—if there is such a thing. In other words, you solely depend upon yourself for your resources. You have to hold everything together, in more ways than one.
In order to play music—period, you must have patience and fortitude. But if you’re going to have a band or group, you must have patience to the extent that you give your players, if they’re young or immature, an opportunity to develop. Because who knows, man—you might have some giants on your hands. And nine times out of ten they are. Well, it takes time for them to find out what direction they want to go in. This is where I’ve been particularly fortunate, because I’m able to let guys just go ahead and do their thing. Which makes me strong, you see. I have to be as strong in my will and my way of thinking as they are in theirs.
That album I made with Tony Bennett, “The Beat Of My Heart”, is one of the classics, I’d say. It was the first time a singer had ventured to do something like that. Tony’s fantastic, man. Like Frank Sinatra said, he is the best singer around. I’ve seen him from different angles: as a player accompanying him, I’ve seen what he does to an audience; and then I’ve seen him from the front, just watching him like anyone else. In every sense of the word, the man is a troubadour. Now, he sings for people. He gives you everything you could possibly want, as far as the treatment of a song is concerned. And he picks some of the grooviest songs; plus the fact that he sings some difficult songs also. As a singer, Tony Bennett is dynamite.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.