Lionel Hampton, 1908–2002

After 75 Years Onstage, a Well-Earned Rest

He worked with Goodman's small group through 1940, by which time Victor chose him to lead a series of all-star recordings to rival those that Wilson was making for Brunswick. Though Wilson's records became known for Billie Holiday's vocals, both men relied on the big bands as talent stables. Like field marshals assessing available troops, they recruited the best players from the bands of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Calloway, Hines, and others for mostly impromptu sessions. Just as the Wilsons reflected the gentility of the leader, the Hamptons were bound to his volatile energy and peerless swing. Unfortunately, his producers endorsed showboating and faddish indulgences. More than half of the 90-plus tracks are weighted down with vocals, only a few of which are engaging (his reading of "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" is a knowing elaboration on the way George Thomas sang it with McKinney's Cotton Pickers) or given over to his piano stomps, some of which are mesmerizing—like "Wizzin' the Wiz" and "Rock Hill Special." What's left is an unfurling of masterworks.

These records are justifiably celebrated for the contributions of Hampton's guests. The rundown is pretty amazing: Johnny Hodges's original reading of "Sunny Side of the Streets," Chu Berry's volcanic womb-to-tomb work on "Sweethearts on Parade," Coleman Hawkins's rhapsodic solo and Charlie Christian's chordal obbligato on "One Sweet Letter From You," Buster Bailey's nod to Jimmy Noone on "I Know," not to mention the aforementioned "When Lights are Low" date, arranged by Benny Carter—plus significant work by Gillespie, Milt Hinton and Cozy Cole, Sid Catlett, Nat Cole, Budd Johnson, Herschel Evans, Ben Webster, Rex Stewart, Harry James, Ed Hall, Cootie Williams, and a lot more. Yet at his best, Hampton is equal to any of them. His melodic finesse is exemplary on "I Surrender Dear," his two choruses constructed on riff patterns that develop one to the next, powered with displaced accents and embellished in the second chorus by melodic bytes until a double-time passage dispels the mood. The single-minded deliberateness of that solo combines the watery flow of Lester Young with the cathedral might of Armstrong. On "Memories of You," he tracks a single motive—an inversion of the tune—through logical and decisive variations.

Bent on entertaining
photo: Jack Vartoogian
Bent on entertaining

Of course, it will be these records and not his predictive role in rock nor his stage antics that will be most remembered. His jazz albums for Verve and other labels will continue to enjoy reissues, while his stupefying lounge albums for Brunswick have already disappeared from memory. On the other hand, it's no small achievement to monitor the pulse of musical fashion for nearly 75 years and ride it cowboy-like despite every twist and bounce. If he was ahead of the curve in the '20s, '30s, and '40s, he strutted alongside it it in the decades that followed, never really falling behind—as secure and eager with Chick Corea as with Hank Jones. Nothing musical fazed him. His willingness to extemporize at the drop of anybody's downbeat suggested a talent so natural as to be elemental, but his ear was acute enough to see him through every harmonic labyrinth. Think of another career as long and ardent and constant. You can't—there isn't any.

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