Lionel Leo Hampton (April 20, 1908 – August 31, 2002), known as Lionel Hampton or simply “Hamp,” was an African-American jazz musician who brilliantly performed as a bandleader, a drummer and, most importantly, as a vibraphone virtuoso. Hampton was also an unconventional pianist and a singer.
"Hamp" ranks among the great names in jazz history, having worked with a who's who of jazz musicians, from Benny Goodman to Buddy Rich to Charlie Parker and Quincy Jones. Above all, Lionel Hampton was the man who defined the vibraphone (also vibraharp or simply vibes) as a jazz instrument. In classic jazz, no other musician came close to being his equal in fame on that instrument. Only Milt Jackson in modern jazz has a comparable stature. Hampton’s name was synonymous with swing, energy, versatility, and inventiveness. He was able to produce music of original beauty with a recently invented instrument that remained relatively underused throughout the jazz age.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hampton moved to Chicago as a child and began his career as a drummer. He relocated to Los Angeles to play drums in Les Hite's band. They soon became the house band for Frank Sebastian's New Cotton Club, a popular Los Angeles jazz club.
During a 1930 recording date in the NBC studios in Los Angeles, Louis Armstrong discovered a vibraphone (similar to a xylophone, but with metal bars and a tremolo mechanism). He asked Hampton if he could play it. Hampton, who knew how to play the xylophone, tried it and they agreed to record a few records with Hamp on vibes in addition to the drums. "Memories of You" (1930) and “Shine” (1931) remain as two masterpieces, the former featuring Hamp as a soloist and the second including his atmospheric playing behind Armstrong’s singing.
In the mid-1930s, the Benny Goodman Orchestra came to Los Angeles to play the Palomar Ballroom. John Hammond brought Goodman to see Hampton play. Goodman asked Hampton to join the Benny Goodman Trio, made up of Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, expanding it into the Benny Goodman Quartet, which Goodman led besides his big band. The Trio and Quartet were among the first racially integrated jazz groups to record and play before wide audiences; they were as well received at Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert as the full Goodman band. Recordings of the Quartet that prominently feature Hampton’s talent include “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Avalon,” and “Dizzy Spells.” The distinguished, chamber music style of the Goodman trio was given an additional impetus by the arrival of Hampton’s exuberant virtuosity, his occasional singing and vocal interjections. Along with drummer Krupa’s own showmanship, Hampton created a counterpart to the sophisticated elegance of Wilson and Goodman.
Among Hampton’s greatest legacies and among classic jazz’s most accomplished achievements are a number of small combo recordings led by Hampton beginning in 1937 (while still with Benny Goodman) and into the early 1940s. These recordings feature the greatest stars of the time, including members of the Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman orchestras. Among the top names we find Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Cootie Williams, Harry James, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, and Hershel Evans.
After leaving Goodman in 1940, Hampton began leading his own permanent band. Uncharacteristically beginning its course towards the end of the big band era, the Hampton orchestra gradually moved from classic swing to a style influenced by be-bop, while at the same time announcing the advent of rock and roll.
Hampton's band fostered the talents of Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Ernie Royal, Jack McVea, Charlie Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Quincy Jones, Benny Golson, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Joe Williams, Aretha Franklin, Arnett Cobb, and Earl Bostic among many others.
Hampton's 1942 recording of "Flying Home" with Illinois Jacquet's famous honking tenor sax solo, later refined and expanded by Cobb in 1946, is sometimes deemed the first rock and roll record and remained as Hampton’s perennial theme song. Quincy Jones once stated that Hampton was like a rock and roll musician in that "Hamp would go for the throat every night and the people would freak out." While incorporating new elements, Hampton’s music never strayed far away from its roots in swing and blues.
Hampton continued leading large and small formations into the third millennium and well into his 1990s. He had several reunions with Benny Goodman’s initial Quartet, notably at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. He served as a goodwill ambassador for the United States and performed around the globe.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Hampton and his band started playing at the University of Idaho's jazz concert, which in 1985 was renamed the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. In 1987, the University's music school was renamed the Lionel Hampton School of Music, the first and only university music school to be named for a jazz musician.
Hampton also received numerous honorary doctorates for his achievements. Hampton was a Republican and he offered a 1974 concert at a private “Forgive, Love, Unite” event in Washington D.C. during the Watergate crisis.
His wife Gladys was his manager throughout much of his career. Many musicians recall that Lionel ran the music and Gladys ran the business. Hampton also used his commercial success (he founded two record labels) to create low-income housing.
Hampton was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity established for African Americans.
One the few jazz musicians to reach a high age, Lionel Hampton died at 94 from congestive heart failure in New York City and is interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York, the final resting place of other jazz greats.
Hampton is known as the first real jazz vibraphone player, and one of a small handful of important stylists on the instrument. In fact, Red Norvo slightly preceded him in the use of the vibraphone, but during most of his career he mainly played the xylophone. Thus, (with the partial exception of Red Norvo), Hampton had a near monopoly on the instrument until the advent of modern jazz and the arrival of Milt Jackson, though musicians like trombonist Tyree Glenn and bass saxophone player Adrian Rollini also doubled occasionally on vibraphone.
Hampton virtually created the vibraphone by expanding its potential as a jazz instrument and giving it its unique voice and he is rightly credited with popularizing it as a jazz instrument. Hampton’s four-mallet technique was astounding both in terms of musical performance and in terms of showmanship. He was able to make the instrument’s unique character stand out in any performance, without making it sound cheap or metallic. Hampton would produce long, lightning-fast melodic patterns without ever losing his balance. At times, he would also play complex chords (as allowed by his four-mallet technique) and he could play soft ballads equally well.
Along with his near contemporary, alto-saxophone player Benny Carter, who similarly lived and performed into his mid-1990s, Hampton is perhaps the most important multi-instrumentalist of jazz.
Hampton was first and foremost a vibraharpist, he actually started his career on drums and remained one of the main jazz drummers of the swing era, though he gradually abandoned it as his main instrument. He also had a trademark on the drums of displaying acrobatics with his sticks. Sometimes he would juggle, flip, and twirl as many as five-six drumsticks and still play without missing a beat.
If Hampton was known for his tireless energy and skill on the vibes and drums, he was equally amazing as a two-fingered pianist. The bars on the vibraphone are laid out like the piano; Hampton played both instruments in the same way, while another pianist would play the left hand part on piano. "Hamp's Boogie-Woogie" is the best known of his piano recordings, but there are many others.
In addition to his instrumental skills, Hampton could also sing. His was not a bouncing voice, but it had all the charm, energy and humorous qualities of his playing. When in the midst of a particularly fast and energy-laden solo by himself or another musician, he would often punctuate the music by an intense “heah, heah, heah” and similar sounds.
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