Living legend Lionel Hampton

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Date: Mar. 1990
From: Saturday Evening Post(Vol. 262, Issue 2)
Publisher: Saturday Evening Post Society
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,083 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Died: August 31, 2002 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Vibraphone player
Other Names: Hampton, Lionel Leo; Hamp; King of Vibes
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After 60 years in the big band business, the "U.S. president of vibes" is putting his money where his heart is--endowing schools of music and erecting homes for low-income families.

One night in 1936, Benny Goodman took a tip from his brother-in-law, a jazz critic, and joined the audience at the Paradise Night Club, a little beer garden in Los Angeles. The noted attraction was a hot young jazz artist named Lionel Hampton, who had created quite a stir doing incredible things with an exciting new instrument called a vibraharp.

After listening for half an hour, Goodman, who had just happened to bring his clarinet, came up to the stage and said, "I'd like to sit in."

The place was supposed to close at 3:00 a.m. But Hampton's band, augmented by the "King of Swing," jammed until 5:00 a.m.

A day and a half later, Goodman invited Hampton to come, down to RCA's studio and cut a record with a drummer by the name of Gene Krupa, the pianist Teddy Wilson, and Goodman himself. This was the beginning of the swinging Goodman Quartet. After several records, including the two big hits "Moonglow" and "Dinah," Lionel Hampton became a featured member of the legendary Benny Goodman band--one of the first black musicians to play with an otherwise-white band. Although Hampton's career by this time had already left the launching pad, it was now in orbit.

In Hamp: An Autobiography, the jazz master, now 81, recalls his introduction to another musician destined to become a fellow giant in the world of jazz. Through his uncle's frequent hot Jazz Age soirees in Chicago, young Hamp met the most popular cats of the day, including Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Biederbecke, Mugsy Spanier, and Joe "King" Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band, to name just a few. He remembers best, however, the night Uncle Richard brought around a young unknown trumpet player named Louis Armstrong. What Hamp didn't know at this time was what a difference the two were to make in the popularity of jazz.

It is quite possible that Lionel Hampton began beating out rhythm with a rattle on the rails of his crib in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was born. Thirty years later, his unique style on the drums landed him a job with the Cotton Club band at the handsome salary of $90 a week under contract. And what a drummer he was. The tap dancers who came on the floor didn't even need taps on their shoes--Hamp made all the right taps for them on the drums. After Hamp performed this service for a tap dancer named Bo Didley, Bo began finishing his performances actually standing on his head while Hamp made the taps on the drums.

The owner of the club, Frank Sebastian, liked this kind of novelty so well that he came up with the idea of having a second set of drums brought to the dance floor while the popular young drummer was performing his solo. Then the band would start playing "Tiger Rag," and Hamp would suddenly run to the other set and begin running around the drums and throwing his sticks into the air. The band would point their instruments like guns, and the crowd would yell, "Where's the tiger?" while Hamp screamed as if the tiger had its teeth in him. At the finish, Hamp would jump on the drums for safety.

"I loved doing those antics," he confesses. "To me it was showmanship, and I have always been Mr. Showmanship."

It wasn't long before the band became billed as Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra. Armstrong took a special liking to the way Hamp could play the drums and the bells and to Hamp's ability to mimic all Louis' solos. Hamp told Armstrong how he used to walk the wintry avenues to catch laryngitis so he could sing in Armstrong's unmistakable style.

When Louis Armstrong went to Hollywood to make the movie Pennies from Heaven with Bing Crosby, Lionel Hampton was the masked drummer in the band under Louis' direction. Concerts, live radio broadcasts, and recordings soon followed, including such hits as "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy" and "Body and Soul."

Hampton always carried fond memories of Louis Armstrong. Years later, the two jazz greats, while at the San Remo Song Festival in Italy, were invited to a special audience with Pope Paul I. Both were awarded the Papal Medal for bringing joy and happiness to the world with their music. Afterward, the pope asked them to be his guests on a tour of the Vatican Gardens and the Sistine Chapel. Looking at the pope, Louis said, "Maybe next time, Pops." (He called everybody pops, Hamp says.) "I have got a plane to catch."

"We all left after that," Hamp says.

Although madly in love with his music and dedicated to his career, Lionel Hampton couldn't resist a "beautiful, tall, light-complected, part-Indian girl" he had first met at a party his band had played for. She was a career woman who worked as a seamstress for the movie studios, with such stars as Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. Gladys would become his wife, occasionally the singer for his band, his mentor, his manager, and his astute business partner.

Gladys soon decided Hamp shouldn't be running around the stage pretending to be bitten by a tiger. Gladys also thought he should be better paid. She controlled the purse strings, leaving Hamp his daily allowance on the bureau. It was Gladys who urged Hamp to form his own band and who helped him parlay his talent into a multimusic empire of recordings, music publishing, and performing, not to mention a lucrative real-estate and business portfolio.

After Glady's death from a heart attack in 1971, Lionel felt that half his life had passed away with her. In a way, Hampton continues to feel so to this day. He sought solace in philanthropic projects. His first thought was for a school of music in Harlem, and he talked about it to anyone who would listen. But one influential listener told him, "Yes, we need your university. But more than that we need housing."

The Lionel Hampton Houses of 355 apartments now adorn Eighth Avenue and 131st Street. Soon after this $13 million complex was opened to moderate- to low-income families, the 205 low-income units of the Gladys Hampton Houses hit the drawing board. The proceeds from both projects went into the Lionel and Gladys Hampton Scholarship Fund.

Hamp set up music scholarships at the University of Southern California, Duke University, and several other schools. "I was doing formally what I have always done professionally--teaching young musicians," he says. Quincy Jones even took out an ad in Jazz Times saluting Hamp: "If it hadn't started with you--I wouldn't be nothin'."

Of all the honors, the honorary degrees, the awards, the recognition by presidents and royalty, Lionel Hampton is proudest, perhaps, of his efforts in setting up a Jazz Festival Endowment Fund at the University of Idaho. The school had been hosting its jazz festival for almost 20 years, but this fund--which Chevron also helped get off the ground--was to make sure they would continue. The school thanked both participants by renaming the affair the University of Idaho Lionel Hampton-Chevron Jazz Festival.

In 1987 the University of Idaho gave him an additional honor when the U of I president, Richard D. Gibb, announced that the university was renaming its music school. The proclamation, which Hampton has included in his autobiography, reads in part: "Whereas, Lionel Hampton, a Goodwill Ambassador for the United States of America, has done more for the understanding of all nations than perhaps any other human being...and through his steadfast dedication to making jazz and through his infectious enthusiasm and profound sincerity for his art has made a unique contribution to American music, and one to be cherished...the University of Idaho School of Music is hereby proclaimed--the Lionel Hampton School of Music."

"That was a proud day for me," Hamp says. "That was a great school, with 25 full-time and 8 part-time faculty, and a bunch of talented, dedicated students. Still is a great school. I give American jazz history workshops there regularly, and I've had guys in my band out of the University of Idaho. I always did like Idaho, and I'm pleased to have such an important reason to go back there a lot." Lionel Hampton has also named the University of Idaho to one day receive his extensive library, both letters and music, his musical instruments, and all his memorabilia.

Besides accepting honors and throwing himself into humanitarian works, Lionel Hampton maintains a playing schedule that would make a younger man consider a rest home. Besides 32 engagements in the United States from New York to New Orleans and New Jersey to California, there was also--in a matter of just over three months--a 15-day gig in France and a 10-day musicians' excursion to Tokyo, Japan.

At 81 years young, Hamp still cavorts about the stage like some neophyte trouper trying to impress his first paying customers. He is always smiling, enjoying his own playing as well as that of the others, and expressing that pleasure by "yeah-ing" whenever the spirit moves him. He still plays the vibes, drums, and piano, and sings as only he can.

"I keep contemporary. Go to one of my concerts and you'll hear the latest popular songs as well as the latest jazz tunes," Hamp says. And for all his years, Lionel Hampton is still an innovator. "I did some stuff on the vibes last night so wild it scared me," he says.

It appears, as it always has appeared, that if you want excitement, Lionel Hampton has it to spare. One reviewer captured that spirit best when he noted, "He seems to have invented energy."

When the jazz genius turned 80 in 1988, a 75th birthday celebration was held for him at Town Hall, with Bill Cosby as host. Seems that Hamp had been giving out his birth date as April 20, 1913. "But when you get to my age," he says, "five years one way or the other doesn't make much difference. To me the most important thing was how I felt, and believe me, I felt a lot younger than my years. The secret is keeping busy, and loving what you do."

PHOTO : First, the man became a musician, the musician became a celebrity, and the celebrity

PHOTO : became a legend. Finally, when the appeal of the music and the qualities of the man had

PHOTO : transcended fame, Lionel Hampton became an institution: The Lionel Hampton School of Music

PHOTO : on the campus of the University of Idaho. Today, 250 music majors, 24 faculty, and the

PHOTO : annual Lionel Hampton-Chevron Jazz Festival carry on the Hampton tradition.

PHOTO : Lionel's wife, Gladys, bought him his first set of vibes in the early 1940s. Since then,

PHOTO : Lionel has given many an instrument to encourage youngsters in music. After Gladys died

PHOTO : in 1971, he built a housing development in Harlem in her memory. Many believe it was her

PHOTO : inspiration and that of his grandmother that created in him a philanthropist's heart for

PHOTO : helping others.

PHOTO : A lifelong supporter of St. Rita's parish in Indianapolis, Lionel called the tune in five

PHOTO : benefit concerts to finance a new parish school in 1964. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen heard that

PHOTO : kindred spirit when he keynoted the dedication ceremonies.

PHOTO : Lionel has always felt a keen sense of responsibility to aspiring musicians, even the

PHOTO : youngest. In the 1950s, Lionel was always a welcome visitor to Mrs. Duval's music class at

PHOTO : St. Rita's school in Indianapolis.

PHOTO : Sisters at St. Rita's parish school posed here with a young Lionel Hampton (center) and

PHOTO : the bright-eyed children whose lives he would enrich. His benefit concerts poured

PHOTO : lifeblood into this needy Indianapolis parish, which now, thanks to him, includes a

PHOTO : school, rectory, day-care center, and convent.

PHOTO : Lionel stopped by campaign headquarters, where another world-class talent, the boxing

PHOTO : great Joe Louis, was fighting for Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential election. But

PHOTO : Lionel's sympathies were in the other corner. An Eisenhower supporter, he was invited to

PHOTO : play at the Presidential Inaugural Ball the following January.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A8810909