Lionel Hampton, 1908–2002


Putting aside the probability that in the fullness of time every musician, from Palestrina to Perry Como, will be looked upon as a precursor of rock and roll, in the instance of Lionel Hampton the claim has much validity—indeed, it’s surprising to discover that he isn’t yet acknowledged in most reference works on the subject. Along with Lucky Millinder he practically invented orchestrated rhythm and blues. Both men arrived at Decca two years after the label signed Louis Jordan, and restructured swing to accommodate voluble rhythms, raucous blues, and shameless showmanship. Millinder, however, had nothing like Hampton’s breadth or appeal. Nor did he have “Flying Home”: The moment Illinois Jacquet began a tenor saxophone solo with an extended quote from the 1847 opera Martha, jazz and pop were headed for a new kind of conciliation. The age of the honking tenor had arrived; on its heels came the JATP jousts, to one side, and, to the other, Tiny Bradshaw, Johnny Otis, Earl Bostic, and others, all (like Jordan) undistinguished veterans of swing bands who found their places in the sun with r&b. In 1954, Decca would seal the deal by signing Bill Haley.

In the interim and long before and long afterward, Hampton was everywhere, possibly the most schizophrenic force in American music. On the vibraharp, he was the very model of sophisticated improvisation, a lilting interpreter of ballads and furious purveyor of romping standards, girded with an intuitive sense of harmony that made him an ideal foil for Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and, for that matter, anyone of any generation who could play with anything like his sensitivity and spirit. Andre Hodier described Hampton’s 1939 “When Lights Are Low,” for which he assembled a reed section with Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster, plus Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie, as the “apex of the ascending curve that symbolizes the evolution of swing.” Yet on piano, he was the two-fingered madman of boogie woogie; listening today to his “I Found a New Baby” and “The Munson Street Breakdown,” also made in 1939, it’s hard not to hear the perfect, prescient marriage of swing and rock. On drums, his first professional instrument, he was just a madman plain and simple. Abbey Lincoln has recalled him playing at her high school and dancing on a drumhead until it broke. At a typical Hampton performance, he played the three instruments, sang, danced a bit, and said little beyond grunts and trademark Lionelisms like “Thanks for those kind applause.”

He was equally divided as a bandleader: This was the guy whose records established Dizzy Gillespie (“Hot Mallets”) and Earl Bostic (“Hamp’s Boogie Woogie”), whose singers included in quick succession Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, and Little Jimmy Scott, whose originals in the course of a year ranged from “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” to his oft-covered ballad “Midnight Sun” to the challenging “Mingus Fingers,” by the then unknown Charles M. In the ’50s, his reputation split as well; welcomed as a prolific, masterly, apparently timeless soloist, he was largely dismissed as a bandleader whose orchestra became increasingly associated with “Live at the Apollo”-type soundies that were mostly fury and very repetitive. In the ’60s, he triumphed at Newport by introducing the now much sampled funk team the Pazant Brothers, a ploy that worked better in person than on records. How bent on entertaining was he? There’s the story of an aquacade double-bill at which Louis Armstrong cut him to the bone. Hampton climaxed his next set by having the drummer (or was it the brass section?) dive into the pool. Countless anecdotes involve producers struggling to get him off stage. He did not go gently into the wings—those applause were his sustenance. When he died Saturday morning, August 31, at 94, he got his first rest in a long time.

Hampton was born in Louisville, in 1908, raised in Birmingham, and educated in Kenosha and Chicago, where be began playing drums with the Chicago Defender‘s Newsboys Band. He was a year older than Benny Goodman, though Goodman may have died thinking Hampton was younger (well into the 1990s, his presumed birth date was 1909 or 1913). In the late 1920s, he moved to Los Angeles and played drums with the resident orchestra at the Cotton Club in Culver City, where Louis Armstrong appeared in 1930. Armstrong later recalled Hampton playing “some little bells which he kept beside his drums and he was swinging the hell out of them too.” At his fourth recording session with the Cotton Club band, Armstrong wheeled a vibraphone from a corner of the studio, and on “Memories of You,” Hampton recorded his first vibes solo.

He eventually became leader of the Cotton Club band, yet in 1936 he was reduced to leading a nine-piece group at a run-down sailors’ haunt called the Paradise Club. Word began to spread about this human whirlwind, however, and soon celebrities began dropping by, including members of the Goodman band. One night Goodman drove out alone (“that night, with Benny there, I was inspired,” Hampton remembered) and was so elated he asked to sit in; they jammed until five, two hours past closing. The next night he returned with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa and invited Lionel to record. On August 21, the big band completed three numbers and then what soon became known as the Benny Goodman Quartet debuted with “Moonglow.” After Wilson’s four-bar intro, Goodman played the theme and was suddenly buoyed by welling waves of vibraphone chords. The mallet sound was hardly unknown: Red Norvo had established it on marimba and xylophone, with Goodman himself playing bass clarinet on Norvo’s 1933 “Dance of the Octopus.” But Norvo preferred a concise bell-like sound and gave the electric vibes a wide berth until the damper pedal was introduced. Hampton showed what the new instrument could do, and Goodman gave him plenty of room—only Hampton improvises a full chorus on “Moonglow,” complete with two-bar breaks, plus cadenza and final chord. Hampton had arrived in suitably dramatic fashion.

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.

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.