by Rick Mattingly
"Lionel Hampton inspired me to play the vibraphone," said Milt Jackson, the innovative vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. "He was the first one of note to play it, but more important, I liked how dynamic he was. And the way he blended with groups and the way he played in front of a band were inspirational."
Although Lionel Hampton wasn't the first to play the vibraphone -- that honor goes to Red Norvo -- "Hamp" is generally credited as the one who brought vibes to the public's attention through a combination of musicianship and showmanship. "I always think of Hamp as the guy who really got us established," said vibist Gary Burton in a 1999 Percussive Notes interview.
Hampton was born on April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. After his father was killed in World War I, Lionel and his mother moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where Hampton first played drums in a Holiness church. The Hamptons then moved north, and Lionel played drums in a fife-and-drum band while attending Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was a school for black and Native American children. Later, in Chicago, Lionel played drums in the Chicago Defender Newspaper Boys Band, which is where he began playing xylophone and marimba. "I worked hard learning harmony and theory when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1920s," Hampton once recalled in an interview.
He began his professional career as a drummer, going on the road with such bandleaders as Detroit Shannon and Les Hite before settling in Los Angeles in 1927, where he worked with Curtis Mosby's Blues Blowers and Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, with whom he recorded in 1929 as a drummer, singer and pianist. Hampton then played drums in the house band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, which was led at different times by Les Hite, Louis Armstrong and Buck Clayton.
During a 1930 recording session with Armstrong, Hampton first played vibraphone. "There was a set of vibes in the corner," Hampton recalled. "Louis said, 'Do you know how to play it?' I said, 'Yeah, I can play it.' It had the same keyboard as the xylophone, and I was familiar with that." Lionel proceeded to play vibes behind Armstrong on the tune "Memories of You." Armstrong encouraged Hampton to pursue vibes playing.
Hampton took Armstrong's advice and soon became a well-known vibraphonist, particularly through his work at the Paradise Club in Los Angeles. One night, clarinetist Benny Goodman, pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa heard Hampton's band at the Paradise and invited Hampton to record with them. Subsequently, Hampton joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
"Working with Benny was important for me and for black musicians in general," Hampton once said. "Black and white players hadn't appeared together in public before Teddy Wilson and I began working with B.G. I feel honored to have been a part of that dramatic change."
A year later, RCA Victor invited Hampton to record under his own name, and he hired such musicians for his sessions as Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Charlie Christian. In 1940, Hampton assembled his own big band, whose members included at various times Shadow Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Joe Newman, Earl Bostic, Milt Buckner, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Cat Anderson, Johnny Griffin, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Benny Powell, and the singers Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Betty Carter. In 1942 the band scored a hit with their recording of Hampton's composition "Flying Home." Hampton is credited as the first big band leader to use organ and electric bass in his group.
Hampton continued leading a band for the next several decades. His bands had the distinction of being respected by jazz musicians as well as being popular with the public at large. Hampton's riff-based music even had some success on rock stations in the early 1950s and he appeared in a movie with rock 'n' roll disc jockey Alan Freed.
Many musicians tell stories about how Hampton encouraged them. "I saw Hampton when I was about 12 years old," Gary Burton remembered. "He was playing at the Evansville (Indiana) Armory for a dance. Since I couldn't go in the evening when they would be serving alcohol, my father took me down there in the afternoon, thinking we might run into the band. Sure enough, they were doing a soundcheck and setup. My father told Hamp that I played the vibraphone, and Hamp was really gracious. He asked me to play, so I played a standard tune or blues in F or whatever, and Hamp had the band join in and play with me."
Hampton also became involved with politics and community activities. He underwrote low-income housing in Harlem (the Gladys Hampton House, named for his wife) and Newark, New Jersey. He also campaigned for a variety of Republicans including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
In 1984, Hampton was elected to the PAS Hall of Fame. The following year, the University of Idaho established the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and in 1987 the same university established the Lionel Hampton School of Music, which was intended to house Hampton's scores, recordings and memorabilia. But much of that material was lost when a fire destroyed Hampton's New York apartment in 1997.
By 1995, Hampton was confined to a wheelchair as the result of two strokes, but he continued to perform, often playing with just a single mallet. Ludwig/Musser marketing manager Jim Catalano recalls seeing Hampton in 2001 at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho. "What an event," Catalano said. "Several thousand kids participate and they bring in the top jazz artists from around the world to perform. Even at the age of 93, Lionel was able to play his famous 'Midnight Sun' along with his jazz orchestra."
In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Hampton with the National Medal of Arts. In 2001, Musser introduced a new vibraphone as a tribute to Hampton: a Musser Century Vibe with special gold bars and resonators on a furniture-quality wooden frame. In 2002, Hampton was honored at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame ceremony with the Governor's Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Playing is my way of thinking, talking, communicating," Hampton told Modern Drummer magazine writer Burt Korall in 1988. "I've always been crazy about playing. Every day I look forward to getting with my instruments, trying new things. Playing gives me as much good feeling now as it did when I was a bitty kid. I think I love it more as I get older because I keep getting better on drums, vibes and piano."
Lionel Hampton died of heart failure on August 31, 2002. His wife, Gladys, died in 1971, and he had no children.
For more information, visit the University of Idaho's Lionel Hampton web pages.