Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lionel Hampton

Lionel Lee Hampton, born April 30, 1908, is the third in my series on African American musicians in honor of Black History Month.

When I saw him perform at The Blue Note* in Chicago in the late 50's, he was widely regarded as this country's premier vibraphonist**. He didn't start out playing the vibraphone, however. He started out on drums. When he was still in his teens and performing with Les Hite's band at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, CA, Hampton began experimenting with the vibraphone.

One article I read reported Hampton as saying that Sebastian got tired of this band after a few years, and brought in Louis Armstrong - who was living in the area at the time - to front for Les Hite. Hampton recalled Sebastian's introduction as, "The world's greatest trumpet player, Louis Armstrong, with the world's fastest drummer, Lionel Hampton."

It was while they were both performing at the Cotton Club that Armstrong, having heard Hampton practicing on the vibraphone, asked him if he would play vibes on two songs. And thus was launched his career as a vibraphonist.

Hampton continued to distinguish himself on the vibraphone, and in 1937 was invited by Benny Goodman - who had heard him perform in November just a few months prior - to join Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and himself in what would become known as the Benny Goodman Quartet.

In the early 1930's, black and white musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In fact, segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws in the southern states. Benny Goodman had broken with tradition in 1935 by inviting pianist Teddy Wilson to join him and Gene Krupa, forming the Benny Goodman Trio. Hampton later said, "As far as I'm concerned, what he did in those days - and they were hard days, in 1937 - made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and other fields."

The recipient of more than twenty-five honorary degrees and awards, Hampton also appeared as himself in ten films. One, A Song is Born (1948), was a musical remake of a 1941 film starring Gary Cooper. In the musical version, such legends as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong were featured (along with many others). Here's a still photo from that movie ...

Wiki has an extensive writeup on Lionel Hampton, and you can peruse it as you wish here. As is usual with this series, I have consulted many different sources for background information, and I found some inconsistencies. Not a whole lot, but a few. Where what I have written differs from what you might find in Wiki is the result of my going with my best instincts as to the ultimate truth.

**It has occurred to me that you might not know what a vibraphone is. Here's a photo of one such ...

... and you can find a very nice writeup about the instrument here.

*The Blue Note, which closed in 1960, hosted many illustrious musicians, not the least of which was Duke Ellington, whose orchestra performed there seventeen times between 1947 and 1960. The last LP album recorded at The Blue Note was on April 30, 1960, with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was. None at all!

And finally - for your listening enjoyment - here is Lionel Hampton, much as I remember him performing Flying Home, one of his more famous compositions. Hope you like it!


Tammy said...

I'd never even heard of a vibraphone before I read this. I enjoyed the youtube video very much.

This has been an interesting set of posts...

Goldenrod said...

Thanks, Tammy! I'll be doing one on Wynton Marsalis next. He and my daughter went to high school together in New Orleans, and I'm hoping to get a few "insider" tidbits and quotes from her.

Anonymous said...

Well written article. Good work. Enjoyed reading it. I remember seeing Lionel on TV in the 1960's a few times and was always impressed.


Goldenrod said...

Thank you, Steve, for your kind words. Always good to hear from you.

steven said...

one of the many great gifts my Mum gave me as a teenager was to take me out to see all the great jazz musicians whenever they passed through town. this was between the sixties and seventies. i got to see amazingly talented people like lionel who carried the weight of history in his back pocket like a hershey bar. as soon as he was on stage he was not black or white or whatever - he was a wicked good talented musician. other great vibraphonists i've seen include gary burton, peter appleyard and milt jackson. great post series goldenrod.

Goldenrod said...

It's wonderful, Steven, that your mother allowed you the opportunity to see and hear musicians such as the ones you mentioned in person. (And kudos to you, btw, for going along with her, I should probably add. So many teenagers nowadays, it seems, don't want to be caught or seen anywhere NEAR their parents!) :(

I got your somewhat veiled message about Lionel Hampton's back pocket. I didn't include any of that in my post becuz it would have opened up a whole nuther can of worms.

Have been working on my post honoring Wynton Marsalis. It's just about ready to go. One thing that I'll probably not mention is that he played at Lionel Hampton's funeral. Interesting, huh?

Good luck to you, Steven, in researching "Octopadi", and I very much appreciate your compliment on my series. I've worked hard on it. It's been important to me.

Still haven't quite decided on who my last featured African American musician will be. At this point, it's kind of a toss-up between Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Louis I have a personal connection with, but I'm kind of leaning towards Nat. Any druthers your way?

Tammy said...

Tammy here, not Steven...lol But I wondered if you'd consider doing a post which includes both of them??? I'd love to see what you write on both of them, but if I had to pick ONE I hope you write on, it's Nat King Cole.

Goldenrod said...

Oh, Tammy!

How I wish I could do a post honoring both, but to do such would be way too long, I fear!

What I'm concerned about is the amount of research I'm doing and the attention I'm trying to pay - not to mention the accuracy which I hope my posts are conveying - to/about each individual.

Although they were both from the same era (roughly), their background, experiences, and well - just about everything about them was so different!! To try and combine the two into one would, imo, be an injustice to at least one of them, if not both.

But I promise that I'll think about it. February is a short month. I'll try and do Wynton's post tomorrow. Let's see how I feel afterwards about doing a combo (neg. vibes my way at this point on that idea) or - best option, TWO more posts. :) :( :)

Tammy said...

So true, so true. Would love to see one on Nat King Cole at least. :) I TOTALLY understand what you are saying.... No worries my way! :)

It's been interesting reading this series of posts.

Craig Peihopa said...

really enjoyed this. Thanks for highlighting this talent to us.