Jazz great Lionel Hampton, 94, dies

Major figure of swing era had frenetic stage style

September 01, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Lionel Hampton, whose flamboyant mastery of the vibraphone made him one of the leading figures of the swing era, died yesterday morning at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 94.

The cause was complications of old age and a recent heart attack, said his manager, Phil Leshin.

Mr. Hampton, who lived in Manhattan and until recently continued to tour the world with his big band, was an important figure in American music, not only as an entertainer and an improvising musician in jazz but also because his band helped usher in rock 'n' roll. In 1942, Mr. Hampton recorded one of the more influential recordings in the history of American music, "Flying Home," which featured a honking and shouting solo by the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet that helped set the emotional atmosphere for rock.

Mr. Hampton performed on piano and drums and was one of the first musicians to play the vibraphone in jazz, on groundbreaking recordings with Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Benny Goodman during the 1920s and 1930s.

Mr. Hampton's harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated performances set the parameters for virtually every vibraphonist who followed.

The importance of the collaboration with Mr. Goodman cannot be overstated, on both musical and social grounds. Not only did Mr. Hampton and Mr. Goodman make exceptional music, but they, along with the pianist Teddy Wilson, presented a public, integrated face for jazz. While integration in jazz had been standard practice in backrooms and recording studios, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Hampton were on stage with the most important white group of the time as featured soloists.

But Mr. Hampton's frenetic stage persona - mouth agape, mallets flying, sweat pouring from his brow - earned him his following.

Mr. Hampton was born in Louisville, Ky. His birth certificate states that he was born April 20, 1908, said his manager. After Mr. Hampton was sent to the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wis., a school for black and American Indian children, he began playing drums in a fife-and-drum band.

When his family moved to Chicago, he started playing in a band made up of newsboys. When he was 14 years old, after receiving a set of drums from his grandparents, Mr. Hampton went on the road with the band leader Detroit Shannon.

"I worked hard learning harmony and theory when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1920s," he once recalled. "I spent hours every day at a music school for boys that had been started by the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, for their newsboys. ... Then I would go home, play records by Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and learn the trumpet and saxophone solos note for note on the xylophone and orchestra bells."

He moved to Los Angeles in 1927 and found work as a drummer with an early incarnation of Les Hite's orchestra, which became the house band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, Calif. It was the band with which Mr. Armstrong played on the West Coast, and in 1930 Mr. Armstrong, who used Mr. Hampton on several recordings that year, encouraged him to take up the vibraphone, a metal instrument, similar to a marimba, with electronically operated valves that produce vibrato.

He played his first recorded vibraphone solo with Mr. Armstrong in 1930, performing "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake. Mr. Hampton soon formed a nine-piece group.

Mr. Hampton began attracting a large audience during an engagement at the Paradise, a Los Angeles club. In 1936 Mr. Goodman, along with Mr. Wilson and the drummer Gene Krupa, heard the band and invited Mr. Hampton to record with them. Shortly afterward, Mr. Goodman asked Mr. Hampton to join his orchestra.

A year later, RCA Victor gave Hampton free rein in the studio, and he proceeded to make some of the finest small-group recordings of the swing era. He enlisted some of the best musicians of the time, including Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Carter, Mr. Hawkins, Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Charlie Christian.

In 1940 Mr. Hampton formed a big band. Among his biggest hits were "Flying Home" and "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop."

In Los Angeles, Mr. Hampton's band made its presence felt not only in swing but in early bebop and rhythm and blues. He programmed his shows regularly with boogie-woogie pieces, and his arrangements often quoted popular light classics. It was all an attempt to make concerts and recordings reach out to an audience. Mr. Hampton was an entertainer, and he kept jazz a popular art.

His wife, the former Gladys Riddle, died in 1971. They had no children.

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