Friday, December 17, 2010

Chico Hamilton


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In his insert notes to The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Chico Hamilton Quintet [MD6-175], author Bob Gordon writes:

“The popularity of the Shelly Manne and Andre Previn My Fair Lady album in 1956 made the issuing of Jazz versions of [Broadway] musical scores de rigueur for most Jazz labels by the late 1950s. It was a mixed blessing. … Chico Hamilton Plays South Pacific in Hi-Fi is far from the worst example to be found in this genre ….”

The primary means by which I heard Broadway musicals was in the form of these Jazz interpretations.

The fact that I lived 3,000 miles away from New York City and couldn’t abide Ethel Merman’s singing may have had something to do with why I didn’t hear or see many of these shows in their original form, not to mention the fact that I wasn’t going to spend any of my limited budget for buying LPs on such overblown spectacles.

I did acquire of copy of the Manne/Previn Jazz reading of My Fair Lady, as well as The Mastersounds Jazz interpretations of The King and I and Kismet, and drummer Chico Hamilton’s quintet rendition of South Pacific, and a number of others.


Despite the oddity of having a cello amongst its instrumentation, I did spend quite a bit of time listening to Chico Hamilton’s original quintet, both on record and in performance.

It’s easy to overlook the unusual sound of the cello when, at one time or another, Buddy Collette, Paul Horn and Eric Dolphy are playing alto and tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute in the quintet, Jim Hall, John Pisano and Dennis Budimir are occupying the guitar chair, and Carson Smith, Hal Gaynor and Wyatt Ruther are anchoring the combo on bass.

During the quintet’s existence in this format, I rarely ever remember hearing Chico use drum sticks, relying instead on brushes and tympani mallets to create a rhythmic pulse. It seemed that by choosing not to use drum sticks, Chico was consciously enhancing what is known in Classical music as the chamber group sound.

And, of course, what linked Chico’s original quintet even more closely to the sound of the Classical chamber group was its singular use of the cello, an instrument which, even today, is rarely featured in Jazz combos.

Fred Katz, Chico’s first cellist, and I went to the same university: he as a teacher and me as a student.  It was one of those state universities that dotted the California landscape, brought into existence by the hordes of people that initially descended on the state during its post World War II “Golden Era.”

Ah, those were the days: $47 bucks per semester plus another $100 schimolies for books – no student loans here - professors who taught more than one class a year and who published monograms that other human beings could actually read and students who finished a course of study and graduated with a baccalaureate degree in four years or less!

At the state university in question, Fred taught a class in anthro-musicology, which I can only imagine was some type of forerunner to today’s ethnomusicology.  I have no idea what Fred’s course was about, but the students seemed to like it as they flocked to it in large numbers.

At this time, the university did not have a formal Jazz curriculum, but those of us interested in the music found a way to informally make things happen on campus in the form of a rehearsal big band and various combos.

Since I was still gigging around town while taking courses at the university, I only sat in occasionally with the big band at the request of certain arrangers because of my reading skills.

Although he didn’t arrange for the big band, Fred dropped by some of its rehearsals.

During a break one night, I approached him and we chatted amiably about a number of topics including his work on the film score [with Chico’s quintet] for the movie Sweet Smell of Success and his writing for Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz album.

When I mentioned his playing on Chico’s South Pacific LP Fred seemed genuinely pleased and commented that he thought that this was some of his best work with Chico’s group.

He arranged Cockeyed Optimist for the date and said of this assignment: “Maybe the reason Chico asked me to do this tune was because he knows I am one!”

Although I doubt that most students had much of an interest in anthro-musicology, after visiting with Fred a few times and finding him so engaging and charming, it’s easy to understand why his course was so popular.

We didn’t choose Fred’s arrangement for this video tribute to Chico and his group’s Jazz interpretation of South Pacific selecting instead guitarist John Pisano’s treatment of Some Enchanted Evening as the audio track.

Fred and John are joined by Paul Horn on alto saxophone, Hal Gaynor on bass and Chico on drums.