Jazz vibraphonist, drummer, and bandleader Lionel Hampton died in New York, Saturday, August 31. He was 94 years old. A dedicated ambassador of jazz, Hampton performed with hundreds of musicians, taking his bands to the all parts of the world.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1908, Lionel Hampton was drawn to the thumping of drums and crashing of cymbals at an early age. During his teens, he moved with his family to Chicago where he joined his first band, The Chicago Defender Newsboys' Band. He worked hard to perfect his craft, and before his 20th birthday, he added the tympani, marimba and xylophone to his repertoire.
In the late-1920s, he left Chicago and performed with dozens of traveling bands. He first recorded with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, and later as a sideman with the Les Hite Band. It was in Hite's ensemble that Hampton made his first recording on the vibraharp, an amplified xylophone. Hampton said his first try at the vibraharp made a lasting impression on the band's frontman, trumpeter Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.
"I never played it before but I knew it had the same keyboards as the xylophone. And I moved them out into the middle of the floor and I started playing one of the solos that I got off of one of his [Armstrong's] records. And this knocked him out so [much] that he said, 'Oh man! Let's keep this in.' He said, 'Come on and record on this next number.' And the name of the song was called Memories Of You."
Lionel Hampton with Andy Razaf and Eubie Blake's composition, Memories Of You, the first jazz recording to feature the vibraharp. Hampton continued to make history when he joined Benny Goodman's small combo in 1936. It was the first time that blacks and whites performed together in a major musical group. Hampton said it was an exciting time in jazz.
"It was a time when the blacks came up with their music, Dixieland and honky tonk, or whatever you want to call it, and it finally ended up into swing. This was theirs. Then the white [musicians] were playing Easter Bonnet. That was their sound in music. But they found that this music was getting so exciting, and that people liked this jazz, that they started playing it too," he said.
Vintage jazz recordings prove that Lionel Hampton's musical talent was not limited to the vibraharp. He displayed a percussive two-finger piano style on Twelfth Street Rag, as well as skillful drumming on Jack The Bellboy. His spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing enlivened many concerts. Hampton admitted that he loved being an all-around showman.
"Oh boy, I used to do some crazy things! On my tom tom, we did a bit on Flying Home, and when I used to make that big beat, I'd jump on the tom tom. And then when I was on there, for the next eight bars, I'd be dancing until we'd be ready to go out [to end]. It was just like that. It was all done in fun and all done, really, in the expression of my feeling. And my feeling was good," he said.
Lionel Hampton was known for making others feel good. Beginning in the early-1950s, he took his bands on numerous goodwill tours of Europe, Japan, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. He performed for royalty in London, as well as for presidents at the White House.
President Bill Clinton presented Hampton with the National Medal of the Arts in 1996. Hampton's 1998 performance at the White House in honor of his 90th birthday included a duet with President Clinton, who played the saxophone.
In addition to a never-ending schedule of tours, he was the founder and director of the Lionel Hampton School of Jazz in Utah. The University of Idaho's music school is named for Hampton, and is the site of the annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
Many will remember him for his 1939 collaboration with Sid Robbin and Benny Goodman on Flying Home, that became Hampton's signature song at jazz festivals and concerts around the world. Lionel Hampton dead at age 94.