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Copyright © 2002
Lionel Hampton was not the first jazz musician to specialise on the vibraphone (Red Norvo beat him to that distinction, although only just), but he was the man who established it as a serious element in the jazz instrumentarium.
He elevated what had been an obscure and very occasional part of the drummers percussion "extras" to a significant vehicle for jazz improvisation. His own approach to vibes combined genuine musicality with an ineradicable streak of showmanship. He grew up in jazz at the height of the big band era, when it was the popular entertainment music of the day, and never lost his populist bent.
His own on-stage antics included jumping onto his drums (he also played piano in a unique two-finger style, rather like using mallets on vibes, and sang). He played his vibes in energetic, suitably theatrical fashion as well, always accompanied by his trademark irrepressible grin.
Hampton established his style in the course of leading his own big bands in the Forties, and never seriously deviated from it. An Ellingtonian richness of timbre and texture was never his style Hamptons bands were built to swing and riff, and swing and riff they did, combining jazz with rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie in a way that made them a precursor of rock and roll.
The roll call of notable players who passed through his bands was one of the longest in jazz, but did not really reflect any great talent-spotting ability on his part. His bands constantly changed largely because he was a strict disciplinarian and tight-fisted leader (his wife and manager, Gladys, notoriously kept a very firm grip on the purse strings), and he provided few opportunities for his sidemen to shine as soloists in their own right.
Hamp was always the star of his own show. He was one of the great improvisers in jazz, capable of building an extended solo with flowing grace and unfailing invention, surging power, and remorseless swing.
It was a formula which stood him in good stead throughout a career that stretched across seven decades, and one which he rarely saw much need to alter. It established him as one of the few genuinely household names to emerge from jazz into the wider popular consciousness, and made him a rich man, able to indulge in the philanthropic activities of his final years.
He reserved his deeper and more subtle musical contributions for his collaborations with other great musicians, including his famous association with Benny Goodman, and later collaborations with the likes of pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, where the challenge brought out the artist in him, rather than the more commercial momentum that fuelled his own groups.
Despite that rabble-rousing strain in his music, Hampton was a sophisticated musician with an acutely developed sense of melodic and harmonic development. He was well aware of the new musical directions developing around him in jazz (his 1939 recording of a tune entitled Hot Mallets contains a proto-bebop solo by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie), but preferred to stick with his tested and highly successful approach.
It earned him a place alongside the greatest names in jazz.
JJA members are invited to submit a full obituary.