Lionel Hampton Biography

20 April 1908 (some claim 1909 and 1914), Louisville, Kentucky, USA, d. 31 August 2002, New York, USA. After living briefly in Louisville and Birmingham, Alabama, Hampton was taken to Chicago where he lived with his grandparents. They sent him to Holy Rosary Academy at Collins, Wisconsin, where he was taught the rudiments of military band drumming by a Dominican nun. Following the death of his grandmother, Hampton, now in his early teens, went to live with his uncle, Richard Morgan. A bootlegger and friend to many showbusiness stars, Morgan encouraged his nephew in his ambition to become a musician. (Morgan later became an intimate friend of Bessie Smith and was driving the car in which she had her fatal accident.) Morgan bought Hampton his first drum kit, modelled on that of the boy’s idol, Jimmy Bertrand, who played in the Erskine Tate band at the Vendome Theatre. Hampton played in the boys band organized by the Defender, Chicago’s leading black newspaper, and by the end of the 20s had become a professional musician. He played drums in various territory bands, including those led by Curtis Mosby, Reb Spikes and Paul Howard. On the west coast in the early 30s he was drummer with Vernon Wilkins, Charlie Echols and Les Hite, who led the house band at the Los Angeles Cotton Club. When Louis Armstrong played at the club, Hite’s band accompanied him in concert and also on recording sessions. On some of these dates Hampton played vibraphone, an instrument similar to the marimba on which he had become proficient.

By this time Hampton was also occasionally playing piano and singing and soon became sufficiently popular to form his own big band and small groups. In 1936, while leading his band at the Paradise Club on Central Avenue, he was joined one evening by Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa who were passing through LA on a nation-wide tour. Goodman was persuaded to visit the club by John Hammond Jnr. and was so impressed, and so much enjoyed their impromptu jam session, that he invited Hampton to attend a recording session already scheduled the following day for the Benny Goodman Trio. The resulting records, by the Benny Goodman Quartet, were so successful that a few months later Goodman asked Hampton to join his entourage. For the next few years Hampton became an integral part of Goodman’s success story, recording extensively with the Quartet and, after the arrival of Charlie Christian, with the Sextet. He also occasionally played with the big band, taking over the drums after Krupa’s abrupt departure in 1938.

While with Goodman, Hampton was asked by Eli Oberstein of RCA - Victor Records to make a series of small group records. The resulting dates, on which Hampton used musicians from whichever big bands happened to be in town, proved to be amongst the best small group recordings in jazz history and are classics of their kind. By the early 40s Hampton was keen to become a leader again and encouraged by his wife, Gladys, and with Goodman’s approval (and financial aid), he formed his own big band in 1941. Straw boss of the first band was Marshal Royal and among his sidemen, all relatively unknown at the time, were Ernie Royal, Illinois Jacquet, Jack McVea, Irving Ashby and Milt Buckner. The band proved to be hugely successful, offering a blend of soulful ballads and all-out stomping excitement. Building on the burgeoning popularity of R&B, Hampton developed a musical style - gutsy, riffing saxophones, powerhouse brass, a slogging back beat and raw, energetic solos - that he retained for the next half century.

In the 40s and early 50s Hampton hired (and, when his patience with their antics ran out, regularly fired) outstanding artists such as Jimmy Cleveland, Al Grey, Earl Bostic, Gigi Gryce, Dexter Gordon, Arnett Cobb, Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Fats Navarro, Quincy Jones, Joe Newman and Clark Terry. He also had an ear for singers and gave early breaks to Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Betty Carter. From the early 50s Hampton regularly toured Europe and became very popular at international festivals, especially in France. In the mid- and late 50s Hampton recorded extensively for Norman Granz, who teamed him with jazzmen such as Stan Getz, Buddy De Franco, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. From the mid-60s onwards, Hampton attended many reunions of the original Benny Goodman Quartet, several of which were recorded and a few televised.

Also in the 60s Lionel and Gladys Hampton became involved in urban renewal in Harlem, where they had made their home for many years. Gladys’ death in 1971 was a severe blow to Hampton, who had relied upon her astute business sense and organisational ability. By the end of the 70s the first of the multi-million-dollar projects that the Hamptons had initiated was opened: eventually two apartment buildings, the Lionel Hampton Houses and the Gladys Hampton Houses, were providing accommodation for over 700 families in the middle and lower income groups. During this time Hampton never stopped playing; both touring with his own big band and, from the late 70s, fronting all-star orchestras specifically assembled for festivals. The 80s saw Hampton still hard at work - touring, recording only a little less frequently and, despite arthritis, playing, singing and dancing in front of his bands as if time had stood still since 1941. In 1992 he was still active, celebrating 60-plus years in the business, and showing few signs of slowing up until he suffered a ‘light brain haemorrhage’ during a performance in Paris. In the following year, ‘fully recovered’, he played UK concerts with his Golden Men Of Jazz, a group which included such luminaries as Junior Mance, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Benny Golson, and Al Grey. He suffered two strokes in 1995 and was in failing health until his death from heart failure in August 2002.

Hampton’s musical personality was best, if a little superficially, described as that of a Jekyll and Hyde. He switched from introspective balladeer to outrageous swinger at the flick of a vibraphone mallet. As a drummer he was originally a solid player, as his first records with Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders testify. As a pianist he perfected a percussive, two-fingered attacking style which concealed the fact that he could also play in a modern and unusually clipped manner. As a singer he had a limited range but a pleasantly ingratiating voice. It is as a vibraphone player, however, that he has made his greatest mark on jazz. Although not the first to use the instrument in jazz, he was the first to use it as anything other than a novelty and once he mastered it he quickly became an outstanding performer (indeed, for many years he was virtually the only player of the vibraphone in jazz). After the emergence of other virtuosos, such as Milt Jackson and Gary Burton, Hampton retained his pre-eminence simply by ignoring changes in musical styles and continuing to do what he had done so successfully since the early 30s. An astonishingly long-lived and vibrant individual, Hampton’s extrovert personality assured him of a prominent place in jazz history. Although he is not regarded as an innovative musician, and in one sense cannot therefore be accorded a place alongside Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, he remains a giant of the music.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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