Leader of the most durable and perhaps best-loved of all the big bands, Lionel Hampton was a contributor to one of swing music's peak experiences--the heyday of the Benny Goodman Quartet in the late 1930s--and, until his death in 2002, remained a consummate entertainer and infectiously enthusiastic jazz ambassador. Hampton played an unusual instrument, the vibraphone, but with Goodman and later with his own big band he helped to define a jazz mainstream that endured for decades.
Played in Newsboys' Jazz Band
Hampton was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 20, 1908. There is confusion about both the day and year of his birth; the date given here accords with Hampton's autobiography, Hamp. His father was declared missing in action in World War I but survived to meet his son years later in a Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dayton, Ohio; his mother moved the family to Birmingham, Alabama, and then north to Chicago, Illinois. An energetic child with an obstreperous flair for percussion, Hampton was sent to a Catholic school, the Holy Rosary Academy in Collins, Wisconsin, near Kenosha. One of the Dominican nuns there, Sister Petra, was also a drum virtuosa. Hampton recalled in his autobiography, "She taught me the 26 rudiments on drums--drums have a scale just like the horn. She taught me the flammercue and 'Mama-Daddy' and all that stuff on the drums."
After Holy Rosary folded for lack of funds, Hampton returned to Chicago and enrolled at St. Monica's School. He took a job delivering the Chicago Defender so he could play in the jazz band organized by the paper's newsboys, and studied classical music under the band's director, Major N. Clark Smith. Hampton was given a marimba as a gift by his uncle, Richard Morgan, a musically savvy bootlegger with ties to Al Capone. The marimba might have made possible Hampton's later facility with the vibraphone, but at this time he had his sights set on becoming a drummer.
Hampton headed for Los Angeles, where he played drums and made recordings with various bands, and, at the urging of his manager (and later his wife), Gladys Riddle, enrolled in extension courses at the University of Southern California, where he could finish high school and study music theory. Recording with Louis Armstrong in 1930, he discovered a vibraphone in the studio and quickly mastered the instrument (his wife may have given him a set of vibes somewhat earlier); the solo that resulted on "Memories of You" was the first jazz vibraphone solo.
Joined Benny Goodman Quartet
By 1936 Hampton was a resident bandleader at the Paradise Café in Los Angeles. One August night, Benny Goodman, the unparalleled king of the jazz world at that time, walked in and joined Hampton on-stage and then invited him to join a quartet that the bandleader was forming. The immensely successful and influential Benny Goodman Quartet made its first recordings on April 19, 1936; Hampton was so excited by the prospect that he could fall asleep only at seven that morning and had to be awakened as the 11 a.m. recording time slipped by. Hampton had been recommended to Goodman by jazz entrepreneur and talent-spotter John Hammond, who would have realized that he was proposing something almost unprecedented at the time--an integrated jazz band.
Hampton and his wife drove across the country to join Goodman and his orchestra in New York. At first, Hampton and black pianist Teddy Wilson were relegated to intermission slots, but recordings by the quartet (Hampton, drummer Gene Krupa, Wilson on piano, and Goodman on clarinet) sold well, and bit by bit the color barrier came down. "I think we opened the door for interracial baseball in a way," Hampton claimed in a 1994 essay he penned for Entertainment Weekly. "I think the public acceptance of our mixed band trickled out and helped let blacks like Jackie Robinson play for the white Dodgers."
RCA gave him carte blanche to organize his own recording dates during this period, and in 1940, with Goodman's blessing, Hampton decided to assert his independence and start his own big band. This band, initially comprised of unknowns, thrived on showmanship and rhythmic drive. Its biggest hit was 1942's "Flying Home," which the writers of Jazz: The Essential Companion described in this way: "[It] clearly established his formula: high energy, screaming brass, rhythmic trademarks which could drive an audience to fever pitch." In addition to "Flying Home," other Hampton tunes such as "Down Home Jump" and "Hey Ba-ba-rebop" were based on distinct rhythmic figures that could inspire strong audience reaction.
Fostered Careers of Young Jazz Players
Jazz players who passed through Hampton's band on their way to stardom included Charles Mingus, Art Farmer, Joe Newman, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Lee Young, Clark Terry, Joe Williams, and Dinah Washington. Hampton had a reputation as a disciplinarian, acting as a counterweight to some of the drug-fueled excesses that took hold in the jazz scene after the war. The band was known for continuing individual numbers until each soloist had improvised to the point of exhaustion; Hampton on occasion would also entertain audiences by playing the piano using only two fingers in the manner of vibraphone mallets. "They used to criticize my band and say, ''Here comes the circus.' And now all of them do it. As soon as they start singing, they're walking around the stage, they're sitting on the steps, they're singing out in the audience. And all that jive came from us," Hampton recalled in a 1995 conversation with percussionist Tito Puente published in Down Beat.
Hampton was known among many for his association with the institution of the "goodwill tour," a venture intended to introduce jazz, and the best of things American generally, to audiences abroad. A longtime fixture at Republican Party political conventions, Hampton met with great success and veneration during his later years. Although he maintained his big band longer than most other bandleaders, by the mid-1960s it had often given way to a smaller group known as The Inner Circle. Always guided by his wife and longtime business manager, Hampton established his own record label, Glad-Hamp, which notched an impressive track record of identifying and promoting young jazz talent.
Hampton was also an active participant in politics. The lifelong Republican actively campaigned for such politicians as Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. In 1964, however, he crossed party lines to support Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson. "I may be a Republican, but I'm first an American," Hampton explained in his autobiography, "and I though what President Johnson was doing was good for the country. ... Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and said, 'We shall overcome,' and he was the man I wanted to support."
Continued to Perform After Strokes
In 1995 Hampton suffered two mild strokes within months of each other. He recovered well, but needed to use a wheelchair or a cane to get around. This did not stop him from performing regularly, however. Down Beat observed of Hampton, playing at the 32nd Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, in 1999, "Although a stroke has taken away some of Hamp's playing ability, the 89-year-old vibrist is the strongest presence at the festival. ... Hamp's indelible charisma transformed this tiny town of 18,000 into the center of the jazz universe."
In January of 1997 a halogen lamp tipped over in Hampton's Manhattan apartment, igniting a fire that destroyed his vintage record collection, his musical instruments, and his collected correspondence, among other valued personal items. Rescued by two attendants working in his apartment at the time, Hampton was uninjured.
Just weeks later, in Washington, DC, Hampton was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. "We're glad to see Lionel Hampton here safe and sound," Clinton was quoted as saying in Jet. The former president also referred to Hampton as, according to Jet, "a lion of American music, and he still makes the vibraphone sing."
The king of the jazz jungle died on August 31, 2002, after suffering a heart attack. Although Hampton would no longer make the vibraphone sing, the University of Idaho in Moscow opened the Lionel Hampton School of Music and hosted the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. The university also houses Hampton's papers and photographs within its International Jazz Collections. Hampton was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1984 was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.
Born on April 20, 1908 (some sources give 1909 or later), in Louisville, KY; died on August 31, 2002, in Manhattan, NY; son of Charles Hampton and Gertrude Morgan Hampton; married Gladys Riddle, November 11, 1936 (died 1971) Education: Took extension courses to finish high school and study music theory at University of Southern California.
Vibraphonist, 1920s-2002; Paradise Café, bandleader, 1930s; Benny Goodman Quartet member, 1936-40; Hampton's Big Band, bandleader and vibraphonist, 1940-mid-1960s; touring performer, mid-1960s-2002.
Papal Medal, presented by Pope Paul VI, 1968; Medal of the City of Paris, France, 1985; Lifetime Achievement Award, Ebony, 1989; Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992; National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton, 1997; has also received honors from Presidents Truman to George H.W. Bush.
- Just Jazz, MCA, 1947.
- Reunion at Newport, RCA, 1967.
- Live at the Metropole Café, Hindsight, 1989.
- I'm in the Mood for Swing, Living Era, 1992.
- Flyin' Home and Other Showstopping Favorites, CEMA, 1992.
- The Complete Lionel Hampton, vols. 1 and 2, RCA, 1993.
- Midnight Sun (1946-47), Decca Jazz, 1993.
- Greatest Hits, RCA, 1996.
- Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings, Decca Jazz, 1996.
- Also recorded frequently with the Benny Goodman Quartet for RCA, 1936-40; reissues are available.
- Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall, 1987.
- Case, Brian, and Stan Britt, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, Harmony, 1978.
- Contemporary Musicians, Volume 6, Gale Research, 1994.
- Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982.
- Hampton, Lionel, with James Haskins, Hamp: An Autobiography, Warner, 1989.
- The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz, ed. Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.
- Noteable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1998.
- Simon, George T., and others, The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979. Southern.
- Down Beat, July 1994; November 1995; May 1999; May 2003.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 29, 1994; September 13, 2002.
- Jet, January 27, 1997.
- New York Times Book Review, December 3, 1989.
- Washington Post, January 4, 1990; January 10, 1997.
- "Lionel Hampton," IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0359019/bio (January 16, 2012).
- "Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival," University of Idaho, http://www.uidaho.edu/jazzfest (January 16, 2012).