Lionel Hampton at Home, 1999 Lionel Hampton at Home, 1999 by Howard Mandel
copyright © 2002 Howard Mandel

Lionel Hampton walked slowly into his living room, leaning on the arm of his much younger, more robust valet. He was wearing a soft cotton warmup suit and slippers -- it was mild, mid-afternoon, but he hadn't been outside of his plushly appointed Manhattan apartment overlooking Lincoln Center, the Hudson River and New Jersey's palisades. The skin on his hairless head, as well as on his big, bright mug and the hands he vaguely gestured with, was almost translucent. His eyes were huge and curious -- not the look of a man who's seen and done it all, though he had. Throughout most all the history of 20th century jazz, he'd personified the music's entertaining essences: its effortless vitality, make-you-move rhythms and laid-back propulsion.

Hampton stood, until his death in September, 2002, as one of jazz's two or three reigning elders; he was still playing vibes, piano, drums and leading his band now and then, up to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival held in Moscow Idaho in February, the year of his demise. Born April 20, 1908, in Birmingham, Ala., raised in Prohibition-era Chicago, and coming of age in Los Angeles at the inception of talking movies, Hampton invented a place for himself and his instrument, the vibes, during the Swing Era, and for 60 years has remained synonymous with swing.

Hampton remembered sitting at the end of the piano bench studying the moves of Jelly Roll Morton during the Roaring Twenties. He'd been Louis Armstrong's main man, Benny Goodman's sparkplug, and everybody's favorite session master and bandleader, employing successive generations of dazzling players on hits from the '30s (with Benny Carter, "When Lights Are Low"), the '40s ("Flying Home") and right up to Joshua Redman, Dianne Reeves and Stevie Wonder (among other all-stars) on For The Love Of Music (MoJazz, 1995). He was pals with Duke Ellington and helped break America's racial color lines as he played his righteously high-spirited music, a personal sound inestimably natural and spontaneous, sweet and hot, seldom merely facile, always grinning.

A fire in Hampton's apartment a couple of years back destroyed some precious mementos, but you'd never know it from his display of photos with musical friends and political dignitaries (besides touring the world, Hamp campaigned for Republican candidates from Nixon through Reagan), awards (such as National Medal of the Arts in 1996), honorary degrees (15 of them, at least) and memorabilia on the walls. Hampton had had strokes: his speech was slurred, it came slowly but deliberately. He was not running any marathons, either, but a set of vibes, disassembled, sat near the door on the day we spoke, not yet put away from a recent gig leading his Orchestra at a Pennsylvania college.

As Hampton dropped into a corner of the sofa and dug into a gift box of chocolates with gusto, he announced his enthusiasm for his latest release, Just One Of Those Things (Verve), a compilation of prime cuts featuring Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Buddy Rich and guitarist Herb Ellis, recorded in 1954. "Just One of Those Things," "This Can't Be Love," and a 17-minute "Flying Home" (featuring clarinetist Buddy Defranco) were highlights, but the whole set was primo swing, irresistible.

"I listen to that album at least twice a day," Hampton said. "I just like it that much. To me, it's two people who were thinking alike, the way we complemented each other. With the variations we played, our connection is really wonderful."

Did you know Oscar long before recording?

"No, I walked into the studio and met him that day. Ain't that something? Oscar and I got something special that day. We just hit it off big."

It didn't take you long to befriend Louis Armstrong either, I've read.

"Well Louie, he was my idol. I met him, we were talking, then he said, 'Oh, I got to call a car so I can go to the city and go to work.' And I said, 'You don't need a car, you can use my car.' I had a Model E Ford, a coupe. So I took him where he was going. Yeah, we hit it off.

"He said, 'I'll pay you to look after my music,' and I said, 'You don't have to pay me, I'll be only too glad to look after your music.' Louis had some special numbers, see, that he played with the band that was backing him up, Les Hite's band. Les Hite had a bunch of upcoming musicians, about 12 of them -- very good, all of them -- and I was the drummer. Lawrence Brown was in that band. And other musicians equal to him: fast readers, good eyes. I started acting as Louis' handy man.

"Louis used to sing 'Rockin' Chair Got Me' and I'd be the old man in the rocking chair. 'Old rockin' chair's got you, father, cane by your side,' he'd sing to me, and I'd have on a duster coat, a false beard, an old straw hat and a cane -- my props. Oh, boy! I thought I was something, doing that with Louis Armstrong! "Louis and I did an act on 'Hold That Tiger.' I'd go into the audience hollering through my snare drum: 'Oh! (Hold that tiger!). Oh! (Hold that tiger!).' And on the last one, when Louis hit that high C or F -- which in those days, every trumpet player would try to hit, but Louis would hit it and hold it -- I'd run from the audience and slide on my belly, with the snare drum on, across the dance floor, and hit the cymbal I'd set up with my bass drum on the floor. I'd hit my cymbal to cut off Louis' high note, and the band would cut off, too, and we never missed, we'd always hit it right on time. People got a big kick out of that. Yeah, Louis and I were tight.

"Those were exciting times. The soloists and players, they used to travel back and forth across the country in the different bands. I don't think the guys today can equal those guys. What do you think?"

They don't have the same experience.

"You're right! It's good to travel around, play for different people, play with different people, get different ideas and mix them all together."

Did you take ideas from everywhere?

"I did. I always treated vibes as a serious instrument, not as a novelty. That's how I created my style: I listened to a lot of popular people when I was coming up, and was able to put it all together and make myself a part of music. I listened to everything. You hear when I play some of my passages that my riffs have a classical background. That came naturally because I listened to all types of music. I tended to think a lot of good music was classical music. But you had to know where to put it at."

How did you figure that out?

"I knew what I liked and what I liked to play. If I heard Rigoletto, an Italian opera, and it's got this passage like this [hums] that I like, I used it. With Louis Armstrong and the old timers from New Orleans -- that's 'High Society.' The bassists used to play that part in Rigoletto, where the girl sings, the clarinet player comes in, obligatto. So many notions that are classical and operatic assimilate into jazz. It's beautiful.

"That French composer, Debussy -- yeah! He came up with some beautiful things. But I've heard some of his passages in early American music, because in New Orleans the old-timers like Louis and Joe Oliver and Sidney Bechet played a lot of the passages from those operas and concertos."

Did you spend much time in New Orleans?

"No, I had my push on jazz when I was a kid and lived in Chicago. My family had moved there from Alabama. My uncle Richard Morgan used to take me around to the night clubs where musicians from New Orleans were playing, though. And I got a dose of that music. "I went to the Royal Gardens to hear Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and I heard Jimmy Noone play the clarinet with his orchestra, at the place he played, the Apex! Earl Hines, we'd go to another place to hear him. Every night my uncle would take me where I could hear jazz music, and I always, always had a big desire to play the music they played. When I got out of school each day then the first thing I'd do was go over and play on the piano, until my uncle bought me a xylophone, then I started playing on xylophone. That's how I got my music training.

"My uncle, he liked the life and used to throw chitlin suppers -- not for the money, not because he was selling chitlins -- he'd put out water pails full of chitlins, people would come, and he'd hire a different piano player every week. And he had Jelly Roll Morton, paid Jelly Roll Morton to come perform for him. I remember sitting at the end of the piano, Jelly Roll playing his famous pieces.

"Uncle Richard was a bootlegger. He made bathtub gin for the big gangster, Al Capone. They bought him a whole building on the South Side, because in the basement Uncle Richard made his mash, had stills all over. He wanted me to be a musician, though, because he loved music. He used to go around with Bessie Smith, you know? He was on the road with Bessie when she got in that automobile accident."

Did you hear Bessie sing?

"I had the chance. Uncle Richard brought her over before they made that last tour. She was supposed to record with me, for RCA Victor, I had Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Earl Hines, a bunch of others all lined up, but I missed recording with her [due to schedule conflicts]. Which is too bad because it would have been a hit."

What else would you liked to have done that didn't happen?

Hampton ponders a moment before answering, "I would have liked to have recorded with Jimmy Noone. And Sidney Bechet. I met him in Paris. He was a great player, a powerhouse."

Did you ever hear things that had you scratching your head and saying, "I don't know if I want to play that." Like when bebop came on strong?

"Well, Dizzy made his first recording with me. I liked what he was doing. Bird played tenor with me in the early '40s, yes sir, when he left Jay McShann and came to New York. Then he got on his habit. My wife, Gladys, would always have to go get his horn out of pawn. But Bird was a great player."

Were you friends with Duke Ellington?

"Yeah! When I was a youngster, I'd hang around with Duke. When Duke was off the road, in New York he lived on Edgecomb Avenue with his sister, and his sister and my wife were like sisters. We'd all get together and have big jam sessions when he was in town.

"We'd just fool around, trying different things. If I was playing naturally, like in the key of F, Duke would like to play the same thing in the key of F-sharp! That was great! Only thing he and I couldn't see eye to eye on was when I got Johnny Hodges to play with me on 'Sunnyside Of The Street' and it sold a million records. Duke said to Johnny Hodges, 'You can't make no outside records no more! If you want to, you have to see me.' And Johnny said, 'I've been playing with everybody else, so I thought it was OK.'"

What do you think of other vibists in your wake? Red Norvo, Milt Jackson?

"Well, Bags [Jackson] didn't play my style, and Red Norvo didn't play my style. I treated the vibes like an instrument. Bags played good melodies, but I go for the execution. Same thing with Red Norvo. Red Norvo was more to my style, he played the vibration. He was just a little faster than Bags. They're three different styles; Red played one way, Bags another way, and I played the fast way! I liked to execute!"

How did you get good at that?

"By listening to different instruments play and practicing in the same vein. I'd pick out the good things in Sidney Bechet, Louis and Benny Goodman -- things I heard them play, and put it in my playing. Yeah, I would listen to records when I was a kid, but I had a chance, because of my uncle, to listen in person."

Today there's not enough of anything in person.


You've got this big screen TV. Do you watch more TV than you hear music?

"When I get a record I like, I listen to it 'til I wear it out. I can't get enough of that Oscar Peterson and Hampton record. I think Oscar Peterson is one of the finest pianists in the business today, that can play everything."

Who else do you like?

"So many youngsters growing up now can play good, but they have a little something missing. Maybe it's ideas, or execution. They might be missing something. Andre Previn's a great piano player; I know Billy Taylor's playing, but Oscar Peterson's got a touch none of them have. And Ray Brown, playing bass. Oscar Peterson, he pacifies piano playing. He classifies piano playing. I mean, he knows what he's playing. He classifies and pacifies!"

What's your experience with Wynton Marsalis?

"Wynton Marsalis played first trumpet with me when he was 15 years old. He came in and read my book. He got permission from his mother. I was in New Orleans, the first trumpet player was sick, they told me about this young kid who could play all types of music, so I sent for Wynton Marsalis. He played the first book.

"They got so many young trumpet players coming up from New Orleans now. Terence Blanchard played first trumpet in my band for a long time, and Nicholas Payton: Three years ago he played first in a pickup band I had in New Orleans, and six months later he was recognized as being one of the upcoming younger players on trumpet."

As the sun fell lower in the sky, its rays streaming through the apartment's windows, Hampton started to stare farther off for longer moments before responding to questions. His breathing became deeper, too. I asked him: Do you think there are musicians who could do what you did, given the chance?

"I guess so."

Do you think it will ever happen again as when you were younger, bands criss-crossing the country? "I don't think those days are coming back," he said, surer than anything he's said so far. "It's a shame that they couldn't, because the youngsters would get a world of experience if it happened again."

What about getting more instruments into young peoples' hands?

"The high schools and colleges are pushing the music, like the University of Idaho, where we've got the Lionel Hampton School of Music, some great teachers teaching these kids, and 30,000 youngsters coming from all over the country every year for our festival."

Can you teach somebody to swing, though?

Hampton considered this. "Yeah. You can give them the idea. It's up to them to carry it further."

If I said, "Teach me to swing," what would you do?

"I'd first want to know how much swing you have in you."

Did you always have that feeling in you?

"I think I did. I think Stan Getz [with whom Hamp recorded for Verve in 1955] had it, too. He didn't have the swing Coleman Hawkins had, or Lester Young -- the black tenor players -- but he had his own style of swing, playing, and it swung, too. Sinatra had the right feeling. He got it being with a wh ole lot of blacks."

Does swing have to do with a black feeling then?

"Yeah, which came from slavery."

Do you like the styles of black pop music you hear now?

"Oh, no. I can't understand what they're writing, it's got no meaning. I'm not familiar to a whole lot of tunes, but a lot of what I hear doesn't swing right to me."

Does how people dance make a difference?

"Yeah. The dancing today is the boogie woogie. They went back to it. They call it hip-hop now, but I play 'Hamp's Boogie Woogie' at colleges, and they come up to me and say, 'Play that song again!' Because they like that beat. They buy that beat. And I wrote that song in the '40s, when the boogie-woogie piano craze was going on. That craze is back again."

Do you think we're in a better place today, for music, than when you were a kid?

"No. When I was coming up the entertainment area was a solid area for people to make their ways in. You got to exchange ideas with the guys who were good, also coming up, and there was more consciousness about live music. People were conscious of what they heard, and the songs that had character. Musical styles change, yeah, but songs like 'I Got Rhythm' and 'Lady Be Good' will always be around, because they're well-written. They'll never be outdated they'll always be on time."

I'm told you were involved with the Negro baseball leagues around the time you became a musician. Did you play or were you a fan?

"Oh, yeah. Well, in those days I was in the Chicago area so I'd go out following the teams, the Kansas City Monarchs was one of my favorites. I knew a lot of players on the Monarchs. Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, all the great black players came out of the Monarchs, so I'd make all the games, sit on the bench with them, and then the manager of the team said, 'Hamp, you're around us so much I want to put you to work, make you a third base coach.' My number was 26. I was crazy about baseball!"

We're glad music got you instead of baseball.

"Oh, boy!," Hampton exclaimed. "Oh boy!"

This article was originally published in Down Beat, in slightly different form.

C o m m e n t s

Hamp Interview 1 of 1
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September 18, 02

Howard, this interview is amazing. I missed it in Downbeat. But then again, I don't do Downbeat anymore! Anyway, Hamp sounds like he's being interviewed at the age of 30! Just wish I'd been there with a camera to record this historic meeting.

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