When anybody asks what I did in the War on Christmas, I can say that in addition to humbugging along as usual to such seasonal-affective disorder classics as the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” this year I also made merry to “Gin for Christmas” from The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941, a five-CD box released too late to make it into most year-end roundups—2007’s last-minute gift, if you will.

Taking off from the already-hoary-by-1939 “Bugle Call Rag,” “Gin for Christmas” is one of this collection’s many novelty items featuring Hampton on an instrument other than vibraphone, the motorized melodo/percussive hybrid he’d wheeled into jazz on Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Memories of You” nine years earlier. Trolling vintage teen magazines for a profile I was doing of a resurgent American Bandstand–era doo-wop singer some years ago, I came across an article on Don Grady, a/k/a Robbie on My Three Sons, which reported that the thespian dreamboat was also a musical wiz able to “strum a uke,” “finger a mean bull fiddle,” and “flog the skins until they yelp for help.” Though “skins” were Hampton’s first instrument, for all his innate musical sophistication, his approach to them on “Gin” pretty much recalls that last supposed attribute of Grady’s. But more than Hampton’s penchant for rushing ahead of the beat, what sends this performance into overdrive—what makes its pandemonium contagious—is the yell of encouragement he lets out in agreement with Ziggy Elman’s trumpet geshray on what was clearly intended to be the out chorus, before the nine-piece ensemble spontaneously tops it off with one more for the road.

As often was the case with Hampton once he left Benny Goodman to launch his own big band in 1940, anyone looking for subtlety is advised to look elsewhere. Fortunately, it was never very far away during the four years he presided over studio assemblages ranging from ad hoc to all-star for RCA while biding his time in Goodman’s quartet. Actually, though “Gin for Christmas” caught my eye with the holiday cheer of its title (and then my ear with its pagan energy), this collection’s biggest musical thrills come during Chu Berry’s lithe and rippling tenor choruses on the master and alternate takes of the themeless “Shufflin’ at the Hollywood,” also from 1939. Anticipating modalism by a good 20 years in their constant movement between major and minor tonality, these two solos are enough to make you question the common wisdom regarding the evolution of tenor saxophone from Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young, because here’s a tenor meeting chords head-on with a he-man attack like Hawkins’s, yet thinking along the same lines as Young in phrasing across bar lines and distancing himself from the beat. And on both takes, pianist Clyde Hart—another forgotten transitional figure on the road to bebop—follows Berry with impeccably crafted solos built around clustered octaves and gaping silences.

The set’s other highlights are too numerous to itemize here. But the list has to begin with “Sweethearts on Parade,” from the same session and again featuring Berry in fine fettle—in effect, soloing from beginning to end (even during Hampton’s vocal) and establishing one set of ground rules (the other was Young’s, as annotator Loren Schoenberg points out) for the juking, harmonically knotted “tough tenor” sound later popularized by Illinois Jacquet on “Flyin’ Home” with Hampton’s big band. Another justly celebrated ’39 session boasts a dream saxophone section featuring Berry, Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Benny Carter, who also supplied the comely arrangements, including his own “When Lights Are Low”—”the apex of the ascending curve that symbolizes the evolution of swing” for André Hodeir, the father of modern-jazz criticism, who was not given to overstatement. Despite that collective luster, though, top honors here go to Charlie Christian (as dynamic on acoustic guitar as he was plugged in) and to the tyro Dizzy Gillespie for his combination of tongue twisters and brain teasers on “Hot Mallets.” “House of Morgan,” from 1940, finds Hampton and drummer Al Spieldock sitting in with Nat Cole’s trio: It’s inspired chamber jazz, Cole’s spare piano voicings setting off Hampton’s typically busy vibes to perfection.

There’s enough good music on these five discs to make your head swim, and I haven’t even mentioned Red Allen’s trumpeting around the most unlikely intervals on “I’m on My Way to You”; Helen Forrest’s personable and harmonically swooping vocal on “Ghost of a Chance” from the “House of Morgan” session; or—perhaps the collection’s major revelation—”Shades of Jade,” a haunting and ambitious chart by Toots Mondello, Benny Goodman’s lead altoist, which qualifies as both proto–Third Stream and film noir minus the visuals.

In discussing this material, which was last presented together in chronological order on a long-out-of-print Bluebird six-LP boxed set in the mid-’70s, Gunther Schuller and others have generally acknowledged its historic importance and then proceeded to nitpick, not unreasonably finding the most fault with Hampton himself. This series of recordings was Victor’s attempt to cut itself in on the jukebox market won by Teddy Wilson for Brunswick, and the fact that Hampton had followed Wilson in breaking the color line with Benny Goodman must have made him seem a logical choice as helmsman. But whereas Wilson’s watchword was subtlety, when Hampton was subtle, it was always in spite of himself. Unlike Wilson, who retreated into the background on his Brunswick tracks, Hampton is invariably front and center here. Frequently shoving aside the likes of Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, and Sid Catlett for his own drum features seems an act of self-indulgence on Hampton’s part—as do the many treble-y, whirlwind, Raymond Scott–like novelties on which he switches to keyboard and uses his forefingers as mallets, sounding less like a pianist than like the world’s fastest two-finger typist. Whereas Wilson relinquished the spotlight to vocalists like Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, Hampton usually reserved that role for himself, and though his time and phrasing are the essence of swing, his iffy enunciation and disregard for a lyric’s sentiments can drive you up the wall.

Which isn’t to say all of this can’t be fun, as my delight in “Gin for Christmas” proves. Although Hampton was no match for Armstrong, Red Allen, or Jack Teagarden as singing instrumentalists go, as often as not his vocals are irresistible—never more so than on “Stand By! For Further Announcements (and More Good News),” a ditty in praise of home ownership through the beneficence of the Federal Housing Administration, ironic today in light of the subprime-mortgage crisis, not to mention Hampton’s subsequent wealth as a Republican real-estate tycoon.

The most trenchant criticism regarding this body of work has always concerned Hampton’s laissez-faire leadership, his inability to impose (or maybe just disinterest in imposing) anything resembling a consistent musical personality on these performances despite being all over them with his vibes, piano, drums, and vocals. And this is certainly true enough: The sessions sporting blues insinuations by Johnny Hodges and other Ellingtonians, for example, wouldn’t sound out of place on a collection of small-group Duke, and on the tracks dominated by Berry, the presence of his Cab Calloway teammates Cozy Cole on drums and Milt Hinton on bass gives him what amounts to home-field advantage over Hampton.

Yet this hardly proves a drawback when listening to the collection straight through, because the comings and goings of sidemen from session to session provides as handy a survey as you’re ever likely to hear of the massive shifts taking place in jazz during a crucial four-year period in its evolution. Though Christian participates on only a handful of titles and Lester Young and Count Basie are nowhere to be found, their influence looms over the sessions from 1940 onwards—evident not only in the evenly accented four spread out by the rhythm sections, but also in the horn solos and the faint Southwestern twang of tunes like “Flyin’ Home” and “Till Tom Special,” both reprised from Goodman’s small groups and co-credited to him and Hampton, though they give evidence of being lifted verbatim from Christian solos.

Through it all, Hampton is indefatigably Hampton, his drums and piano never less than energetic, his singing never less than charming, and his vibes never less than dazzling—note-y and reliant on stock licks as they can be, his solos turn on rhythmic displacements and semi-dissonances worthy of Thelonious Monk. By the fifth and final disc, Hampton was intent on giving 1940s record buyers what the charts suggested they craved, and piffle like “Bogo Joe,” “Charlie Was a Sailor,” and “Lost Love,” with its mooning vocal by Lee Young, is of value only for its abundant period flavor. But everything till then is timeless, those infernal novelties included.

This will be the last “Interval” for a few months, while I meet a book deadline or give it my best shot. But I’ll be back before you can say “Salt Peanuts.” Or maybe I mean “Klactoveesedstene.”

The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 is available by mail order only,
at 203-327-7111 or