The Man Who Would Save Jazz
April 16, 2014
Time was running out. The sun had set hours earlier, and with it any lingering goodwill the residents of Newport, Rhode Island had for the crowd in Freebody Park. It was the Fifth Annual Newport Jazz Festival, and, as would come to be the case once every summer for decades, the picturesque town was overrun with artists and fans. The police descended to try to calm the audience.
The evening lineup would feature performances by Gerry Mulligan and Dinah Washington, and next up was the Chico Hamilton Quintet. So while the noise levels were being subdued, Chico—a drummer known for his subtlety, precision, and originality—was just offstage with his four sidemen, perhaps the most celebrated of all the incarnations of his celebrated group. Waiting for the masses to take notice.
He emerges from a curtained-off room behind the audience, on a Tuesday night in December. First comes the cane, followed by slow, methodical shuffles of his feet. It takes him one minute and twenty-seven seconds to make his way from the back of the Jazz Gallery in Soho to the stage up front—some fifty feet. Finally, with a little help from the balding man from Indiana who flies in to serve as his road manager, he makes it all the way to his black-lacquered drums.
As the rest of his quintet, Euphoria, readies for the upcoming set, he looks out over the audience, which fills maybe two-thirds of the chairs set up in the center of this second-floor loft. Here, before a crowd of thirty-eight people. Chico Hamilton gets ready for his final performance of the decade.
And he looks annoyed.
The man behind the drums is different now, but he is the boy who grew up playing in Los Angeles high school bands with an eccentric bass player named Charles Mingus and a tall, lanky saxophonist named Dexter Gordon. He is the same man who played drums for Duke Ellington and Count Basie and toured Europe with Lena Horne. Who returned to the United States in the 1950s to raise a family and lead his own series of prolific—if unconventional—lineups. Who in 1965 graced the cover of an album, El Chico, with his hand on his hips, a scowl on his face, and a cape on his shoulders. The man whom Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts admired so much growing up that he referred to himself as “Chico” Watts. The man who willed the jazz-club dance scene into being on both sides of the Atlantic.
But that was then. The man behind the drums in this loft in 2009, looks…tired.
“Let’s get the lights down so we can get a groove going,” he barks into the hand-held microphone he’ll use in between songs the rest of the night. Someone shuts off the lights over the front rows of the audience but Chico doesn’t budge.
“How about the other ones?” he says. “This is a jazz club.”
Gradually, they flick off, one-by-one, until the only lights left shine directly at the stage. Signifying his delayed approval, Chico lets out an expletive that’s more of a growl than a word:
Immediately, the thirty-something conga player seated next to him onstage starts tapping a rhythm. Chico, who moments before had been reliant upon a cane, erupts into a rapid-fire assault on the hi-hat. Before long, the rest of the group jumps in, too. The opening tune, called Happiness Prevails, is courtesy of Evan Schwam, a thirty-year-old saxophonist wearing a suit and the bottom half of a reddish-brown goatee. Schwam features on the piece, playing variations of a melodic chorus over the top, showing off the restrained tone, range, and pace that will lead Chico to tell the crowd to stop applauding for him because, “He’s gonna want more money.”
A few more numbers go by, and when the applause quiets, Chico enters into a music history lesson. The Charleston, he tells his audience, is the oldest beat he knows. The simplest, too. “So I’m going to play a few tap-dancing beats,” he continues, “and if any of you want to get up and do the splits that’s fine by me. If not, then keep your ass in the chair.”
Brushes in hand, he rolls the beats—Dut-Daah. Dut-Daah. Dut-Daah. The crowd remains seated.
Evan Schwam wasn’t there the first time I saw Chico Hamilton perform. Neither was Euphoria’s Jeremy Carlsted, the percussionist who’d spell Chico from time to time during shows. Instead, they were lost, somewhere in Connecticut.
Both are Chico Hamilton sidemen and former Chico Hamilton students—at the school Chico co-founded in 1986, now called the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. They were drawn to Chico for similar reasons. As Jeremy would explain, while most of their classmates flocked to younger, more familiar musical names at the school, “I’ve always gone against what’s considered popular.” And then there was the Chico Hamilton history. “It was like going to a wizard,” Evan says.
Beyond the resume—the sixty-plus records, the long tenure at the school—Chico Hamilton was jazz history. He’d learned from the originals and played with almost everyone. On arguably jazz’s most historic night, when NYPD officers beat Miles Davis outside the legendary Birdland jazz club in 1959, he was on the bandstand inside. And then there was Newport 1958.
As the legend goes, that 1958 Newport crowd eventually quiets down and the Chico Hamilton Quintet is allowed on stage. They enter into Blue Sands, a composition by Eric Dolphy.
It starts softly, Chico keeping time with mallets and Dolphy soloing on the flute. Soon, as if foreshadowing what’s to come, Johnny Pisano enters into an eerily building solo on guitar. And as he builds, so does Chico in the background, to the point where sweat is running down his face. And then… nothing. Or so the applauding crowd thinks. That’s when, steadily growing in volume, Chico Hamilton stopped time.
As it’s captured in Bert Stern’s 1960 masterpiece of jazz and youth culture, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the audience starts to cheer for Pisano’s just-completed solo and Chico disappears from the soundtrack. Steadily, like a long train coming from the distance, he keeps playing the same rhythm. And, steadily, the beat gets louder. The beat gets faster. Before long, the only things on the screen are the white flashes of Chico’s mallets as they cross forward and backward and sideways past his face. He’d later say this was the one moment in his career that he felt as if he were one with the drums. The crowd, so wild before that it had to be subdued, sits in silence as Chico plays a mallet solo just short of two minutes in length that is such a moment he’d be invited back four decades later just to reprise it.
For Newport 2004, Evan and Jeremy had set off for Rhode Island in the morning, in Evan’s thirteen-year-old Toyota Camry. After a few hours on the highway, the saxophonist and the drummer stopped at a deli in Greenwich for lunch and, before leaving, asked the man behind the counter for the quickest route back to I-95. Two hours later, they were lost on a two-lane road—far from Newport and far from Chico Hamilton—their teacher, their mentor, their boss, or, as Evan likes to call him, their “sensei.”
Without his kid saxophonist and hand percussionist there for support, Chico took to the stage facing out into the harbor, fifty years after the first festival at Newport. And there on stage he gave a drum lesson, on the differences between mallets and sticks and brushes, to nearly 10,000 people spread out on beach towels and lawn chairs and under umbrellas. One of whom—me—was a senior in high school, resisting the idea of going to college for music despite a private instructor’s serious campaign.
Yeah? said Chico Hamilton, on the other end of the phone. It was a straightforward and confident voice but worn by the years. The tone suggested that I had interrupted something.
He asked who I was. I explained that I was the writer he had run into while he was on tour, in Washington, D.C., and told to call. I explained the gist of my story, too—about his continued involvement at The New School, his continued recording and performing, this long-haul fight for jazz’s relevancy that he’d been locked in for seventy years. Two months had passed since I’d watched Chico try, and fail, to goad that Jazz Gallery audience in Soho into dancing.
He listened to my story angle and replied: “Who else am I supposed to hang out with? All my people are gone. I’m the last of the Mohicans.”
I didn’t want to believe that jazz was dead.
It seemed to have almost become the hip thing to write, though. Over the years I’d heard the arguments: that rock and roll had tapped into what it meant to be an American teenager, the demographic responsible for popular culture, and spirited them away. That as jazz evolved and bebop ushered in a focus on fast tempos, improvisation, and instrumental virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity, jazz ceased to be the music for young people to come together with. You certainly can’t make love to Charlie Parker playing Ko-Ko. Chico himself has suggested that jazz’s problem is just a case of teenagers rebelling against their parents’ music, which happened to be jazz.
No matter what the reason, it’s true that decades have passed since a generation knew jazz as the dominant music. But, condemning it to death?
“Jazz is still around,” suggested the raspy voice on the phone. “It’s just that the names and places have changed.
“Why don’t you come down to The New School?” he said. “I’m down there on Wednesdays.”
Spring Semester, 2010
The old man sits, waiting, in the room at the end of the hall. A New School University ID card dangling from the lanyard around his neck says he is Dr. Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton. But the man in the picture on the lanyard is jovial—his smile, from beneath a dark mustache, bright; his cheeks, wide; his black hair in a natural Afro. The man hunched over next to the grand piano doesn’t smile. His cheeks droop. His hair is gray. His eyes, hidden behind bifocals, bulge.
If jazz, by definition, fights for relevancy by constantly re-informing and redefining itself, while passing itself down orally, Chico has indeed been locked in that struggle for generations. Learning from the creators, playing through cool, and bop, and dance, and fusion, Chico was there every time the music evolved. And he kept incubating the careers of his sidemen through it all.
Back in 1986, Chico’s own career had already spanned more than thirty-eight albums (not to mention movie and commercial scores) when saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, one of many former sidemen to experience individual success after paying dues under Chico’s guidance, asked if he might be interested in co-founding what would become the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Chico agreed to teach for “a little bit.”
Twenty-four years on, you had to wonder, at eighty-eight, how much of the fight he had left in him.
Slowly the students arrive, and Room 526 in Arnhold Hall gets cramped. The piano takes up nearly a quarter of the space. Between the drum set, the stand-up bass, and the electric guitar with amp, another quarter is gone. Same for the hand percussion, trumpet, sax, and vocal set-ups. The students, all in their twenties, form a circle around Chico. They include an Austrian, a Frenchman, two Israelis, two Koreans, and two Americans. Chico hands out the syllabus for his jazz improvisation ensemble.
It’s typed in a gigantic font size, but they go over it out loud nonetheless. In this room overlooking Greenwich Village they are going to make music. Each week, at least one of them will bring in an original composition and, as a group, they will play it, offer suggestions, and workshop it until it’s transformed from chart to polished piece. Tardiness will not be accepted. And, as it is written prominently on the white marker board behind Chico, “Leave your egos at the door.”
One time in that class, and probably more times before, Chico Hamilton scared the living shit out of a bass player.
It was the first day of class, and Mr. Bass—because that’s what Chico calls his students: Mr. Bass, Mr. Tenor, Ms. Guitar, and so forth—couldn’t possibly have known the rules. Just the same, though, Chico sat in the chair next to the piano and watched the student unpack his stand-up bass and cast his case into the center of the room.
Chico locked eyes with him and asked, “Is that what you do at home?” Half in shock, wholly in trouble, the bass player answered: No. “Then why the hell would you do it here? Have some respect.” El Chico was in complete control.
This is why, here on another Wednesday afternoon, a tall, dark Israeli named Nadav—the latest Mr. Bass, and twelve minutes late—cracks the door of the classroom and warily pokes his head in. Not to worry: “Chico is not here,” says J.C., a clean-shaven drummer from South Korea, from behind the drum set in the corner. “That’s weird,” says Nadav.
But just as the conversation turns to whether they will have class, Chico pushes the door open and shuffles in at nineteen minutes past noon. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, “but I’m here.” He takes off two layers of winter clothing, then looks around the room and asks where everyone is. The vocalist, the class says, is sick. No one knows about the guitarist or the second drummer. The trumpet player rarely comes, so his absence is less of a surprise. Then the professor stares at me, as if asking, “And who the hell are you?” We spoke on the phone last week, I tell him. But he can’t hear me well from across the room, so he tells me to take the seat next to him.
Eugenia, the South Korean piano player, has composed the chart for this week. She calls it Eggplant & Peanut, in honor of her teddy bears. But as the students start playing the skeleton arrangement, Chico stops the music.
“Don’t do that on the cymbal. Snare and tom-tom. Almost a flam,” he says to J.C., alluding to the most basic of drumming rudiments.
The class starts at the beginning, only now J.C. is keeping time on the snare drum and the ride cymbal. Even earlier in the piece than last time, Chico stops them again.
“Snare with your left hand, tom-tom with your right.”
They start again, but this time instead of playing the “almost” flam Chico wants, J.C. is playing alternating beats with his left and right hands.
“FLAM!” shouts Chico. “And not too fucking loud. Make it gentle, soft, sexy.”
As he continues to explain the rhythm he wants from J.C., I take the opportunity to jot down a few notes about the piece. I’m in the process of writing, “THE COMP FEATURES…” when Chico finishes his instructions and says, “Count it off.” I write this down, too, but no one is counting.
Slowly, I look up and the man who wore the cape on the cover of the 1965 album is staring right at me… Oh, shit.
“Yeah, you. Count it off.”
Panicked, and nearly six years removed from the last time I actually played, I say something to the effect of, “With a one, two, three?”
Some days later, Chico sits in the same chair in the room at the end of the hall, staring out the ceiling-height windows. The day outside is brutally cold, and wind-blown clouds of steam paint across the gray sky.
“So this is the house that Chico built?” I ask, now that his students have left.
A smile sneaks onto his previously uninterested face.
“Yeah, I had something to do with it.”
A lot has changed over the twenty-four years since Chico co-founded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. For starters, in 1986 Miles Davis was still alive, and perhaps as a result, jazz was more than just a niche interest when it came to popular culture. Jazz was more than parlor music to take octogenarians back, and for younger generations to drink to. The music itself was still evolving, along with its audience and, therefore, maintaining some social import. Jazz fusion wasn’t in its infancy anymore—artists had been melding jazz with pop for more than a decade by that point, and Chico had released The Master in 1973, featuring Little Feat as his backing band. But fusion was still very much in vogue. It was still years before funk and disco would inform acid jazz and place the emphasis more on the “acid” than the jazz. It was even longer before classicism would celebrate the past but stunt the evolutionary process. And it was even longer, still, before the smooth jazz of artists like Kenny G became a punch line of sorts.
And the school itself had changed, too.
Founded as an answer to The New School’s first music college, Mannes College, which was more classical in nature, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music was meant to be hip. Practicing jazz artists would casually mingle with the students and comprise the faculty—“the flesh teaching the flesh” is how Lawrence termed it. Even the facility, a well-worn space where jazz-themed graffiti would come to decorate the bathrooms, expressed the difference. Jazz would be saved.
“It’s certainly changed,” Chico said of the school while sitting in the almost sterile two-floor, 20,000-square-foot space it now occupies. “It’s become more of a stereotypical fine arts college, as opposed to stone cold jazz.”
When the school opened in the fall of 1986, total enrollment was twenty. Now—after churning out Grammy-recognized names like Roy Hargrove, Brad Mehldau, and Robert Glasper—it’s one of the biggest pure jazz programs in the country, fluctuating between 275 and 295 students. “Those earlier years there it was an intimate community,” explained the school’s executive director, Martin Mueller, who joined the school’s administration mere months after Chico had begun teaching. “The student generation was definitely a more cohesive collection around the hard-bop tradition, which was still very much alive in New York City in the mid-80s, and still very much embodied in the last of this golden age of practitioners that Chico represents. Because they were still here. And they were teaching at the New School. There was more of a core consensus around the community.
“And that lent itself to a cultural magic. When you have thirty, forty, sixty students, you can have these beautiful ‘Schools of One’—this beautiful fit between an individual student and a teacher who chooses to take them under his wing in the old community way.”
With success came growth, and with growth, a need to ensure the same quality education for the growing masses. One result, as Mueller would explain it: “The frame of academic practice is not the experience frame that these guys know. There’s a lot of administrative nomenclature and jargon. It’s worse than ever these days: teaching outcomes and all these buzzwords.” They’re important metrics, Meuller says, “But they’re like Greek to a true artist like Chico.”
I have heard about schools like this. Out of my closest circle of friends during high school, I was the only one who didn’t pursue music in college. And I have listened for hours to those who did pursue it talk about how their interest in music can be obscured by a need to learn some way to make a living. And how their course loads were beginning to reflect that need—with education and theory courses taking precedence over performance. As Chico he talks about the curriculum at the New School, it sounds similar.
The original plan here was to give everyone a chance to comment on and critique a piece of music, to truly understand how a piece works inside and out. Chico does his best to maintain that original mentality. “It comes under the heading of learning by doing,” he says. “A lot of teachers don’t teach like that, but it’s what we tried to do.
“We tried to teach the whyness of why. Because if you give out the answers, no one learns. But if you make the answer the question…”
Eventually I asked him where and what went wrong with this attempt to rescue his life’s work, why he thinks the school changed. He exhales. He blinks. He gives me a blank stare. And then, in that raspy, airy voice, he says he doesn’t know.
“I don’t have time to worry about the bad things,” he says.
The air reeked of whiskey. The floor was covered in sawdust. Chairs were strewn about, too. And at this show in Bridgehampton, Long Island, Mr. Tenor was moments away from making his debut as Euphoria’s new saxophonist. He was nervous as hell.
Mr. Tenor, in this case Evan Schwam, had never wanted to play tenor. Really, he hadn’t wanted to play saxophone at all. All those years ago, when he started out in that public school music program in Queens, he wanted to play the drums. So badly did he want this that he spent all summer learning the rudiments on his own. The rolls. The paradiddles. The flams. Raised in a musical family, he continued practicing right on through his grandmother’s protests that the drums weren’t a real instrument. So when that day came in the fall and the band director assigned him to the tenor sax, the little boy went home and cried.
But, dammit, he was going to be a good sax player. So he practiced. Before long he was at the top of his class. Not long after that, he was playing in all sorts of high school all-star bands. And not long after that he applied to music schools, as a saxophonist.
He prepared audition pieces and he was pretty good at them, too. But that made the New School audition all the more nerve-racking, because the judge got his own horn out and said they were just going to jam together. Still, it had a relaxed feel, and Mr. Tenor, a teenager at the time, did well enough to be offered admission.
Three years later, just down the hall from where that audition took place, Chico Hamilton approached his now-former student and gave him his business card. He needed a new sax player, and well, Mr. Tenor wasn’t too bad.
And then came his first gig with the master, at that packed house in Suffolk County in 2002. Mr. Tenor had more than a few hours to work himself up, and as if playing a cruel joke on the newcomer, the first song he’d solo in, Mother Tucker, wasn’t until later in the show.
“Evan just graduated, so he just joined us,” Chico said to the crowd at the Wild Rose Café when the time came. “We’ve got to give him a solo to see if he’s going to be legit or not.”
The group started into Mother Tucker. It was a slow, smooth tune—just the kind of song where Evan’s weaknesses could potentially be heard. But it was quiet, too, so if he really nailed his solo, he could make a statement.
And then the moment came—the one he’d been thinking about all night. And he nailed it. The music gods smiled. The audience erupted for the newcomer and, as the applause died down, there came a shout came from the back.
Spring Semester, 2010
Chico isn’t in the room at the end of the hall when I arrive. This time Evan Schwam (formerly Mr. Tenor), almost ten years removed from his solo in Bridgehampton, strides in, his tenor case over his shoulder. The class looks at him—they’ve seen him before. He’s the guy who occasionally drops by just to play with them. But Chico’s always been here when he’s dropped by.
“Where’s Chico?” asks Dida, an Israeli guitarist who’s more or less the leader of the ensemble.
Evan explains that a student of Chico’s had a cold and Chico caught it. “He should be back next time…I hope.”
As an alumnus of Chico’s class, Evan says he knows the drill. The listening session—a school-wide recital, during which the ensemble gets evaluated by peers—is coming up in three weeks. Next week is spring break, so they only have today and the class after the break to prepare a twenty-five-minute set. With that being said, Evan asks who brought in a piece this week. Nadav, the Israeli bass player, holds his composition up and proceeds to pass copies of it around.
The class jumps in, and unlike last week, when only a piano, sax, drums, and bass were here, this week the vocalist, second drummer, and guitarist have returned. The song, titled simply, Comp. II, has a slow bossa nova feel. As with all sight-readings, the first play through is tentative. When the class reaches the end, the musicians just sort of stop, rather than come to an ending.
“So what do you think we can do with this thing?” Evan asks, already showing a more relaxed approach to teaching than Chico. “Like, are there lyrics to this? It seems like it’d be nice with lyrics.”
Nadav admits he didn’t think of lyrics, and that if he did they wouldn’t be in English. As for what the ensemble could do with the piece, he suggests keeping everything the same, only with the drums playing twice as fast.
So after a quick workshopping of the percussion part, the class tries the song a second time. This time it starts with a reworked intro that only features the drum set and the congas before the rest of the class jumps in at the chorus. Soon they’re trading solos. First it’s Dida on the guitar. Then it’s Eugenia on the piano. Then it’s Lukas, the Austrian, on the tenor sax, probably the best musician of them all. The last to go is Nadav. They leave the solo section and return to the chorus. This time they end together and Evan seems pleased.
Spring break has come and gone. In the practice room, Dida sees that Evan is back and, with a hint of disappointment in her voice, she asks, “Where’s Chico-lico?”
The side of Evan’s mouth twitches and, in an instant, a smirk sweeps across his face. The class laughs, too. But before they can discuss what appears to be a twenty-one-year-old girl’s pet name for an eighty-eight-year-old man, the long-lost trumpet player walks in. Time to work.
It’s only a week until the listening session and, as it stands, the class is only wed to one piece—Nadav’s from the previous week. Evan figures they need maybe three more tunes. With this in mind they enter into a thrown-together version of the old standard, After You’ve Gone. They experiment with different arrangements for most of the next hour. Lukas suggests they try the intro with just the horns. It fizzles. “All right,” he says, “maybe with the whole band.”
This time the intro works, and they push forward. And after once through the chorus and then back to the intro, Lukas plays a sax feature that jumps into warp speed. But the drummer doesn’t travel with him. “Let’s do it again,” suggests Nadav. “The transition to the double time is like… bleeeehh.” Being ready for next week feels a long way off.
Evan remembers what was said in the phone conversation. But he doesn’t so much remember the time, date, place, or even the exact reason for it.
What he does remember is that he was scared for Chico, who was in the hospital. He thinks it was for a valve replacement, but he can’t be sure. The old man has been in and out of the hospital so many times in the past few years that it’s hard to separate the occasions.
There was the congestive heart failure. There was a hernia surgery. He developed cataracts, so doctors had to fix those. He’s had his pacemaker replaced multiple times. One of those times the surgery went well, but he had an adverse reaction to the antibiotic and almost died. He had an aneurism that had to be fixed. And then there was the stomach surgery. So pinpointing when in there the call happened is a little hard.
But Evan does remember the faintest, weakest voice he’s ever heard, Chico asking, “When’s the next rehearsal?”
Spring Semester, 2010
The performance hall at The New School is starting to fill. The atmosphere resembles something close to a celebration. Chatter fills the air and students filter hurriedly in and out of the double doors in the back of the room. Everyone enrolled in the school, while not all slated for this particular session, has been preparing for a session like it.
Even better, Chico Hamilton is back, sitting on stage, holding his briefcase with his cane across his lap. Students and professors walk up to the stage, shake his hand, and express how happy they are to see him again. They continue to say these things as he makes his way down off the stage and to the back of the room where the professors are sitting. Evan joins him.
“The first group is Professor Hamilton’s class,” says Mueller, who looks curiously like Steve Jobs. “The esteemed Dr. Chico Hamilton, our elder statesman here, assisted by Evan Schwam, who helped out for a few sessions.”
And with that briefest of introductions, Chico’s class jumps into the arrangement of After You’ve Gone that had given them so much trouble last week. As they start into the chorus, from his seat in the back row, Chico yells as loud as he can for Nadav, the bassist, to move from the center of the back to the front of stage right. Nadav doesn’t move.
They haven’t even reached the first solo section and Chico is walking—not shuffling—down the center aisle toward the stage. He has his cane in hand but he’s not using it to walk. His eyes are locked on Nadav. He reaches the front of the performance hall and, not shy about the fact that his ensemble is mid-song, he takes his cane and smacks the empty space on the stage where he wants Nadav to move. NOW.
So, as the ensemble continues playing, the bassist moves his set-up to the front row and jumps back in. As if admiring his achievement, Chico remains in the front of the room, leaning against a concrete pillar.
El Chico is back.
It’s December 15, nearly four years to the day since that night in SoHo when the crowd declined to dance, and the members of Euphoria are filtering into a venue, this time DROM, on the Lower East Side, just minutes past 5 p.m., for a sound check. “Hey Freddy,” shouts Jeremy from behind the drum kit. “Can I get a little less mic on the bass drum?”
The band—no, the “orchestra,” as Chico would have insisted—had wrapped production on an album in October. At ninety-two and too weak to play, Chico moved to the producer’s booth for that effort, and his lone recorded contribution to the album was a spoken-word poetry track.
This show is meant to support the album. But as fate would have it, tonight’s gig has become a kind of memorial service.
Chico Hamilton died in late November.
“This will be different,” Evan says. At Euphoria’s last concert, in early November, when Chico was down but not out, “In the back of our minds, we were thinking, ‘Is Chico gonna walk in?’ We know he’s not going to this time.”
As the sound check goes on, there’s talk of keeping things loose and changing them up at the last second, like Chico would have. And of how they’ll all pass the microphone around during the show, again, just like Chico had them do these past few years. Jeffery, the man from Indiana who served as Chico’s manager, recalls the final phone conversation they had, when Chico, from his hospital bed, insisted that Evan and Jeremy co-lead the group going forward.
Before long, the crowd filters in. Chico’s daughter, Denise, for so long his caretaker, has made it downtown from Chico’s Upper East Side penthouse and taken her seat beside the stage. Everyone speaks glowingly of her and she’ll playfully heckle the group all night. Numerous former sidemen wander in, too. It’s a reunion of sorts.
Jeremy starts the show in typical Chico fashion, so quiet it forces the audience to listen, and in the near silence I think on whether the old man ran out of time. Or if, maybe, he kept just enough.
I land on a conversation I had with Evan days after El Chico returned to class. It had been the first spring-like day of the year, and the sun shone brightly enough that Evan was wearing dark brown sunglasses when he walked into the East 50s bagel place where we’d agreed to meet. We took a pair of tables—one for his saxophones and one for us.
After months of wondering what was going to happen to the music of my youth, I was still searching for an answer. Just a few days earlier, I had learned that the youngest member of that close circle of musical friends from high school had decided to study law. I was still looking for any sign that jazz still lived. That Chico won.
And, listening to Evan, I held on to hope.
“I’ve been meditating a lot recently. And I’ve realized that I have a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “I am truly lucky. Every time we have a rehearsal or a gig, it’s just, ‘wow—I’m here.’ And I’ve been doing it for ten years.”
Eventually his sunglasses came off, and the bags under his eyes were easy to see. The previous night his own group—The Evan Schwam Trio—had played a gig in the West Village that ran from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. By splitting his time leading his own band, playing for Chico, and fitting a private-lesson business into the spaces between, I suggest that he has succeeded—that he’s living proof that it’s still possible to be a full-time jazz musician.
“I’ve never thought about it that way,” he says. “I really don’t try to think about it or categorize myself, but I guess you’re right. Chico always said, years ago, that someone once asked him who his heroes were. He said, ‘My hero is the guy who has a wife and kids and he’s a working jazz musician, trying to support his family.’ The more I think about it, that’s my hero. Because that means it’s a true labor of love. He’s doing what he loves. And he’s trying.”
So in a day and age when jazz is supposed to be dying off with the last members of its Golden Age, yet people are still trying, I asked Evan when was the last time he had played in front of a crowd that danced. And the same smirk that had crept across his face in class when he heard the name “Chico-lico,” appeared again.
“Last night,” he says.