Lionel Hampton

"Motored by a seemingly limitless supply of energy and stamina, Hampton's playing is known the world over for its relentless physicality, unhampered technical facility, and a seemingly imperturbable inventiveness." - Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era

© William P. Gottlieb Library of Congress

Lionel Hampton

Lionel Hampton was jazz’s first major vibraphonist, making a very strong impact when he joined Benny Goodman’s quartet in 1936. An enthusiastic and inventive soloist over 55 years, he was also one of jazz’s great showmen. Not only did he play stirring vibraphone solos but he was an excellent drummer (who twirled his sticks to gain the audience’s attention), played rapid two-finger piano solos (one on each hand), took an occasional vocal, and could also do an impressive soft-shoe.

Lionel Hampton led rollicking big bands that invariably featured honking saxophonists, roaring trombonists, and screaming trumpeters, thrilling audiences with “Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,” “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie” and, most of all “Flying Home.” He led the way towards r&b and rock while swinging hard, and always performed music full of joy and excitement.

I’m In The Mood For Swing
July 21, 1938

Harry James (tp), Benny Carter (cl, as, arr), Dave Matthews (as), Babe Russin, Herschel Evans (ts), Lionel Hampton (vib, vcl), Billy Kyle (p), John Kirby (b), Jo Jones (d)

Track analysis by Loren Schoenberg
Hampton hits pay dirt for the first time with arrangements and players that are of equal quality. Benny Carter, 30 years old and just back after three years in Europe, announced his return to his native country with brilliant writing and playing, aided by a band full of mostly newcomers to New York who responded in inspired fashion to Carter’s scores.

It’s worth noting that the great bulk of musicians on these sessions were under 30, and that their work, for all its maturity, still has the sheen of youth to it. Texas is represented by 22 year-old Benny Goodman trumpeter Harry James (his family moved there from Georgia when he was in his mid-teens), and 28 year old Herschel Evans, featured tenor saxophonist (along with Lester Young) with Count Basie. It was Basie’s rhythm section which astounded New York, and its drummer was Jo Jones (26), known for his emphasis on playing the flow of the rhythm rather than its strict demarcation.

I’m In The Mood For Swing is not only a highlight in the Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter discographies, but a jazz classic for all time. Everything comes together and a synergy takes place where the sum is truly greater than even these distinguished parts.

Carter had a way of composing that created a perfect balance between written and improvised segments, and his mastery of orchestration placed everything in the optimal register for all the instruments at hand. Here, it’s a relatively intimate ensemble of trumpet, four saxophones, vibes and a three piece rhythm section (minus the standard for the time guitar).

Harry James was one of the most technically gifted trumpeters of his generation and a member of Goodman’s band, where he had become one of its most popular soloists. Harry James was already his own man as he takes the lead during the first chorus, working his way naturally into a series of paraphrases and then free inventions that never lose site of the theme.

What follows is truly magical – Carter creating a solo that for all its spontaneity has  the hallmarks of a classic composition. His use of symmetry can be heard in all its glory. Every phrase leads to the next, rhyming without falling into the trap of predictability. He also knows how to utilize space – the pause at the end of the bridge is a master stroke, filled as it is by Kyle’s descending left hand scale.

By Scott Yanow
Lionel Hampton was born April 20, 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Chicago. Hampton started out as a drummer, playing with Major N. Clark Smith’s Chicago Defender Newsboys’ Band and some local kids’ groups in Chicago. He had a few xylophone lessons from Jimmy Bertrand, moved to Los Angeles in 1927, and worked briefly with the Spike Brothers. During 1929-30 he was a member of one of the hottest bands in the state, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, with whom he made his recording debut as a drummer, taking a vocal on “Moonlight Blues.”

Hampton became a member of Les Hite’s orchestra in 1930, a group that was used as Louis Armstrong’s backup band when he visited L.A. that year. Spotting a vibraphone in the studio, Armstrong asked Hampton if he could play it and, remembering his xylophone lessons, the drummer said yes. Hampton can be heard playing vibes behind Armstrong on “Memories Of You” and “Shine,” the earliest examples of the vibes being used on a jazz record for anything other than brief punctuations.

After Louis Armstrong went back East, Hampton remained with the Les Hite band until forming his own orchestra in 1934. In 1936 he crossed paths with Armstrong again, appearing on film as a masked drummer with Satch in the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven and recording with Armstrong on two numbers with a Hawaiian group.

Most importantly, Benny Goodman heard Lionel Hampton play vibes and was so impressed that he expanded his trio with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa into the Benny Goodman Quartet. Hampton made a few guest appearances with the King of Swing and then officially joined his outfit in Nov. 1936.

During his nearly four years with Goodman, Hampton became a household name in the swing world, not only adding fire, color and inventive ideas to Goodman’s quartet and occasionally filling in on drums with the big band, but staying long enough to be one of the stars at Goodman’s famed Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, and to be part of the clarinetist’s sextet with the pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian. At the same time, Hampton led a series of mostly superb all-star sessions for the Victor label.

During that period, Hampton had no real competitors on the vibraphone. Adrian Rollini, who had gained prominence in the 1920s as a bass saxophonist, was gradually switching to the vibes although his style was more easy-listening. Red Norvo was a xylophonist who would not seriously take up the vibes until 1943 while such greats as Milt Jackson and Terry Gibbs would not emerge for a few more years.

In mid-1941, the 33-year old Lionel Hampton was more than ready to go out on his own. He always loved the sound of Goodman’s big band and decided to form an orchestra of his own. The big band field was way overcrowded at the time and the odds were against his success, but Hampton had a big name and was always a crowd pleaser.

On May 26, 1942 he recorded “Flying Home” which became not only a major hit but was a major influence on the up-and-coming rhythm & blues movement. Illinois Jacquet’s tenor solo, the leader’s vibes, the famous arrangement (with Ernie Royal’s high notes), and the ensembles made the song into an immediate standard and a must at every Hampton performance. From then on, Lionel Hampton’s big band was extremely popular. Its live performances were so explosive meant no other band could follow it.

During the 1940s the Hampton Orchestra, while based in swing, was open to the influences of both bop and r&b. At various times the vibraphonist’s sidemen included such notables as trumpeters Cat Anderson, Snooky Young, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro and Benny Bailey, trombonist Fred Beckett, tenor-saxophonists Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Johnny Griffin, altoist Earl Bostic, guitarist Wes Montgomery (a decade before his discovery), pianist Milt Buckner, bassist Charles Mingus, and singers Dinah Washington, Little Jimmy Scott, and Betty Carter. 

Most of the swing era big bands broke up during 1945-50 but Hampton was able to keep his going, while taking time off to participate in special all-star sessions. In 1953 he led what was possibly his greatest orchestra for a European tour, one that included trumpeters Clifford Brown, Art Farmer and Quincy Jones (who was just starting out as an arranger), trombonists Jimmy Cleveland and Buster Cooper, altoist Gigi Gryce, tenor-saxophonist Clifford Scott, pianist George Wallington, drummer Alan Dawson, and singer Annie Ross.

But for unknown reasons, Hampton insisted that his musicians not record while overseas. Most of his sidemen ignored him and even the vibraphonist was on some sessions of his own. Other than some radio broadcasts that find the band in loose form and not being featured very favorably, no recordings exist of the full orchestra which broke up soon after they returned to the U.S.

From that point on, Lionel Hampton’s musical career alternated between three different settings. He continued to regularly lead a big band and, although it never really evolved, many top young (and inexpensive) players gained experience touring and playing with the vibraphonist. Hampton was enlisted for many small-group record sessions which gave him opportunities to record in a trio with Art Tatum and Buddy Rich, to co-lead a memorable album with Stan Getz, and to have several dates with Oscar Peterson. And Hampton was always happy to have reunions with his old boss Benny Goodman including appearing in the 1955 film The Benny Goodman Story, making television appearances, and revisiting past glories with Goodman, Krupa and Wilson in the reunited quartet.

The decades passed but Lionel Hampton’s enthusiasm for playing never dimmed. In the early 1990s he led the Golden Men Of Jazz, an octet of fellow veterans that included Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison, James Moody, and Buddy Tate. A serious stroke in 1991 led to him cutting back on his activities but Hampton stayed active until shortly before his death. In his later years, he would look his age when he was being helped onstage but, as soon as he was in front of his vibes, the years would melt away and he would be remarkably youthful and energetic.

The always beloved Lionel Hampton passed away on Aug. 31, 2002 at the age of 94.

Sweethearts On Parade
April 5th, 1939

Chu Berry (ts), Lionel Hampton (vib, vcl), Clyde Hart (p), Allan Reuss (g), Milt Hinton (b), Cozy Cole (d)

This is perfection. 

Track analysis by Loren Schoenberg
Here we have the birth, if the not the apex, in the long legacy of Lionel Hampton records with stomping tenor sax solos. Sweethearts On Parade finds Chu Berry creating a new sound in the tenor saxophone lexicon. This style leavened with an equal dose of Lester Young, would give birth a decade later to the honkin’ R&B sounds that led to early rock and roll. While Illinois Jacquet stoked that fire, it was set by Berry and Young.

Equally striking is the sheer perfection of the rhythm section. They carry off one of the most perfect shuffle beats ever recorded. Most times, shuffles get sloppy and heavy because of a lack of definition in the subtle strong and weak parts of the defining beat.

The precision heard here allows Hart, Reuss, Hinton and Cole to dig deeply into the groove and Berry is with them every swinging quarter note of the way. Clearly, they had the idea that Berry would play throughout the record, but I wonder if Hampton had even an inkling that the tenor saxophonist would steamroll his way into the pantheon of jazz on this particular effort.

Benny Carter’s sequential phrasing and mastery of the saxophone were major influences on the young Berry, and the way he patiently links his phrases is nothing short of miraculous. Then there is also the way he masterfully gradates a vibrato that is at moments as broad as Sidney Bechet’s. In lesser hands (or lips) the high note Berry holds from the fifth measure of his solo into the sixth would be bathetic; in his, it is thrilling. Note his habit of preceding a minor chord with the 13th of the dominant chord which makes for a modal ambiguity that is quite unusual for the era.

And let’s not forget Cole’s tantalizing restraint, making his occasionally subtle emphases and slight extension of the hi-hat beat (measures seven and eight of Hampton’s closing chorus) all the more exciting. He was likely aware that Hampton had played drums on Armstrong’s 1930 recording, which was one of the trumpeter’s best ever. 

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