Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

The Life and Legacy of “Chico” Hamilton

 “Chico” died the week of Thanksgiving 2013, after 9 decades of music making. You can be forgiven for asking who “Chico” was. But it is appropriate that we Christians take time to remember this life and thank God for giving us “Chico” Hamilton, the legendary drummer, composer and band leader.

clip_image001  Let’s take a look at the lyrics of Hamilton’s life:

Forestorn “Chico” Hamilton played with every major bandleader in America from 1940 to 1960. Whether it was American Songbook lions such as Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Gerry Mulligan, he was in the band. He backed-up singers such as American Songbook icons Sammy Davis, Jr, Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole, and he accompanied Billy Holiday in her famous 1956 Lady Sings the Blues concert at Carnegie Hall (“Lady Sings the Blues” performed by Billy Holiday and Chico Hamilton Quintet) ) Additionally, he toured the world with Lena Horne for almost a decade.

 Hamilton made his film debut as a 20 year old drummer with an impromptu group Delta Rhythm Boys in the l941 movie You’ll Never Get Rich backing up Fred Astaire in an army barracks dance number: (Song: “A-Stairable Rag” composed by Cole Porter, danced by Fred Astaire, performed by the Delta Rhythm Players)

 In l952 he helped trumpeter Gerry Mulligan record his ground-breaking album The Gerry Mulligan Quartet which some say started the West Coast “cool” jazz stylings that became so popular in the l950s and 60s, thus making Hamilton one of the founding fathers of the mellow, relaxed, happy sounds coming out of the West: (“My FunnyValentine” performed by Gerry Mulligan quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet)

 In 1955 Hamilton started his own landmark and very unique band, the Chico Hamilton Quintet which was so popular that the Quintet scored a rare cinema appearance in the l957 award-winning Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis movie, The Sweet Smell of Success. (The Sweet Smell of Success soundtrack with Chico Hamilton) . Ten years later he would write the theme song for the world-wide TV series, Gerald McBoing Boing: (Theme song for tv series Gerald McBoing Boing composed by Chico Hamilton)

 As he passed his 80th birthday, awards began to come his way:

*In 2004 he was named a “Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts.

*In 2006, he was named to the President’s Council on the Arts and jammed at the Bush White House.

*In 2007, he received the “Living Legend Jazz Award” from the Kennedy Center.

 In all, he recorded 60 albums in his career.

 Chico Hamilton died November 25, 2013, probably from emphysema, but the exact cause of death has not been made public, although in 2003 he had open heart surgery. Whatever the cause, it was a long and distinguished life.

 In addition to his musical excellence what makes him special to us Christians? What are his jewels in his crown?

 Forestorn “Chico” Hamilton was born in Los Angeles in l921 in a large (5 boys/1 girl) and conservative Methodist Church-going family. He adored his parents all his life and called them “beautiful people.”

 While still at JeffersonHigh School in Los Angeles he married his sweetheart, Helen. A friend of the groom, Nathaniel Cole, son of a prominent Baptist preacher and better known now as Nat “King” Cole played at his wedding. Jack Kelso was best man. He and Helen were married for 67 years until she died in 2008. Together they had a son, Forest, Jr. who died in 2000 and a daughter, Denise who is still alive. While he was alive he enjoyed his granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

 As a 9 year old he picked up the drums when his 10 year old brother didn’t want to play them anymore. Decades later, when asked how this accidental drummer became a jazz legend, Hamilton replied: “God made me different.” An early experience with drugs ended up sending him to a hospital. He said, “I promised God that if He brought me through, I would never even take as much as an aspirin ever again. What wakes you up is when you realize that God is giving you moments of reality to make you aware of your choices.” When asked by jazz critic Marc Myers what was his “big life lesson”? Hamilton replied,  “I’m blessed because I can make music, and I make music for music’s sake. Music demands to be played and executed extremely well. I believe music is God’s will, and God’s will will be done. Can you imagine this world without music?”

 In 1988 Hamilton hired Christian businessman Jeffrey Caddick of Joyous Shout Productions to be his personal manager, and in 2006 he released the album Believe with gospel and soul singer Fontella Bass and Christian trombonist George Bohanon.

 Giving public testimony of the Christian conviction of both he and his daughter, Denise, his obituary comments are filled with scriptural quotations from both the Old and New Testament from friends and fans from coast to coast and border to border. We who enjoyed his music, can celebrate his life and music and thank our Lord for sustaining Mr. Hamilton’s faith.

 Rev. Peter Spino of San Diego spoke for many of us when we wrote the family, “I give praise to God for Chico’s life and the artistic gifts that he left for all of us. He was an inspiration for so many people. I thank the Lord that Chico was a believer in the faith and rejoice with all the angels in heaven that God has finally called him home. For our loss is heaven’s gain.”


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