© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal April 2018.
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“In 1952 Chico Hamilton was working at the Streets of Paris on Hollywood Boulevard in a small band led by Charlie Barnet. He was on a sabbatical from Lena Horne’s backing group and Gerry Mulligan’s girl-friend Gail Madden heard him there one evening. On her recommendation he became a charter member of Gerry’s pianoless quartet along with Chet Baker and Bob Whitlock which performed nightly at the Haig. He was one of the great brush artists and his subtle, lightly swinging performances with Mulligan created a style that was emulated by his successors in the group over the years - Larry Bunker, Frank Isola and Dave Bailey. Gerry once said that Chico was the ideal drummer for the quartet but by early 1953 he returned to Lena Horne where the remuneration was obviously more lucrative than the union scale he was earning with Mulligan.
In 1955 he decided to branch out on his own and the quintet he eventually organised shocked the jazz world by giving prominence to a cello and a flute in the ensemble. The group became so popular that although the personnel changed the instrumentation remained the same for the rest of the decade, becoming for many the quintessential West Coast jazz sound. Things did not start out that way of course and it took a little while for that unique instrumentation to evolve. Richard Bock had given Chico his first opportunity to record as a leader in December 1953 on a trio album with his friend George Duvivier on bass – a colleague from Lena Horne’s group - and the young and relatively unknown guitarist Howard Roberts. The recording was an instant success for Pacific Jazz, receiving a five-star review in Down Beat. Later on in 1954, he played an extended engagement at New York’s Capitol Theatre with Lena Horne and one of his fellow musicians in the orchestra was Fred Katz. He had studied with a disciple of Pablo Casals and had been a child prodigy on both piano and cello. Fred had performed with the National Symphony in Washington D.C. and had played the Saint-Saens cello concerto in New York’s Town Hall when he was just fifteen.
After Lena Horne’s booking Katz moved out to Los Angeles as a pianist backing singer Jana Mason and later when she needed a drummer Fred recommended Chico Hamilton. They began discussing forming a group together and because Chico wanted something new and different he considered Johnny Mandel on bass trumpet. He was busy so Chico’s thoughts turned to John Graas on French horn but he was about to leave town with Liberace. John mentioned that Jim Hall - a young guitarist from Cleveland - was rehearsing and staying with him while looking for work which is how the guitar chair was filled. The choice of a horn player was easy. Multi- instrumentalist Buddy Collette had been a friend of Chico’s since their days at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles where they played in the school band with Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus and Ernie Royal. Buddy’s singular abilities on flute, clarinet, alto and tenor made him a perfect fit for the group. The final piece of the jigsaw was bass player Carson Smith who had been working with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Talking about Smith at the time Chico said, “I get everything I could possibly want from Carson. The only other bass player I can truthfully say I dig all the time is George Duvivier”.
After a series of rehearsals at his house in 1955, Chico approached Harry Rubin who owned a number of local jazz clubs. He gave them a booking at The Strollers, a small Long Beach venue about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Bob Hardaway took Collette’s place for the first week because Buddy was working with ‘Scatman’ Crothers at The Tailspin in Hollywood so was not immediately available. Fed Katz initially played piano and only performed on cello as an intermission feature. The leader soon realised that persuading Katz to switch permanently to the stringed instrument would create the unique ensemble sound he was looking for. What really helped put the group on the map was Rubin’s decision to get local disc jockey ‘Sleepy’ Stein to broadcast a series of live performances from the club on KFOX. Their first album later in 1955 was notable for two contrasting examples of the quintet’s repertoire.
Buddy Boo is a cute and quite infectious examination of jazz music’s most basic harmony – the blues - while Free Form (a contradiction in terms) owes something to the earlier experimentations of the Lennie Tristano school. The session also included a haunting Fred Katz original – The Sage – which the group reprised when they appeared in the film Sweet Smell of Success.
Early in 1956 the quintet travelled East but without Buddy Collette. He was working with Jerry Fielding’s orchestra on the Groucho Marx TV show so was replaced by Allen Eager who was by then almost the forgotten man of the tenor. They appeared at Boston’s Storyville along the way and when they reached New York City Jerome Richardson took over for their engagement at Basin Street East. They worked opposite the Clifford Brown – Max Roach quintet which was something of an historic event as it was the first time an East Coast and West Coast group appeared together on the same bill in New York.
Collette returned to the group for the 1956 Chico Hamilton In Hi-Fi album which included a brilliantly executed arrangement of Fred Katz’s Gone Lover. As the title implies it is based on When Your Lover Has Gone and is a delicate piece of impressionism including a brief hint of Ravel’s Introduction And Allegro, rather than his Daphnis And Chloe as the sleeve suggests. There is also an unaccompanied performance – Drums West - by the leader. It is actually Chico’s extended Bark For Barksdale solo which had been edited from a 1954 concert performance with Mulligan. Unlike so many drum features it is not just an excuse for an extravagant technical display but is full of well- developed creative ideas interspersed with elements of subtle humour. Critic Ralph Gleason once summed up his approach best -“When Chico Hamilton took a drum solo it was probably the first time in history that a jazz drummer’s solo was so soft you had to whisper or be conspicuous.” Later that year he was centre-stage again on Mr. Jo Jones which is an amusing tribute to one of Chico’s inspirations.
In July they appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival where the quintet was the last act to appear before Duke Ellington closed the show. They climaxed their set with one of their most popular numbers – Blue Sands by Buddy Collette. He had written it a few years earlier as a flute exercise but the quintet’s performance was anything but academic as Chico’s repeated figure on mallets helped create a mystical, almost hypnotic mood. They received a standing ovation and Duke apparently said to Buddy as they left the stage, “Well, you sure made it hot for me”. A little later that night he unleashed Paul Gonsalves for his famous solo on Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue.
1957 saw some significant changes in personnel. By now Buddy Collette was so well established in the Los Angeles studios he was no longer prepared to travel with the quintet. He was replaced by Paul Horn who had been working with the Sauter-Finegan orchestra. Jim Hall left to join the Jimmy Giuffre Three so John Pisano who later went on to fame and fortune with Peggy Lee and then Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass took over on guitar. Carson Smith and Fed Katz remained and this was the group that played such an integral part in the film Sweet Smell Of Success starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick it was one of the really great film-noirs along with Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The group appear in numerous night-club scenes with actor Martin Milner taking John Pisano’s place on screen. Elmer Bernstein incorporated much of the music by Katz and Hamilton into the movie score and when I interviewed Chico in 1994 at London’s Jazz café he had this to say about the production, “It really was a dynamite film and we had a ball making it. Tony hung out with Paul Horn a lot because he wanted to learn the flute and Burt really was a funny dude with a hell of a sense of humour. He had a special edition of the Los Angeles Herald printed with the headline: Chico Hamilton- Busted! which he showed to the entire cast.”
The timing of the quintet’s next album featuring songs from the 1949 Broadway hit – South Pacific - could hardly have been better. A successful film version of the show was released in 1958 and the group spent much of January that year recording the Rodgers and Hammerstein material for Pacific Jazz. Several selections like Dites Moi, Happy Talk, A Cockeyed Optimist and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair are quite short. They were possibly intended by producer Dick Bock to achieve some valuable radio air-play for the group. Part of Chico Hamilton’s appearance at Newport that year was captured in Bert Stern’s film Jazz On A Summer’s Day and the concert represented Eric Dolphy’s debut with the quintet. Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopaedia Of Jazz incorrectly claims that Fred Katz performed with the group but it was actually Nate Gershman on cello who had been recruited from the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. One of the most evocative scenes in the film finds him alone practising Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1, almost enveloped by clouds of smoke from the cigarette he was smoking.
The group’s 1959 album – The Ellington Suite - represented a reunion of the original quintet with Paul Horn added. Carson Smith arranged the material taking full advantage of Paul and Buddy Collette’s expertise on no less than six horns between them. It is noticeable by this stage of the quintet’s evolution that the cello was used more for ensemble colour than as a solo voice. This became even more apparent on the quintet’s final recording in 1960 – The Chico Hamilton Special – which is yet to be released on CD and was Charles Lloyd’s first album as a recording artist [Ed. Note: Since this writing, Chico's Columbia LPs have been made available on CD.] He had been studying with George Coleman and had joined the group on the recommendation of Buddy Collette. Bassist Bobby Haynes and guitarist Harry Polk were the other new members while Nate Gershman was held over from the earlier quintet.
Early in 1960 the quintet appeared at The Cloister in Hollywood opposite Dinah Washington. In his enthusiastic Downbeat review John Tynan called the group, “ A sure-fire crowd-pleaser for the quasi-hip set frequenting this Sunset Strip room.” The somewhat forgotten Carrington Visor was on tenor and flute but by the mid- sixties he seemed to disappear from the jazz scene. Chico carried on working with the group until around 1962 when he decided to drop the cello and replace it with George Bohanon’s trombone.
There was though to be one last hurrah for the cello/flute combination. In 1989 Chico re-formed the quintet with Buddy Collette, Fred Katz, John Pisano and Carson Smith for a European tour of festivals at Verona, Bolzano, Vienna, Nice, North Sea and Montreux.”
The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings Of The Chico Hamilton Quintet (Mosaic MD6-175).
Jazz From The Sweet Smell Of Success (Fresh Sound FSRCD 514).
Chico Hamilton Quintet Reunion (Soul Note 121191-2).
The Chico Hamilton Quintet featuring Eric Dolphy Fresh Sound FSCD-1004. The insert notes indicate that these recordings were made on May 19th/20th, 1959 in Hollywood, CA
The Chico Hamilton Quintet with Strings Attached with the orchestra under the direction of Fred Katz.[Warner Brothers B-1245]